One of the most prominent features of DNA testing is the ethnic admixture results you get with each test. Now, there has been some debate about the reliability of admixture tests. It is true that no one test will tell you every ethnic group that left it’s mark on your genome. For starters, ethnic groups have changed over time and so have the geo-political boundaries that encompassed these groups. Furthermore, each DNA testing company has it’s own ethnic reference samples with which they compare your genome with and this also influences their results.
That being said, I do find admixture results to be somewhat informative if one’s family history includes the ancestries and geographical locations indicated. As a child of the African Diaspora, I also believe that admixture tests do point to geographical areas where my ancestors may have come from during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For African-Americans, this is a key reason as to why we take DNA test in the first place. We want to find that missing piece of our ancestral self that was denied to us.
So, Who Did I Think I Was?
Whoever I thought I was pre-DNA test was only a partial portrait of me. I already knew all my usual suspect ancestries by name (i.e., West African, British, Irish, Dutch, German, Eastern European/Jewish, Spanish,and Native American) prior to taking the test so I expected them to show up in my results. And they did. However, it was the UNUSUAL SUSPECT ancestries that caught my attention big time. My post-DNA test results now included Central-South Africa, East Africa, South/Southeast Asia, North Africa, Italy, France, and Scandinavia. Hmmm… Now, I wondered where and when did these ancestries enter my genome. I mean I thought I knew where my African and European ancestors came from. Well, I guess NOT! LOL Now, I needed to further investigate my new roots.
Unusual Suspect #1: Central-South Africa, East Africa, and South/Southeast Asia
One of the biggest surprises that my family encountered with DNA testing was my cousin Andrea’s family’s mtDNA results. Though my own mtDNA is H1 because my maternal matrilineal line traces back to Ireland, Andrea’s mtDNA, which comes from our shared 2nd great-grandmother, is M23. This haplogroup is found only in MADASGASCAR!
The people who made up the original settlers came from East (Indonesia, Oceania, and Melanesia, ) and Africa (East African and South Africa). According to a paper written by Cox, Nelson, et. al.,
“The settlement of Madagascar is one of the most unusual, and least understood, episodes in human prehistory. Madagascar was one of the last landmasses to be reached by people, and despite the island’s location just off the east coast of Africa, evidence from genetics, language and culture all attests that it was settled jointly by Africans, and more surprisingly, Indonesians. Nevertheless, extremely little is known about the settlement process itself… Maximum-likelihood estimates favour a scenario in which Madagascar was settled approximately 1200 years ago by a very small group of women (approx. 30), most of Indonesian descent (approx. 93%). This highly restricted founding population raises the possibility that Madagascar was settled not as a large-scale planned colonization event from Indonesia, but rather through a small, perhaps even unintended, transoceanic crossing.”
When I saw all of my admixture results, I knew that my Central-South African, East African, and South/Southeast Asian ancestry could be traced back to my maternal Madagascar ancestors. Out of all the admixture tests, DNA Tribes has the best admixture breakdown. All of my relatives, who have taken the DNA Tribes SNP Analysis, have ancestry from South Africa (Bantu, Pedi, and/or Nguni), East Africa (Somali or Ethiopian), South Asia(India), Southeast Asia (Borneo, Malay, Indo-Chinese), and Oceania (Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Guam).
Here is my 2nd cousin 1XR Mildred’s DNA Tribes Native Population Analysis. Mildred is a direct matrilineal descendant of my 2nd great-grandmother and DNA Tribes has her as being 4.5% Southeast Asian. Her Madagascar ancestry is much clearer— at least I think so.
In addition, my maternal family has colonial roots in both New Jersey and New York. Slaves from Madagascar were directly imported into New York City between 1678-1698 and then from 1716-1721. They were also directly imported into Perth Amboy, NJ. In his book, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in America, Michael A.Gomez writes:
My 3rd great-grandmother, Susan Pickett, was born in Morris County, NJ in 1809. Her mother, a slave named Tun, was born in the late 1700s in either NY or NJ. It is quite possible that Tun’s maternal Madagascar ancestors arrived during one of those two periods. I am now searching for Tun in her slave owner’s records. Apparently she was owned by someone who then rented her out to another master.
Unusual Suspect #2: North Africa
Prior to my DNA tests, I only had knowledge of my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side. Post-DNA test, I now know that I am also a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Spain. My North African ancestry is from my paternal side. Following their 1492 expulsion from Spain, Jews settled mainly in the Ottoman Empire, Morocco and Algeria, southern France, Italy, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Mexico, Spanish South America, Brazil, Netherlands and her territories (Curaçao, Suriname, Aruba and New Amsterdam) England (as well as English colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica), Germany, Denmark, Poland, Austria and Hungary. So, some of my North African ancestry comes from my Sephardic roots. But, I also have Puerto Rican ancestors via the Canary Islands which includes the Guanches who are of Berber descent from North Africa.
My DNA Tribes SNP Analysis also includes Fulani ancestry. The Fulani were known to be nomadic and migrated from West Africa to North Africa. This ancestry may come from either one of my parents.
Unusual Suspect #3: France, Corsica, and Italy
French and Italian ancestry is very common in Puerto Ricans. This is due to the Spanish Crown issuing the 1815 Royal Decree of Graces. This decree lasted until 1898 when the US took over Puerto Rico.
King Ferdinand decided that one of the ways to end the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico and Cuba was to allow non-Spanish Catholic Europeans (e.g., the French, Corsican, Irish, and Italians), who swore loyalty to the Spanish Crown, to settle on both islands. These new immigrants were given land grants and papers indicated that they were loyal to both the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. After 5 years, they could become Spanish subjects. It was these immigrants who became the sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee planter class with Africans being the slave labor class.
Part of my French ancestry is due to French immigration to Puerto Rico at this time. (By the way, I have some Puerto Rican cousins with the surnames LeGrand, Betancourt, Poupart, and Ruitort among others.) However, some of my French ancestry is also due to Corsican immigration to the island. In the early 1800s, Yauco was Ground Zero for Corsican Immigration. Corsica was originally an Italian territory that was lost to France in 1768 as such a lot of Corsican surnames are Italian in origin.
My paternal grandfather, Antonio Vega Bonilla, was born in Susua Alta, Yauco, Puerto Rico as were his ancestors. On some of my paternal family’s birth and marriage certificates, people with Corsican surnames like Cardi, Bernadini, Filiberti, and Oliveri are listed as relatives who were witnesses to those events. I believe my paternal grandfather’s ancestors intermarried with, or had children by, these Corsican immigrants.
As I communicate with some of Euro DNA cousins, I am also finding that I have French ancestry on my maternal side as well. Some of this French ancestry is from French Huguenots who arrived in the US during colonial times from England. I also have a lot of French Canadian/Arcadian ancestry. I have no idea where this ancestry comes from and I am still investigating.
Unusual Suspect #4: Scandinavia
When I first received my 23andme results, they only listed Finland as a Scandinavian country that apparently left a mark on my DNA. Say what? On their new Ancestry Composition, this changed to the more general Scandinavian category. When I look at my DNA relatives and Ancestry Finder lists, I see DNA cousins with Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian ancestry. I had no knowledge on either side of my family of Scandinavian ancestry. I found this to be interesting. How did I get Finnish DNA???
Well, it turns out that there was a New Sweden colony that extended from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and up to New Jersey between the years of 1638-1655. Finland was part of Sweden at this time. As a result, a lot of Finnish and Swedish people immigrated to this colony. By 1690, the Swedes and Finns had settled in Cape May, Salem, and Gloucester counties in New Jersey. When I look at my DNA 5th-8th cousins’ family trees on Ancestry.com, I see a lot of surnames from Salem and Gloucester counties in NJ, but I don’t recognize the names. It may be that I inherited Scandinavian DNA from a slave owner sometime in the colonial NJ era. As this time, the best I can do is to be on the lookout for any Scandinavian names that pop up in my research on my NJ ancestors.
So where does all of this new admixture analyses leave me?
My admixture results do not change what I consider myself to be. I will always be half African-American and Puerto Rican. The culture(s) you were raised in do(es) count for something after all. You are not just the sum of your DNA. I think of admixture results as clues to telling me more about my ancestors. By looking at who they may have been and how they ended up in the locations where I found them, I learn more about my family history. But, admixture results still lead me to look for the paper trail –no matter how elusive it seems– on my ancestors.