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DNA pinpoints roots of African Americans
By Frank D. Roylance
The Baltimore Sun
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 own 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
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 different West
African ethnic groups — people now 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 in February to launch African
Ancestry, a service to help African Americans rediscover some
of the ethnic ties that slavers replaced with chains. Similar
companies trace American Indian and European ancestry, said Mark
Shriver, an assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State
But while some individuals have used DNA to search for African
roots, no company has addressed African Americans' questions
about where on the ethnically diverse African continent their
ancestors may have lived.
Kittles' tests matched his own 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.
Kittles is an assistant professor of microbiology at Howard and
co-director of molecular genetics at the National Human Genome
Center there. He normally studies the role of genetics in prostate
He created African Ancestry out of a desire to use his scientific
skills to fill the empty pages of his own 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
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.
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 claims it can identify the African ethnic
group most closely related to the client's DNA with 95 percent
If there are European genes in the family tree, he said, he can
probably identify those, too, by comparison to other databases.
Paige, 35, the company's co-owner and CEO, 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
Shriver cautioned that African Ancestry's DNA tests provide only
a sliver of insight into an individual's complete ethnic past.
"Ten generations back, you have 1,024 ancestors," he said. Kittles'
tests identify the ethnicity of just two.
One of those tests, called MatriClan, looks only at mitochondrial
DNA — genetic material from the cells' energy-producing mitochondria
— which is passed down unchanged from mother to daughter. (Sons
receive it too, but do not pass it to their children.)
The second test, PatriClan, sequences DNA segments from the male
Y chromosome, which is passed down intact from fathers only to
their sons. (Females have no Y chromosomes.)
Because there is no recombination of the DNA in mitochondria
or Y chromosomes during conception, Kittles said, "it is a direct
signal from the past."
"Those are only two lines," he said. "But those two are extremely
informative, and better than zero."
Kittles has assembled his African DNA database from a variety
of published genetic studies, and from additional samples he
continues to collect in the African regions where most American
slavers operated from the 1600s to the mid-1800s.
Kittles reminds customers that DNA may not tell them where their
forebears lived or where they were enslaved — only that they
were African and where their kind live today.
"Since the period of slavery in Africa ... one thing has stayed
constant," he said, "and that's the DNA."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company