Tracing our Ancestors

Rick Kittles, a professor at UIC and founder of African Ancestry, presented about the journey of many African Americans in the United States in tracing their ancestors as well as his own experiences in tracing his ancestors. He talked about how Americans are obsessed about finding their roots and connecting to their pasts through websites like ancestry.com. However, African-Americans place greater importance on the act of tracing their past because so many have no idea which part of Africa their ancestors came from. When they came to the Unites States, many of these ancestors were taken as slaves, and the Americans who captured them did document the origins of their new “products.” This was why he created the African Ancestry Project, where one can submit DNA in order to trace his or her origins in Africa, as well as any other heritage. In this way, African-Americans can get in touch with family history and culture that was previously lost in time.

How does the African Ancestry Project do this? They look at single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), or the different nucleotide options for one position in a nucleotide chain. These are traced through either in the DNA on the y chromosome (in men) or the DNA in the mitochondria (in men and women). Since the human race started in Africa, this area has the most diversity in SNPs in their DNA. People from Europe and Asia, for example, have less diversity and selection in SNPs because, tens of thousands of years ago, a certain group of people with only a portion of the genetic diversity of their homeland, left Africa for these areas. This resulted in a founder’s effect, where there was a loss in genetic variation because of the availability of only the nucleotide polymorphisms held by those who settled in Europe and Asia (instead of all of the original SNPs found in those still living in Africa.) Because these groups settled in very specific areas of Asia and Europe, the SNPs found there are specific to those areas, allowing geneticists to trace the genes of those who submit their genetic information to specific areas in the world.

This process allowed Oprah to find out that her ancestors were not Zulu, like she had hoped, but from Western Africa, an area where the polymorphism found on her mitochondrial DNA is abundant.

This process was an eye-opener for the speaker, as he, being a dark-skinned African-American, believed his genes his genes would be strictly African. However, when he placed his DNA through the program, he found he had polymorphisms found in people descending from Germany as well as those found commonly among Native Americans. This is a working example of the huge amounts of gene flow that occurs in populations in America today. The US is a melting pot where people from completely different areas of the world can get married and have kids, contributing to the genetic diversity found here.

Although this process is used to connect to one’s ancestor’s, a person’s identity is truly defined by how they grew up. As Mr. Kittles found in his research, culture is more important than genetics in defining a person’s identity, as many people in the 2000 census filling out the form as an “African-American” ranged anywhere from 10-100% African genetics, and similarly, people describing themselves as “white” ranged from 20-80% African heritage. This was not a question therefore about genetic background, but social-cultural background.

Because everyone has genes that originated in Africa, Mr. Kittles posed the question as to how relevant race is in today’s society. As America becomes a melting pot of people and genes, the “one color fits all” rule to describe the different “races” in things like the census becomes irrelevant. How can people with genetic background combinations from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world describe themselves with one heritage? Therefore, Kittles hinted at the end of the end of the focus on race in this country and a beginning in the celebration of diversity.

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