Minority Ancestry and DNA

I originally wrote this article for the Melungeon Historical Society, but regardless of the target audience, the message is the same about how to use and interpret genetic information related to the search for minority admixture ancestors.   Hat tip to Jack Goins and other MHS members for extensive genealogical research that makes the Melungeon DNA projects possible.

The most common inquiry I receive at http://www.dnaexplain.com is from people wanting to find their Native ancestry.  Everyone in Appalachia has a story someplace in their family about having Native heritage.  This really isn’t surprising given that most everyone whose ancestors settled in the Appalachian region came through Virginia and North Carolina, and they didn’t just fly in from the coast.  Most families migrated over several generations from the coastal areas, to the piedmont, to the frontier lands, into the mountains, then finally, arriving on the other side or settling in an isolated valley.

If a genealogical generation is 25 years, then each of us today that was born in 1950 has 10 generations between us and the year 1700.  If our ancestors arrived in Jamestown, then it’s 14 generations, give or take a bit.  Remembering that the number of our ancestors doubles with every generation (you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, etc.), 10 generations gives us 1024 ancestors and 14 generations gives us 16,384 ancestors.  If these ancestors are mostly in the US, it’s probably more likely that we DO have Native ancestors than we don’t.

Having said this, if we have one full blooded native ancestor in 1800 at the 6th generation, they would contribute only 1.56% of our total DNA.  At the 10th generation, in 1700, one full blooded native ancestor would contribute .1%, so one tenth of one percent of our total DNA and at the 14th generation, in 1600, less than one one-hundredth of one percent (.01%) of our DNA. It’s no wonder we seek these ancestors but seldom find them.  They are the proverbial needle in the haystack.

The most direct route we have to identifying a Native ancestor is either Y-line, paternal, or mitochondrial, maternal DNA testing.  Regardless of how far back in time, the Y-line and the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups which are what we use to identify Native ancestry is unchanged because neither the Y chromosome nor mitochondrial DNA is mixed with any DNA from the other parent.

Let’s look at an example.  One of John Doe’s ancestors was among the Melungeon people who were identified in documented records as Melungeon, and they carry the oral history of having Native heritage.  Pretty much all Melungeon families carry this oral history, and if they don’t individually, certainly they do as a group.  John very much wants to recover his Native heritage and learn about his Native genealogy.

Although John himself can’t test, because his paternal (surname) line is Doe, and his maternal line is Smith, and neither are Melungeon, he finds a paternal line descendant of his Melungeon line.  Let’s say he is a descendant of Zachariah Minor and Aggy Sizemore.  I have chosen this couple because we have the Y-line DNA of Zachariah and the mitochondrial DNA of Aggy.

Zachariah Minor and Aggy Sizemore are 6 generations removed from John Doe, and sure enough, just like our model that suggests this generation would occur about the year 1800, Zachariah Minor was born in 1799.  John Doe carries about 1.56% of the DNA from Zachariah Minor and about 1.56% from Aggy Sizemore.

John Doe is just positive that this family is Native and is desperate to prove that heritage, so he asks a male Minor descended from Zachariah to test.  Zachariah’s haplogroup  from his DNA testing is determined to be E1b1a, African.  Thinking that maybe the Native heritage comes through Aggy Sizemore, John finds a descendant (through all females) of Aggy Sizemore to test, and her haplogroup is H, European.  So far, nothing that suggests Native.

Now John just knows that his ancestors would never claim Native heritage if it wasn’t true, and he just knows that in the 200 years and several generations between 1800 and 2000, that none of those ancestors would have expanded on a story or misremembered something.  He is utterly convinced that they are Native, so his interpretation of the DNA results is that because he is convinced that his ancestor are Native, the DNA results must be wrong – and that haplogroup E1b1a which is confirmed in scientific literature to be African must indeed really be Native, and the same with haplogroup H.  In fact, he surmises, so MANY people who are convinced that they have Native heritage are showing up with European or African haplogroups, as opposed to Native, that the entire scientific community must be wrong.

While John’s tenacity must be admired, especially his quest to find descendants to test, his logic is flawed by his strong desire to be Native.  However, John isn’t entirely wrong – his ancestor’s ARE Native – but he’s focused in the wrong place.

The Y-line and mitochondrial  DNA only has the ability to test one line, and only one line.  The beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter how many generations back your “Native” or “African” or “European” ancestor lived, their DNA is still there to tell you their story, undiluted by subsequent generations.  But this means that of your 64 ancestors in 1800, the Y-line and mtDNA can only report on the Y-line for the paternal line and the mtDNA for the maternal line – just those two lines – and tells you absolutely nothing about any of the rest of your ancestors.

To find out about the rest of those ancestors, the best thing to do is to find “proxy” individuals from those lines to test and build yourself a DNA pedigree chart of all of your ancestors.  In John Doe’s case, as luck would have it, he found a Sizemore male that was descended from Aggy Sizemore’s father, George Sizemore, who agreed to test. 

Lo and behold, George Sizemore’s descendant came back with results in haplogroup Q1a3a, Native American, and surprisingly, this line did NOT carry an oral history of Native heritage, so John Doe certainly was not expecting the Sizemore family to be Native.  Furthermore they aren’t Melungeon, but they are ANCESTORS of Melungeons, or at least this Melungeon family. It stands to reason that Aggy might well retain the oral history of her Native ancestor, however many generations from her he was removed. 

We know that Aggy was born in 1804, and we can track the Sizemore family back another 3 generations or so to Edward, “old Ned”, born about 1725.  He is Aggy’s great-grandfather and given that we know he unquestionably had a Native ancestor, that “full blooded” ancestor had to have been born sometime between 1600 and 1700.  

From John Doe, the oldest Sizemore in that line, Edward, is 9 generations, and John Doe carries only .20% or two tenths of one percent of his DNA – but the Sizemore males that are alive today who descend from Edward – several of whom have now DNA tested, all carry 100% of his Y-line DNA – so that story of Native ancestry is crystal clear.

It’s equally as crystal clear that Aggy Sizemore’s mother, while she was admixed Native from her father’s side, her mitochondrial DNA from her mother, haplogroup H, is European.  Just because Aggy is admixed Native from her father’s side, it does not mean that haplogroup H is Native.  The male children of Zachariah Minor and Aggy Sizemore carry lots of different DNA.  Their Y-line is African, E1b1a, their mitochondrial DNA is H, European, but their ancestors who are not represented by either the Y-line or mitochondrial DNA are Native, haplogroup Q1a3a.  This doesn’t make DNA testing “wrong”, but necessitates that the individuals interpreting the results understand how to correctly apply DNA results to genealogy.

John Doe today carries parts of all of these ancestors, no matter how miniscule.  So what does that make John Doe?

How John Doe self-identifies is up to him.  Some people choose to select that one twentieth of one percent of their heritage and claim it above all others – in this case Native.  Some choose to identify with their paternal haplogroup – in his case Doe – which hasn’t even been discussed here.  Some identify with their maternal haplogroup.  Some people complete a DNA pedigree chart and identify with all of their ancestors.  In John Doe’s case, we know he’s a small amount Native, at least part African, but based on how he looks and the majority of his ancestors as proven by both DNA and genealogy, he’s primarily European.  Many people self-identify with their primary phenotype or the cultural heritage with which they were raised.  No one but John Doe can determine how he self-identifies. 

What we can say is that science has provided him with a window into his miniscule amount of Native heritage (less than 1%), his undetermined amount of African heritage, although it too is likely about 1% based on the genealogy, that would have never been confirmed or available to him without the science of genetic genealogy.  The more lines that John Doe tests (via proxy), the more he will know about all of his ancestors.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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3 Responses to Minority Ancestry and DNA

  1. Nora Probasco says:

    Roberta, excellent article. I have several friends who are trying to ferret out their Native ancestry and now I can give them this article as a blueprint of what to do.

  2. Dee says:

    Great article! I took an admixture test and found I was approximately 1% Native American. Since I’m in my 20’s, I guess the full blooded relative goes back farther than ten generations.

  3. Amy says:

    Someday, when there is some budge in the budget, I hope to get my autosomal DNA tested and perhaps see the evidence that the paper trail doesn’t provide. I wonder, if my sister takes the same type of test, would her percentages normally be the same as mine, or do siblings tend to have slightly different results (since we don’t get 100% of our parents’ genes)? I am blessed to have photos of a gggg-grandfather and his daughter, my ggg-grandmother, that are the only solid evidence I have of Native ancestry.

    At one point I added up all the rumored Native DNA in the family tree and got roughly 10%. I figure it’s likely something less than that. That’s about as much Norwegian as I have, and I do identify with that. The Norwegian is my paternal line, my family name. Though if my family name was matrilineally inherited, though, I might have a Creek or Choctaw name instead. I wasn’t raised with knowledge of that ancestry, and don’t know how much I should identify with it. It may be in my blood, but it’s never been part of my culture, unless there are family traditions, habits, attitudes, that have been handed from mother to daughter that I don’t recognize as such.

    There is Melungeon ancestry (Bunch, Bass) in another branch of our tree, but i wonder if there is any detectable African ancestry there. Assuming “John Punch” was 100% African, he’s twelve generations back–only 0.0122% of my ancestry. I don’t know how far back the “out of Africa” ancestor of the Bass line is–male-line cousins have A1a y-DNA, but that only tells you so much. Might be lost in the genetic shuffle.

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