We came from somewhere out there.
April 25, 2017 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Our grandparents and their grandparents were born in Kentucky, and my brother and I grew up in Louisville. Like many black people from the south, my family has been unable to trace our lineage beyond slavery, so we don't know where in Africa our ancestors from. Just that we came from somewhere out there. All we had to go on was an oral family history that maintained that we were, in the words of my grandmother, Tootsie, "black, white, and (American) Indian." This is the case for a lot of black families; the idea that we have "Indian in our family" is a bit of a cultural meme in black America at this point, and I've always wanted to examine how true that actually is.
posted by ChuraChura (28 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know what's been done with historical slave logs from the Atlantic slave trade and in the United States, but I expect that would go a long way toward resolving the conundrum. We know roughly where MOST slaves came from, but that says nothing about individuals. We can only speculate.

I also think that it would be really worthwhile if someone poured more money into funding genetics projects revolving around this; this is an important part of American history that I think gets glossed over in large part because of racism and the still-devalued status of American Black people.

It would unfortunately probably be very hard to get exactly the people one would want to participate in this to participate in it, as well, because of historical Black distrust of scientific and medical institutions - a good chunk of which is sadly justified (see the Tuskegee syphilis experiment).

Tangentially, I saw in the Buzzfeed link that Native Americans have tried very hard to keep their genetic material out of these databases, which is kind of a complicated and weird issue in itself - while I understand they have religious issues and are fearful of it being exploited and a bunch of other reasonable things, I can't say I sympathize with the desire to not dismantle a cultural origin story. I think we have a great double standard if we're happy to dismantle things like Christian creationism or other Abrahamic-origin mythology but fearful of touching Native American myths.
posted by actionpotential at 10:16 AM on April 25, 2017


Nobody's managed to convince me yet that there is any "genetic marker" for ethnicity. As far as I can tell, there isn't one. Until we find one, genetic tests which claim to determine ethnicity are mostly a ridiculous marketing ploy based on crowd-sourced data which is of very, very dubious quality. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of Americans who claimed to have "a Cherokee great-grandmother" have a particular genetic marker absolutely does not mean that that genetic marker is Cherokee.
posted by koeselitz at 10:20 AM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think we have a great double standard if we're happy to dismantle things like Christian creationism or other Abrahamic-origin mythology but fearful of touching Native American myths.

Depends on who's the "we" we're talking about here. I don't think I have a double standard if I'm happy to tear down my house to renovate it but unwilling to tear down somebody else's house if they don't want me to.
posted by a car full of lions at 10:29 AM on April 25, 2017 [26 favorites]


Nobody's managed to convince me yet that there is any "genetic marker" for ethnicity. As far as I can tell, there isn't one. Until we find one, genetic tests which claim to determine ethnicity are mostly a ridiculous marketing ploy based on crowd-sourced data which is of very, very dubious quality. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of Americans who claimed to have "a Cherokee great-grandmother" have a particular genetic marker absolutely does not mean that that genetic marker is Cherokee.

I had a discussion with one of my roommates about this the other day and we ended up sort of meeting in the middle. I'm a biologist and she's a linguist, so obviously we're approaching this from two ends of a spectrum, because the biology and the sociocultural stuff are in this instance not separable.

The perspective I took, as a biologist, is that yeah, you're going to see some genetic clustering. Humans have lived in mostly-isolated groups for most of their history, and when you've got these little slightly-inbred populations you're going to see a certain amount of homogeneity and even some markers. For example, people with Tay-Sachs disease (or carriers) are pretty much universally Ashkenazi Jews and people with sickle-cell disease (or carriers) pretty much universally have African ancestry and people with cystic fibrosis (or carriers) pretty much universally have European ancestry, if I remember correctly. Certain mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomal DNA haplogroups cluster in certain parts of the world. So to an extent, you can calculate the probability, given a person's genome, that they are likely to have X ancestry. But it's probability and you'll never find a scientist who will declare anything with 100% certainty, with the exception of general universal rules of biology like the fact that we're mostly water or that Earth's gravity is 9.8 m/s2 or that all life on Earth evolved from a prokaryotic common ancestor, but those things are either directly observable or have gone through decades of the grinder of peer review and replication and further investigation. Which you can't do with one person's DNA sample.

The perspective she took, as a linguist (I may not be reproducing this faithfully, this is just what I remember), is that ethnicity is sociocultural to a huge degree and that it's a thing that's identified with.

I always understood that 'ethnicity' kind of has a fuzzy definition anyway.

So like many things that involve both nature and nurture it's complex.
posted by actionpotential at 10:32 AM on April 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


Actionpotential, Kim Tallbear says some pretty salient stuff about why Native Americans are resistant to work with DNA in the podcast, and in her work in general. She just published an academic book on Native American DNA, and she's written a lot about why Native identity is about more than just DNA.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:32 AM on April 25, 2017 [16 favorites]


I don't think there's a genetic marker for ethnicity so much as genetic commonalities between one person in Chicago and dozens or hundreds of people in Lagos or Mumbai or Tulsa, and presumably at least some of those people have family documentation to be able to say yes, here's my great-grandmother's tribal roll or oh yeah, my GGgrandfather was Portuguese and my GGgrandmother was Lao, you're probably a cousin.

I think we have a great double standard if we're happy to dismantle things like Christian creationism or other Abrahamic-origin mythology but fearful of touching Native American myths.

Who's "we"? It's not a double standard for indigenous people - who are neither running genetics labs or dismantling Abrahamic-origin mythology, they have zero power in this game - to say stay the fuck out of our creation stories, you already took everything else. It's not a double standard for white people to agree to do so.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:35 AM on April 25, 2017 [13 favorites]


a car full of lions, I suppose I'm generally resistant as a person to maintaining certain kinds of cultural fictions when they've been superseded by testable, falsifiable, and replicable information, or are testable and falsifiable in a replicable way, and I kind of think it's a bit odd that some of these fictions are treated as less touchable than others. Obviously the answer isn't to steamroll the people who have them and it's an issue that takes people to deal with it who are intimately familiar with the culture from which the fiction originated and who are literate in all the issues involved, but not abandoning a hypothesis in the face of new information leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Lyn Never, a creation story is a creation story, and they're all wrong. Christians', Hindus', Buddhists', Native American religions', Indigenous Australians', Mongolian Tengriists', all of 'em. I understand that science is mostly very white and to a lesser extent East Asian and Indian, at least in the United States, and that Native Americans have a terrible, terrible history at the hands of white people and science done by white people, but there's no good to come out of kneecapping basic empiricism.

ChuraChura, thanks for those links, they look fascinating.
posted by actionpotential at 10:39 AM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


[actionpotential, this isn't about you and it sure isn't about the importance of taking Native Americans down a peg. Step back and let folks talk about the actual subject here.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:42 AM on April 25, 2017 [18 favorites]


For me, as a Jew, the rise of this kind of genetic genealogy has been mostly a blessing. One of the most popular lies that anti-Semites have told about us is that we are not "real" Hebrews, but rather descendants of a Turkic people, the Khazars, who supposedly converted to Judaism en masse during Byzantine times. This does us the double-disservice of deciding for us how we should define our own ethnicity (e.g., that converts are not "real" Jews because some random white Christian man says so, never mind what we as Jews say about it ourselves), and attempting to sever our connection to our own ancestry and, most importantly perhaps, our ancestral home.

Perhaps I'd feel differently if genetic testing had revealed the Khazar Hypothesis to be correct. But we don't live in that world.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:44 AM on April 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


actionpotential: The perspective I took, as a biologist, is that yeah, you're going to see some genetic clustering. Humans have lived in mostly-isolated groups for most of their history, and when you've got these little slightly-inbred populations you're going to see a certain amount of homogeneity and even some markers. For example, people with Tay-Sachs disease (or carriers) are pretty much universally Ashkenazi Jews and people with sickle-cell disease (or carriers) pretty much universally have African ancestry and people with cystic fibrosis (or carriers) pretty much universally have European ancestry, if I remember correctly.

Grouse, also a biologist, recently linked to this interview with a couple of people who have studied the race+medicine+genetics issue deeply:
Race isn't a good category to use to understand those differences or the commonalities. It in many cases leads researchers down the wrong path and leads to harmful results for patients. For example, black patients who have the symptoms of cystic fibrosis aren't diagnosed because doctors see it as a white disease.
Genetically, we tend to form clines, not clades. We've been mostly isolated, but even a little bit not-isolated is enough for genes to flow. Boundaries between us are porous.
posted by clawsoon at 11:23 AM on April 25, 2017 [11 favorites]


It's been interesting to me that the latest round of TV ads for ancestry.com seems to be based on people discovering their ethnicity is something different than what they expected it to be. I wonder what marketing research they did to suggest this would be an effective motivation in getting people to shell out for DNA tests. I also wonder if it reflects a reality, that people's sense of their historical ethnicity is often misplaced.

Tracy Clayton wrote in the original post I noticed that every brown person seemed to know exactly what kind of brown they are—West Indian, Nigerian, Puerto Rican. The city is covered in the flags of everyone's homelands, and I decided that I wanted a flag, too. I wonder how many of those people are claiming the "wrong" flag.
posted by layceepee at 12:04 PM on April 25, 2017


Serendiptiously, TJ Dixon just reshared this 2015 blog post on FB today. It closely analyzes looking at low-percentile DNA results via the lens of African American and Native American heritage.
posted by mwhybark at 12:56 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


Only just now starting the show, but I'm gonna guess that pretty much no Americans whose ancestors have been in the new world for hundreds of years, which includes black Americans who came in the slave trade, can trace ancestry to any single modern nation-state. Cause ethnic groups don't track with borders (like a genetic test might identify Yoruba ancestry which could mean Nigeria or any of several other west-African countries) and secondly once in the new world people didn't exclusively marry people with the same ancestry so pretty much everyone is mixed to a greater or lesser degree.
posted by bracems at 12:56 PM on April 25, 2017


It's been interesting to me that the latest round of TV ads for ancestry.com seems to be based on people discovering their ethnicity is something different than what they expected it to be. [...] I also wonder if it reflects a reality, that people's sense of their historical ethnicity is often misplaced.

This last bit is very possible. I signed on for a quick-and-dirty DNA-ethnicity-analysis test once. When I got the results back, I saw the British Isles and Poland mentioned, as I expected - I have always known about those bits of the family background, and I actually identify pretty strongly with the Irish bit. Some members of my family also do - just this weekend, while having lunch with my parents and my aunt, somehow Irish music came up and my aunt patted her heart and said, "boy, doesn't something just get you here when you hear it?"

I was momentarily puzzled, though, to see that the percentage of my ancestry it was claiming was in the majority was French. "Huh? Where'd that come from?" I thought for a moment. And then I remembered - my grandmother was from Acadian New Brunswick. It wasn't anything that we were really hyper-aware of, though, since her family moved from Canada when she was only six, so she grew up more "American" than Canadian. But we did know about it. And that Canadian birthplace absolutely explains the French majority, since all the other ethnic groups in my background were all great-great grandparents and great-great-great-great and such.

But I absolutely can see how if Grandma had been even younger when she emigrated, or had not been as close with her brothers and sisters, we wouldn't have really known about that and I'd have been totally surprised by the French ancestry, as opposed to that temporary moment of "what the - oh, right, Grandma."

and that's just my family. For the adult children or grandchildren of adoptive children, their "ancestral DNA" would be even more of a mystery.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:06 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


... ethnic groups don't track with borders (like a genetic test might identify Yoruba ancestry which could mean Nigeria or any of several other west-African countries) and secondly once in the new world people didn't exclusively marry people with the same ancestry so pretty much everyone is mixed to a greater or lesser degree.

The Henry Louis Gates version of these shows actually addresses this in an early episode. The team he works with takes the DNA as only part of the story - once he gets the DNA, then the historians step in. A historian looking at someone with Yoruba ancestry would then look at what other known facts there were about this particular individual's history, and also at what happened in World History. For example (and I'm going to pull geographic detail totally out of my ass here) say that they knew a given person's background had a known ancestor who was in Jamaica by 1785, then they could look at the regions where the Yoruba were in the 1780s or 1770s and cross-check that with known slave raids in those areas at that same time; so it'd be like, "Okay, there were expeditions that went to Jamaica from both Benin and Nigeria, but the ones in Benin didn't start until the 1790s. So it's most likely that the country of origin is Nigeria if their ancestor was in Jamaica by 1785."

Henry Louis Gates is also good about saying that this isn't an exact science, and that this is "most likely" the situation. He also has had a few occasions when he's had to tell people "beats the hell out of us".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:16 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


layceepee: "It's been interesting to me that the latest round of TV ads for ancestry.com seems to be based on people discovering their ethnicity is something different than what they expected it to be... I also wonder if it reflects a reality, that people's sense of their historical ethnicity is often misplaced."

EmpressCallipygos: "This last bit is very possible..."

Which is ironic since it means that "genetic ancestry tests" are basically nonsense. The whole basis of these tests is that a statistical aggregate of people who self-identify as a particular ethnicity had similar genetic markers; there is no scientific definition of "Latinx" or "Anglo" or "East African," so scientists have to just trust that people are correct when they say what ethnicity they are. So there's almost no reason to take these tests seriously. They are sometimes vaguely correct, but they could just as easily be horribly wrong.

As clawsoon's link above very thoughtfully pointed out, race and ethnicity are a pretty crappy lens through which to view genetics, and genetics is a pretty crappy lens through which to view race and ethnicity.
posted by koeselitz at 1:57 PM on April 25, 2017


The people she interviews (including Kim Tallbear who ChuraChura mentions above) have some good things to say about these points, and the historians are being very gentle around some really painful stuff.

In reflecting on her own feelings as she goes through this, she's captured both the irrational fear that the test might show her being not "black enough", and the worry over whether she'll feel disappointed if she's "just" black (if her family's Native American ancestry story doesn't pan out) and how those gut fears are at odds with her principles... there's some really difficult, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't emotional stuff here.

Also I really like her mom.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:09 PM on April 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


Are these tests considered more reliable, then, for identifying Jewish ancestry? There have always been some puzzling little clues in our family that suggested we might have had some pre or early diaspora Jewish ancestry and one of our family names is often though not exclusively Jewish. In better times when I had income, I always wanted to get one of those genetic ancestry tests and see what turned up either confirming or refuting the family lore or turning up any other surprises. Genetic history can have important medical consequences, too, of course, so it'd be nice to know. In Germany, I understand from conversations with my sisters there, they subsidize genetic screening for medical issues for that reason.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:33 PM on April 25, 2017


My experience with DNA testing - I've done both the ancestry one and 23andme one - is that they're not relying on what I think my ethnicity is - they are relying on DNA samples found around the world, in most cases quite a long time ago, to arrive at assumptions.

One of the markers in my DNA has been traced to a woman's bones found at a campfire site in Siberia, 11,000 years ago. Another to a camp site in North America from about 4,000 years ago. Several dating to 5,000 years ago.

It's not all shady, maybe some of it is, but one thing is pretty clear: they're not relying on modern DNA. The sampling I've seen and the techniques they're using rely in old, old bones.
posted by disclaimer at 2:45 PM on April 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


Are these tests considered more reliable, then, for identifying Jewish ancestry?

We did one for my great grandmother and it showed a percentage of Sephardi ancestry that corresponded closely to what we were expecting based on what we'd heard from a hobby genealogist in the family, so possibly?
posted by bracems at 2:54 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'd guess that in some cases the reluctance of some Native Americans to share DNA is also because there are a lot of people who would try to use blood quanta to disenfranchise tribes even further. Most surviving east coast tribes, for example, had very high levels of intermarriage, and on top of that there were things like Virginia sterilizing Native American women as well as black women. There are probably Pamunkey tribe members who don't have much more than my (very small) amount of Powhatan DNA... but the difference is that they have a continuous cultural heritage and connection, and I don't. But people who would never say that an adopted child couldn't be American/Canadian/whatever will happily decide they can define who should count as a tribe member and what a tribe should be, by genetics.

(And honestly, I'm not entirely free of this, I know I've looked at picture of tribe councils that are blonder than me and thought it, before reminding myself _I don't get to decide_.)
posted by tavella at 3:13 PM on April 25, 2017 [11 favorites]


The whole basis of these tests is that a statistical aggregate of people who self-identify as a particular ethnicity had similar genetic markers; there is no scientific definition of "Latinx" or "Anglo" or "East African," so scientists have to just trust that people are correct when they say what ethnicity they are.

I think this really, really is minimizing of how they actual self-identify ancestry. The only self identification that happens, at least for 23andMe, is "Where was your father born? Mother? Grandmother?" And it doesn't say "hey you're Hispanic!" It pinpoints to like "Iberian peninsula" or "Nicaragua", and for certain portions, can tell how far back your ancestor most likely was from. So I have some Ashkenazi Jewish about six-eight generations back. Where did that come from? Quite likely the diaspora of Spanish Jews to Latin America, which Spain is now offering citizenship to descendants if you can trace your way back. Fascinating, useful stuff. It's not handwavey nonsense.
posted by corb at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Anecdata warning!

I participated NatGeo's Genographic project years back and I've done the 23andme thing more recently.
The reports I got from either didn't seem to emphasize specific ethnicity as much as geographic clustering.

But even for areas like central Europe, where I was born and where a large portion of my ancestry hails from, and where the constant movement and intermingling of people from all directions makes it near impossible to find anything resembling a fairly isolated indigenous community, the result are surprisingly accurate in my particular case.

My family is lucky enough to be able to trace a huge portion of the family tree on my father's side back to the 1500s and before due to my ancestry being composed mostly of people of the kind of status or occupation that resulted in paper trails and mentions in primary records. So not only do I know who they were, but where they all lived. (Think mayors, merchants, land owners, fief holders, protestant pastors, minor and major nobility, scholars, scientists, etc). We know less on my mother's side except they were mostly farmers in the area where the borders of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic meet. It seems that part of my family lived and farmed there for many hundreds of years without much movement and mostly married locally. It seems like everybody has the same few first and last names and it gets extremely confusing pretty quickly.

Anyhow, long story short, my point is this:

I was astonished to find that the presumably extremely fuzzy percentages of my ancestry assigned to various geographic regions in central Europe based on DNA matches the distribution of known locations at the roots of my family tree almost to a tee. I really did not expect that. I also have some Ashkenazi ancestry (my 3x Great-Grandmother was the daughter of a Jewish banker in Frederick the Great's Prussia). This was reflected in the 23andme reports and the assigned percentage for it was right on the money.

So, while I agree that pinning some sort of concept of ethnicity on specific genetic markers is both problematic and scientifically dubious at best, I do think they're on to something with regards to geographic clustering.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:28 PM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Corn- the Spanish Jews were mostly Sephardic, not Ashkenazi.

I have not done any DNA tests, because I'm not sure what I'd learn. I'll guess mostly Ashkenazi with some random Russian / Polish / Eastern European in the mix, but why test?
posted by Valancy Rachel at 6:38 PM on April 25, 2017


Like many black people from the south, my family has been unable to trace our lineage beyond slavery, so we don't know where in Africa our ancestors from. Just that we came from somewhere out there.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:14 PM on April 25, 2017


I have not done any DNA tests, because I'm not sure what I'd learn. [...] but why test?

As ChuraChura's quote points out, if you have no or little genealogical information it can shed light on your origins and roots. It doesn't even have to be anything surprising, exciting or have any direct big impact on your life as it is, it can still provide grounding and a sense of being rooted.

As my family's sort-of unofficial genealogist I find that each puzzle piece I manage to assemble, including DNA based information, increases that sense of grounding. Working my way through the generations of each branch makes the things I learn begin to form long continuous arches. I've always enjoyed history but never enjoyed the abstract and segmented way it is often taught or treated. But now, when I dig through some generations' lives, I have these moments of realization that their lives map right on to certain events or periods I had learned about and was interested in and all of a sudden that abstract history becomes real history and it no longer feels distant and disconnected, because I now feel directly connected to it through a chain of known ancestors overlapping with each other right down to me, now, today.

But there is practical benefits as well. Through my profile at 23andme I've been able to add new branches to the tree since you have the option of being visible to genetic relatives in their database. I've exchanged information with about a dozen distant relatives that way and between us we were able to connect trees that would have been near impossible to connect otherwise.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:53 PM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Which is ironic since it means that "genetic ancestry tests" are basically nonsense. The whole basis of these tests is that a statistical aggregate of people who self-identify as a particular ethnicity had similar genetic markers; there is no scientific definition of "Latinx" or "Anglo" or "East African," so scientists have to just trust that people are correct when they say what ethnicity they are.

Naw, it's....more to it than that. They have taken DNA sampling from every country in the world, and this has enabled them to do done testing of genetic markers on individuals that are detailed enough to track specific haplogroups across history. In fact, here's the Wiki article about how and what they test.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:08 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: “Naw, it's....more to it than that. They have taken DNA sampling from every country in the world, and this has enabled them to do done testing of genetic markers on individuals that are detailed enough to track specific haplogroups across history.”

Haplogroups are not ethnicities. Thinking about haplogroups as ethnicities is problematic. Thinking about haplogroups even as approximations of geographical origin is problematic - not least because of the complexity of human migration patterns. These things can really only claim accuracy on the continental level, and even there there are some reasons that errors occur.

“In fact, here's the Wiki article about how and what they test.”

That article confirms everything I've said here: as far as bare "ethnicity," and origin by anything more specific than a continent, there are no specific genetic markers for those things, and scientists have to assume that large groups of people are reporting accurately when they say they're "Latinx" or "Anglo" or things like that.

Even aside from that, there's the problem that many companies have of having very, very few non-white people in their datasets. As of late last year, 23andMe had 76 Koreans in their dataset – 76. That's a miniscule sampling, and it makes it very, very difficult to say anything substantial about the common genetic markers of Koreans as a whole. There's a lot of marketing that covers up a paucity of science in these things, and I'm not going to trust them for a good while, at least until they can deal with the gap between their products' claims and the science.
posted by koeselitz at 12:32 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


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