History at the Cellular Level

DNA helps African Americans trace their ancestry

| November / December 2004

As the story gets pieced together, John Jackson was a black man, a freed slave perhaps, who came to New Haven, Connecticut, to join the American Revolution. He fought under Benedict Arnold and, after the war ended, sailed to Madagascar as a merchant seaman on a whaling ship. There he met a woman who became his wife, and though she would die within a year of their move to the United States, she bore John a son.

John's boy would have 11 sons of his own, all carrying the mark of their parentage -- a distinctive signature on their Y chromosomes revealing their grandfather's African ancestry.

Today, Bruce Jackson, a descendant of John Jackson, is a molecular biologist at Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of the African-American Roots Project. Through Jackson's efforts, and those of Burt Ely, a molecular geneticist at the University of South Carolina, the project is helping other African Americans understand their ancestry.

'Every African American has major interest in his or her lineage,' says Jackson. 'Among Americans, it's the most sought after information -- where we emanate from -- and especially for African Americans because of the institution of slavery.'

It turns out that Bruce Jackson's grandfather was the son of a black man and a white indentured servant in a Virginia fishing community. Bruce Jackson's mother had the marks of her Irish origin in her mitochondria. And Bruce Jackson himself shows Irish lineage on his mitochondrial DNA and ancestral African DNA on his Y chromosome.

All this genetic information connecting the present to the past can be gleaned from cells inside the cheek. Every cheek cell, like all cells in the body, contains genetic information about a person's heritage. Mitochondrial DNA, found in the cells of both males and females, is passed down through the mother's lineage. Y chromosomes, which are found only in the cells of males, can be used to trace the roots of the father's side of the family. By comparing cheek-cell DNA to a worldwide database of ethnic groups, Jackson's team can reveal the donors' links to Africa.

Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

Facebook Instagram Twitter

click me