Monday, July 16, 2007

DNA and Genealogy Research

Yesterday, Leland Meitzler posted Americans Are Individually a Mix of Many Races at The Genealogy Blog which is really about this article at The Observer: The genes that build America. It's a bit long but well worth reading.

It starts out talking about the discovery of the relationship between ancestors of Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, which is 'old news' but once you get past that, it gets interesting.

"America has embarked on an amazing journey to explore its own past. Millions of Americans of every creed and colour are exploring their family histories in a genealogy boom that is redefining who they are and what it means to be American. The internet has allowed people to find obscure information at the click of a mouse that was previously locked away on dusty library shelves. They are also using modern DNA techniques to research their racial history, creating a multi-million dollar industry of consumer genetics. Like Sharpton, many are making shocking discoveries. They are finding slaves and slave-owners. Far from being a nation of different races, many are finding they have mixed pasts. Blacks are discovering they have white blood, whites are finding black relatives. Native Americans are growing in numbers, not because of a high birth rate, but because many Americans are discovering unknown native ancestors written in their DNA."

"Last year, Professor Peter Fine at Florida Atlantic University had an idea for an art class. He would gather a group of students to produce work around their idea of their racial identity. But as part of the class he asked them to take a DNA test that would break down their racial background. His bet was that most of the class - of whom the majority saw themselves as whites of European descent - had no real idea who they were.

"He was right. Of 13 students, only one turned out to be completely European. The rest displayed a mixture of European, Native American, African and Asian genes. The one black student turned out to be 21 per cent white. Fine himself - who admits to looking like a corn-fed stereotype of a white Midwesterner - discovered he was a quarter Native American. 'I honestly think these tests could have a large effect on American consciousness of who we are. If Americans recognise themselves as a mixed group of people, that could really change things,' he said.

"Fine has a point. For centuries, America has been less a racial melting pot and more a stew, where different communities bump up against each other, but keep mostly to themselves. Yet, as millions of Americans take DNA tests, they are discovering a surprising truth: America's strict racial lines are, in fact, blurred. One-third of white Americans, according to some tests, will possess between two and 20 per cent African genes. The majority of black Americans have some European ancestors."

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