USA TODAY? February 1, 2006
By Michael A. Schwarz
At age 4, Mika Stump was abandoned by her birth mother in New York City's Penn Station. Brought up in a foster home, she knew nothing of her African-American roots, she says, other than, "I was black."
But a DNA test she took recently showed strong similarities between Stump's genetic code and the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone, in Africa.
Now, "I have a place where I can go back and say, 'This is who I am; this is my home,' " says Stump, 34, a homemaker and mother of six in Basalt, Colo. "That's something I never, ever expected to say."
As the descendants of slaves, black Americans have long faced huge obstacles to researching their family histories. However, advances in the use of DNA ? the cellular acid that determines physical characteristics and is inherited from one's parents ? are allowing African-Americans to connect with previously unknown ancestors. (Related item: Genetic genealogy's price tag)
Some are using DNA to test the oral traditions that African-American families have relied on to transmit their histories. And in a 21st-century update of Alex Haley's 1976 novel Roots, others are seeking to match their DNA to the ethnic groups in Africa to which their ancestors might have belonged.
For black Americans, however, there are some drawbacks. DNA evidence has confirmed some family stories but debunked many others. For example, most of the nine black celebrities who underwent genetic testing for the PBS documentary African American Lives believed they were part Native American.
One of those tested, Oprah Winfrey, 52, says on the program that to many African-Americans in her generation, being "a little Indian" was desirable. The two-part documentary, which began running this week, says genetic testing revealed that only two of the nine celebrities tested ? Winfrey and comedian-actor Chris Tucker ? likely had Native American ancestors.
The new wave of genealogical testing also has reopened one of America's ugliest wounds by confirming with science what historians have contended for generations: In slavery times and beyond, large numbers of black women were impregnated by white slave owners or other white men in positions of power.
About 30% of black Americans who take DNA tests to determine their African lineage prove to be descended from Europeans on their father's side, says Rick Kittles, scientific director of African Ancestry, a Washington, D.C., company that began offering the tests in 2003. Almost all black Americans whom Kittles has tested descended from African women, he says.
That's partly why genetic genealogy is "not for the faint-hearted," says Melvyn Gillette, a member of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California and a longtime family researcher.
"Before you go opening any door, you need to ask, 'Am I really ready for what might be behind it?' " Gillette says. "Not everyone is."
Tracing patterns, finding links
Each person's DNA is unique, but some DNA patterns remain relatively unchanged within families as well as within ethnic and geographical groups. Genetic genealogy tracks those types of DNA.
One test examines markers of DNA on the Y chromosome, which passes virtually unchanged from fathers to sons. Another test uses mitochondrial DNA, which children of both sexes get from their mothers.
Such tests allow DNA researchers to go back in time to confirm paternal and maternal lines, or to debunk them. By tracing tiny DNA mutations, researchers can link a living donor to a group in Africa that shares those DNA patterns.
A separate test analyzes inherited mutations to estimate an individual's ethnic makeup: European, African, East Asian, Native American or a combination.
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