How to trace your family tree 50,000 years back to your African origins

September 17, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

National Geographic’s Genographic Project offers all of us an extraordinary opportunity: a method of tracing each of our family trees back to our African roots.  Yes, each of us is African.  An ever-growing collection of DNA studies unambiguously demonstrate that each of us had ancestors who lived in Africa more than 50,000 years ago. 

Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist, is in charge of a team of scientists responsible for tracing human migrations out of Africa, from which they populated the entire world. The team is getting the job done by taking DNA samples from indigenous cultures around the world.  As you’d imagine, time is of the essence, because the world’s populations are in constant flux and, according to literature I received from the Genographic project, “many genetic signals are being scrambled.”

Dr. Wells and his team have utilized markers on to relatively stable genetic components (mitochondrial DNA) to determine that there is a genetic ancestor shared by every person alive today.  She has been dubbed “Eve” and it appears that she lived in Africa approximately 150,000 years ago.  One other stable genetic component is located on Y chromosomes, which are passed from fathers to sons.  This too indicates another coalescence point, indicating that we all share a male African ancestor scientists call “Adam,” who lived approximately 60,000 years ago.  The Genographic project literature indicates that Adam looked very much like a still existing yet relatively isolated group of African bushmen.  

It is startling to consider that each of us is separated from “Adam” by no more than 2,000 generations. In my mind, there is no better medicine to racism and political divisions than to consider that we are all cousins, no matter how different we appear to be from each other.

“Adam’s” descendents traveled across Africa’s savannas and forests in search of food and water (over the years, climate change made it imperative to keep up with the moving livestock).  Some of these lines of biologically modern humans migrated all the way to Australia.  This Australian migration is substantiated by the existence of highly specific genetic markers found in the DNA of Australian aboriginal males.  50,000 years ago, sea levels were lower and there would have been a way to walk along the coasts of Saudi Arabia, India and Southeast Asia in order to get to Australia.  In fact, Lake Mungo in Australia contains a grave that could be as much as 60,000 years old, making it the earliest known site of human habitation outside of Africa.

Other migrations have been documented into Eurasia and through Siberia, across the Bering land Bridge (this bridge existed when sea levels were low) into North and South America.  According to more compelling genetic evidence, this migration into the Americas occurred no earlier than 20,000 years ago.  The genetic evidence also suggests that the people who originally populated the Americas sprung from a group of perhaps one-dozen people who crossed the Bering land Bridge.

The ability to analyze migratory patterns of humans based upon genetic information is truly inspiring.  “The greatest history book ever written,” Wells says, “is the one hidden in our DNA.”

The Genographic project is ambitious.  It is a five-year program to collect at least 100,000 DNA samples from the world’s remaining indigenous in traditional people.  The work is being done by genetic laboratories around the world.

In addition to arriving at general conclusions regarding migratory patterns of humans, the Genographic project offers something for you too.  For $100, the Genographic project will provide you with a kit with which you can collect your own cheek cells before submitting them for analysis.  My seven-year-old daughter quickly gathered her own cheek cells recently, without complaint, and we are now awaiting her test results. The genetic testing done on your cheek cells

will indicate the maternal or paternal genetic markers those ancestors bequeathed you thousands of years ago, which chart your remote ancestors migratory wanderings and indicate from which branch you hang on the global family tree.

After being tested, you have the option of providing additional information to help National Geographic better understand the “twigs and branches” of human migratory patterns. To arrange to be tested, go here and click on “How to Participate.”  The same site offers an overview of genetics, an analysis of the human journey, and educational videos regarding the project.


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Category: Bigotry, History, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Zandile says:

    I'm am a South African female, (black) and from the Xhosa tribe in South Africa can you trace my geneology. i know that i come from adam and ultimately God, but i just want to Know if i share genes with other africans outside of sub-saharan africa

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    ScienceDaily (Feb. 13, 2008) — The human journey from Asia to the New World was interrupted by a 20,000 -year layover in Beringia, a once-habitable region that today lies submerged under the icy waters of the Bering Strait. Furthermore, the New World was colonized by approximately 1,000 to 5,000 people – a substantially higher number than the 100 or fewer individuals of previous estimates.

  3. Ryan Sites says:

    Did you ever receive your kit? Was it worth $100?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ryan: I did receive the kit. We followed the directions and we then received the results, as promised. Was it worth it? To us, it was. We found that one branch of my daughter's ancestors took the Australian route out of Africa. This was significant to us because my daughter was adopted, and we don't know anything about her parents (except that perhaps one of them was Chinese). This gave us at least one story to tell her about her ancestry, where there had been slim pickings before that. The package provided additional written information above and beyond the test results, though some of that is available on line already. This is an incredible scientific undertaking, and I didn't mind that part of my payment would go to support additional research.

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