DNA study helps writer pinpoint African origins

Technology leads woman to ancestral home in Ghana

March 03, 2002|By Susan Saulny | Susan Saulny,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - That she could trace her family history back to the

1700s in Jamaica using birth certificates and land deeds is remarkable in itself, given the poor records from the days of slavery that usually stall genealogists somewhere in the antebellum South.

But Pearl Duncan, a 52-year-old writer who lives in Manhattan, wanted to know more. She wondered how her family, mostly described as "free Negroes" in the old documents, got to the Caribbean. She even wanted to know what is widely considered the unknowable: from which part of Africa they came.

Duncan, like many people with an interest in genealogy, did years of painstaking historical research; in her case, crisscrossing the country and tracking records on various Caribbean islands. But one thing sets her apart: She was among the first to use new gene technology to help lead her home, to a tribe in the hills of what is now Ghana, in western Africa.

`There is no doubt'

"I felt like a person stuck in limbo for so long," Duncan said, her musical voice trailing off, then rebounding. "But now there is no doubt in my mind. When I got confirmation, I was elated, overwhelmed, grateful, even a little cocky because I finally knew. I think all along a lot of people were like, `Let's humor this lady from New York. This is such a long shot.'"

Duncan's journey took a extraordinary commitment of time and resources. But similar searches will not always be that difficult, scientists say.

At the moment, matching information encoded in a person's DNA to a specific African population is an extremely daunting task, largely because the African databases necessary for genetic comparisons are minimal, if they exist at all.

But scientists at various universities and private research organizations are adding to those databanks every day.

Some, like Boston University and the University of South Carolina, are developing programs specifically designed to help black people search for their pre-slavery roots. Those databases are expected to be available to the public in the next few years.

Duncan heard news reports about the studies a few years ago, but she ran into one big problem: the kinds of laboratories that had already mastered an understanding of how the Y chromosome passes genetic information from father to son did not offer their services to the public.

But on the strength of the anthropological work she had already done, Duncan talked one of the country's leading geneticists, Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona, into helping her without charge. Another factor was that Duncan was willing to collect most of the DNA herself.

The lab eventually sent her cheek swabbers and vials to hold DNA, and she set out to perform hundreds of interviews and collect samples.

"Certainly she's a pioneer in the sum total of what she's doing," Hammer said. "I think this is a potential for African-Americans, but the potential is not realized yet."

`A complete approach'

He stressed the importance of not just working with DNA evidence alone, noting Duncan as an example of "someone who's taken a complete approach."

Duncan already had a good sense that both her mother and father had roots in Ghana. That little bit of knowledge took years to solidify, but, she later learned, the clues had been around all her life. They were simply words, like the nicknames her parents called each other - her father was called Pari, and her mother was Daakye. And there were a host of other "funny words" that Duncan, laughing now, remembers asking her parents not to use when her friends were over when she was a child.

Help from Smithsonian

With the help of an African cultural specialist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Duncan was able to trace the words to the language of the Akuapim people, the fifth-largest ethnic population in Ghana.

"Names, even nicknames, are a very good way of keeping track of where families came from," said Peter Pipim, an interpreter of African cultures at the National Museum of African Art who worked with Duncan. "The people who came from this region never stopped calling themselves by the names they knew."

In addition, Duncan found records of a man who shared her father's nickname in a British slave trader's journal from the 1660s. It was a common name, but the man was headed to colonial British Jamaica, precisely where Duncan already knew her family once lived in a community of former slaves who had rebelled.

So even before she began thinking about Y chromosomes, Duncan had a gold mine of information. She used it to focus her DNA sampling.

Duncan went to Ghanaian churches and neighborhoods in New York, asking to swab the cheeks of people related to the Akuapim tribe, and sent the raw material - 43 vials of cells - to Hammer and Elizabeth Wood, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona who helped perform the tests at the lab in Arizona.

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