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Just where did that Sub Saharan African ancestry come from?

October 18, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
My decision to have my DNA tested by the company 23andme has led to more questions than answers about my family tree in the last few weeks.

For instance, there are four people who match me and each other on a particular chromosome and I have no idea how we might all be related. They live all over the country: one a black man from somewhere in New York City who had family roots in North Carolina; another a white woman who had some ties to Indiana; another a white woman who had ties to Missouri. Based on locations alone, I have my suspicions that the connection might be through my one branch of the family. Among my many times great-grandparents were people who lived in North Carolina and Kentucky and Tennessee before they made their way to Indiana and then on to North Dakota.

A small percentage of whites who are tested through 23andme have some Sub Saharan African admixture, according to the site, which claims that there are about 3 to 4 percent of their white customers who have "hidden African ancestry." It turns out that I am among them. In my case, the Sub Saharan African ancestry is about 0.4 percent of my genome. Most whites with some hidden African ancestry have between 0.5 to 0.75 percent African ancestry. That percentage is so vanishingly small that I don't know quite what to make of it. There were no indications of such ancestry in family stories or in the family tree, which shows overwhelmingly Scandinavian, French, German and British and Irish ancestry.

This could be a testing glitch. It could also be the remnant of some ancestry from thousands of years ago, when all of our ancestors lived in Africa. Perhaps it came in from some ancestor who lived in Europe. At least according to Wikipedia, almost all Southern Europeans have inherited some small percentage of Sub Saharan African ancestry, ranging from 1 to 3 percent. It is supposed to go back as far as 55 generations, maybe to Roman times. Since 23andme also claims that I have a small slice of Southern European DNA – where it comes from, I'm not sure, though I seem to have a bit of Swiss ancestry several generations back and there are Italian-speaking Swiss – it's possible that this is where that 0.4 percent of Sub-Saharan DNA comes from.

And, of course, it could also be an indication that some 200 or 250 years ago, I had one great-grandparent who was black or mixed race, who probably lived somewhere in the South. This was probably fairly common back in the Colonial era, based on what I know of history. There were interracial marriages between black slaves or free black servants and white indentured servants, as well as between other people of different races. According to 23andme, it is also possible that I have 0.1 percent American Indian ancestry.

I know the names of many of my ancestors who lived back then and, in many cases, where they were born or where their parents were from. I know whom they married and who their children were. But the names alone don't give anything away about what they looked like or whom they loved. In some cases, there are written wills and historical anecdotes that have been passed down from generation to generation, but they can't answer all the questions I have. This particular mystery is likely to go unsolved. As I told my cousins, there is no real way to know, but it is certainly an intriguing discovery.


Article Comments



Nov-01-13 6:09 PM

I will add that 23andme seems to have done a fairly good job of calculating degrees of relationships. I have received messages from two fairly close relatives on my paternal grandmother's side who are on this site. One is a man who was a son of my great-grandfather's half sister and a first cousin in the half blood of my grandmother. 23andme estimated that we would be second to distant cousins. I think the actual degree of relationship is second cousin twice removed. I'd never met him or heard of him before he emailed me.


Nov-01-13 6:01 PM

People don't get "benefits" for being American Indian if they are not eligible for tribal membership in a federally or state-recognized tribe. I doubt that anyone discovering long lost American Indian ancestry through 23andme is eligible for tribal membership or any type of benefits.

Actually 23andme did say there is a possibility that I might have 0.1 percent American Indian (or Asian) ancestry along with the 0.4 percent Sub-Saharan ancestry. But, like I said, it could be a glitch or come from some European ancestor as well as from an American Indian or black ancestor who lived at the time of George Washington. I don't wish it away any more than I wish the Finnish or English or Irish ancestry away. It is what it is. Everyone comes from somewhere and it can be fun to learn about the history of those times by doing this.


Oct-31-13 1:04 PM

As far as I know, it's generally accepted that Thomas Jefferson was the father of at least one of the kids. He was apparently in the right places at the right times to be the father and the oral histories of the various descendants say the dad was Thomas Jefferson. DNA-wise, Thomas Jefferson and his brother would have had the same Y chromosome, so there's no real way to say for sure. Either way, the offspring were legally white under the law at the time.

As for my ancestors, you can't always tell from the records what race someone might have been. I looked up census reports and wills and legal documents and saw no sign of a black or mulatto ancestor. On the other hand, some of them had pretty deep roots in the South, from Maryland to Georgia to North Carolina to Tennessee. If one of my many times great-grandparents was black, I think he or she, like Thomas Jefferson's children, probably "passed."


Oct-21-13 4:06 PM

I got curious enough to look it up. From a legal standpoint, Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemings were white under the law at the time, because they were 7/8ths white. Anyone who was less than one quarter or one eighth black (depending on the state) was considered legally white in the South up until the early 20th century.

Of course all of the various anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, as they should have been.


Oct-21-13 3:49 PM

== Continued == I would also suspect that the number of white Americans who have some small percentage of black ancestry is probably higher than 23andme listed. A few years back I saw a study that indicated it might be as high as 30 percent, while most African Americans probably have a large chunk of European ancestry. Marriages and liaisons between blacks and whites were probably not uncommon back in the Colonial Era of the 1600s and 1700s, based on the records. There were also Africans in Europe probably going back to the 1400s or earlier, some of whom came over to the Colonies as early as the 1600s. And the Roman Empire was a veritable melting pot.


Oct-21-13 3:42 PM

As I said, it's a matter of opinion and different publications use different style guides.

The one drop rule is interesting. It seems to have always been somewhat selectively applied in the Southern U.S., particularly before the late 19th century, based on what I know of history. In most cases, it seems to have applied based mainly on appearances. People with black ancestry who looked white and were able to "pass" often ended up blending seamlessly into white society. Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemings (who was likely mostly white herself and a half sister of Jefferson's dead wife, though legally a slave) are a prominent example. Several descendants who trace their ancestry back to them are white, while others still identify as black. I would assume most people identify as one race or another based on how they look and who brought them up and what their cultural influences have been.


Oct-21-13 2:56 PM

I take it you have not heard of the "One Drop" rule, which is surprising because it's older than America itself -- and most Blacks are all too aware of it.

Now . . . the Associated Press (that paragon of grammar) notwithstanding -- when used as a cultural referent, "Black" is always capitalized.



Oct-21-13 11:07 AM

I wouldn't say 0.4 percent would qualify me as black or 0.1 percent would qualify me as American Indian or that actual blacks or American Indians would appreciate it if I said so. It's just an interesting genealogical mystery, one I would like to know more about. It would be fascinating to find out if I did have a black or mixed race great-grandparent back in the 1700s and how he or she lived, but it's probably just as likely that the "hidden ancestry" I have came in through a European ancestor or even went back as far as Roman times. There's always been an African presence in Europe at different points in history, as well as in the Colonies.

As for whether black or white should be capitalized, I think that's generally a matter of opinion and varies from publication to publication. The Associated Press does not capitalize either word.


Oct-21-13 10:52 AM

By the way Ms. Johnson . . .

Now that you're Black, you may want to note the fact that the word, "Black" -- when used as a cultural referent -- is always capitalized.

This proves the old maxim: respecting others is respecting yourself!


Oct-21-13 10:47 AM

There's always a great deal of angst, apprehension and guilt when White folks first find out they're not quite as White as they thought!


Oct-20-13 5:23 PM

I should probably add that I find the history of the whole thing and the new things that keep coming up because of this site utterly fascinating, which is probably why I've posted more than once on the topic. I'd really like to know more about where the unexpected African or Southern European ancestry came from and how far back it goes, but it's probably unknowable.


Oct-20-13 5:18 PM

Huh? Actually, I thought it might have been kind of cool to have some Ashkenazi ancestry, which 23andme also tested for, but I don't. According to them, I am 0 percent Ashkenazi.

Oct-20-13 4:30 PM

Machts Nichts Andrea... You are citing almost all Germanic ethnicity in your makeup similar to most European immigrants... which would also include Hebrew which you don't mention. I generally like your articles but today (and you've posted more than once on this subject) it sounds like you have a prejudice issue.


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