Reclaiming heritage lost to slavery

African-Americans: A genetic test has been created that can help answer questions about family histories.

April 17, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Many years ago, when Rick Kittles' white classmates would compare their families' ethnic origins, they all talked about countries such as Ireland, Italy or Germany.

When they asked him about his roots, Kittles recalled, "I would say, `Africa.' Other times, I would make stuff up and say, `I'm a Mandingo.' That bothered me, not knowing more about where in Africa."

Like most African-American descendants of slaves, he had no better answers because slavery worked to strip its victims of their heritage, even their names.

Now, at 37, Kittles has answers - thanks to genetics.

With cells collected from simple cheek swabs, individual DNA can be compared with samples from as many as 75 West African ethnic groups - people living in countries that range from Senegal to Angola and as far inland as the Central African Republic, Mali and Niger.

Kittles, a Howard University microbiologist, joined forces with business consultant Gina Paige to start African Ancestry, a service to help African-Americans rediscover some of the ethnic ties that slavers replaced with chains. Similar firms trace American Indian and European ancestry, said Mark Shriver, assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State University.

Filling empty pages

But until now, none has addressed African-Americans' questions about where on the more ethnically diverse African continent their ancestors may have lived.

"I expect they will probably get a lot of interest," he said.

Kittles' tests matched his maternal female lineage to the Hausa people now living in northern Nigeria. The DNA pattern in his father's male line was German. He wasn't surprised - his father had told him they had a white ancestor.

In fact, he said, studies have shown that 30 percent of African-American men have European genes in their Y chromosomes, which are passed exclusively from father to son. It's a legacy of the sexual behavior of many male slaveholders.

Although the test confirmed a bit of family history, he said, "it doesn't tell me who I am." Nor does it change others' perceptions of him. "They say, `He's African-American.' They don't see my Y chromosome."

Kittles, an assistant professor at Howard, is also a co-director of molecular genetics at the National Human Genome Center there. He usually studies the role of genetics in prostate cancer, which is more prevalent and severe among black men.

He created African Ancestry out of a desire to use his scientific skills and well-established DNA methodology to fill the empty pages of his family history.

Lacking shipping or immigration records, many African-Americans can only speculate about their descent from a particular region or group. "There is a psychological need or yearning that we have," he said. "The ancestry service provides some level of resolution, some bit of information relevant to our search for our ancestry."

Kittles has used the same techniques to trace the African origins of remains found in an 18th-century burial ground in lower Manhattan and the Asian roots of people in Finland.

The DNA sequence of any two individuals is believed to be more than 99 percent identical, but the variations scientists find can give clues to everything from the location of disease-causing genes to common ancestry.

For $349 per test, African Ancestry will extract DNA from cells swabbed by the client from the inside of his or her mouth. The DNA is then "amplified," or replicated, from a few thousand cells to a few million. Key segments can then be sequenced and compared with the company's growing database of African genetics.

Eighty percent of the tests produce a match, Kittles said. For the rest, the company says it can identify the African ethnic group most closely related to the client's DNA with 95 percent certainty.

If there are European genes in the family tree, he said, he can probably identify those, too, by comparison with other databases.

Paige, 35, a co-owner and the chief executive of the company, said tests of her mother's DNA revealed that her maternal lineage matched the Fulani of Nigeria; her father's paternal lineage was Portuguese.

"We were surprised but not shocked," she said. Paige's mother had long assumed that her maiden name, Marianno, originated outside of Africa. Since getting the test results, they have discovered that Marianno is a common Portuguese name.

Supplementing records

Genealogists say the tests can provide valuable insights, but they're no substitute for traditional genealogical drudge work - digging names, dates and places out of available records.

"I'm glad the science is developing. I may end up taking the test myself," said genealogist Tony Burroughs, author of Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. "But if I do, it would be in line with trying to add something to the genealogical research I'm doing. I don't want to take the test in a vacuum."

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