Author Topic: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics  (Read 42623 times)

Offline Moma_porcupine

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DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« on: October 18, 2007, 05:39:21 pm »

I barely understand the science , but I do understand the basics . Reading some other message boards and seeing how confusing a lot of people find this , I thought I should try and explain this a bit better .

The mtDNA and the YDNA are unique in that they are the only genetic package which is always passed on , almost unchanged , to the next generation . Changes and mutations do occasionally happen but only happen rarely and usually the contents of the little gene package called mtDNA or YDNA stays the same for many hundreds of years.

The information on the mtDNA and Y DNA does not get mixed with other information It is
this unchanging quality that makes it so useful in tracking back the ONE line of descent this DNA shows , but it is also this unchanging quality which makes it completely useless in providing any information about any of the thousands of other people we all have as ancestors who are not direct matrilineal or patrilineal ancestors .

Women always pass their mtDNA and the unique information on it , down to their daughters and sons , but only the daughters pass this on to their daughters. This line
which is the only line through which mtDNA is passed on is called the matrilineal line .

The YDNA is similar . The unique information it carries is only passed from father to son , and is called the patrilineal line .

I had to draw a picture of a family tree to get my head around this , but another way to think of how this works is the way European surnames are also passed on through the patrilineal line, and this can be tracked back to one common patrilineal ancestor .

Examining mtDNA or YDNA can tell what haplogroup ONE very very  distant matrilineal or patrilinael ancestor belonged to . In some cases there may be distinctive subtypes of these haplogroups, which are thought to only occur in the North and South America.

Genetic Markers Not a Valid Test of Native Identity
by Brett Lee Shelton, J.D. and Jonathan Marks, Ph.D.

There are numerous problems with using genetics to determine whether or not one has Native American ancestry, and/or alternatively to determine tribal membership. The most obvious problem is that being Native American is a question of politics and
culture, not biology: one is Native American if one is recognized by a tribe as being a member. And one is not necessarily a member of a tribe simply because one has Native American ancestors.

On the mitochondrial DNA, there are a total of five different “haplotypes???(DEFINE), called A, B, C, D, and X, which are increasingly called “Native American markers,??? and are believed to be a genetic signature of the founding ancestors. As for the Y-chromosome, there are two primary lineages or “haplogroups??? (DEFINE) that are seen in modern Native American groups, called M3 and M45. Some scientists maintain that up to 95% of all Native American Y-chromosomes are from these two groups (the rest being from either Asian lineages or non-native haplogroups). It must be emphasized that none of these markers is exclusive to Native American populations; all can be found in other populations around the world. They simply occur with higher frequency in Native American populations.

The below link has a map showing what is thought to be the distribution of different types of both Y and mtDNA around the word in 1500 .

If you look carefully and use the zomm to blow up the colored pie shaped images showing the percentages of mtDNA in different areas of Spain , Italy , Russia , Northern Norway , Turkey , ect , it can be seen that all these areas had a percentage of the population which has the mtDNA types which are frequently referred to as "Native American" .

This map suggests a test showing an mtDNA line that is A B C D or X would not prove that this line had American Indian origins , only that this is a likely possibility if the family has a history of living in areas where intermarriage may have occurred .

There is also another type of DNA testing which claims to be able to give rough estimates of what percentages of various admixtures a person is .
(edited  Oct 24 2007 to add )

Admixture testing is NOT the same as the testing of Y and mtDNA

Some companies test for very basic information like whether a person has a lot of African, Cauacsian or Asian ancestry . This type of very basic and generalized admixture testing seems to usually give some correct information , except  these tests do not consistently distinguish between Asian and "Native American"DNA , and the percentages are only rough estimates .  

The reason these percentages aren't real , is because in each generation , 1/2 of each parents genes that do not get passed on to the child , and are lost forever from that childs genetic information. Over several generations what is lost and what is retained is purely a matter of chance , so the basic admixture tests will not necesarilly reflect actual ancestry .,race,and%20ancestry/5.html

Although every person has four grandparents, their DNA isn't passed down in equal proportions. As many as 35% of one's genes can be traced to a maternal grandfather, for example, while as few as 15% may come from the other grandfather, said Tony Frudakis, chief scientific officer of DNAPrint genomics Inc., a Florida company that offers genetic testing products.

Admixture studies are probably more reliable if it is the genetic components of a sizable group which is being studied as the individual chance inheritance , would tend to average out.
You can see in the information in the below link , which uses admixture testing , that many European people show a small percentage of the DNA admixture more commonly associated with people indigenous to North and South America .

Average AncestryByDNA™ 2.5 results for various populations.Data in table is plotted on a global map to show geographical trends
Shows NA DNA all over Europe

                                 European         African         East Asian     Native American
Irish                         96.4% (4.3%)     0.7% (2.1%)     1.2% (2.7%)     1.7% (4.1%)

North Euro               97.0% (3.6%)      1.0% (2.1%)       1.9% (3.0%)     0.4% (1.4%)

Icelandic                  93.8% (5.5%)     1.2% (2.2%)      0.8% (1.4%)     4.25% (5.0%)

Iberians                   78.8% (21.0%)   6.6% (7.1%)      4.0% (7.6%)    10.7% (16.7%)

Italian                       86.8% (8.9%)    2.3% (3.2%)     2.7% (5.5%)    7.3% (5.9%)

( for a bunch more statistics , see the webpage )

This website also has an interesting image showing the general admixture of DNA in people are members of a federally recognized tribe, and compares this to the DNA admixture of people who say they are Indian through at least one grandparent , but from a tribe which is not recognized .

EDIT Jan 2010

This image was originally located here,

though it is now be unavailable . I did save this and republished it in the link below,

This plot shows two different types of American Indians. The red and light green data spots are from individuals that are part of American Indian tribes that are recognized by the US Government as Native American. Each lives on a reservation, and for inclusion, the heritage of each individual is well documented. General types of tribes include Sioux, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Arapaho but specific tribal information shall remain confidential.

In contrast, the yellow and blue data points are from individuals who are part of an American Indian tribe that is NOT recognized by the US Government. None live on a reservation and most of these individuals live in major US cities. Most claim heritage significantly less than 50% Amerind blood but a few do not. Acceptance in this group is conferred if one grandparent was reported by the applicant as Native American.

the limit of detection for our test is such that a person could have a great grandparent that is 50% Native American and still obtain a 0% Native American score.

It's hard to say if these people tested can be assumed to fairly represent all federally unrecognized tribes , but according to this small investigation , people who show a substantial amount of American Indian DNA , are rarely from an unrecognized tribe . I notice this is quite different than what many people who are members of unrecognized tribes claim .

I also notice that the admixture of the large majority of people claiming to be Indian but from an unrecognized tribe , looks to be about the same as the average US Caucasian,
which looks to have just slightly more "Amerindian admixture" than the people in Europe .

( hah !! I think I figured out how to insert an image ! ) WOW
« Last Edit: January 25, 2010, 04:22:55 pm by Moma_porcupine »


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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #1 on: October 19, 2007, 03:28:10 am »
Gene watch is one of my favorites. I have never decided if this is a fad, hobby to some or out of curiosity. I can understand African-Americans, and have talked with some that had success, and some that had no success. Depends if the Company has samples of the gene pool from the Tribe, Village, or area that are from. I think many read Sykes book on "The Seven Daughters of Eve" and took it for an absolute. There are many articles why this is not  It's like taking a genetic marker for a disease and forgetting it takes 30 to 60 more to set it into action.  Here is one article that is pretty good.

Offline Moma_porcupine

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #2 on: October 19, 2007, 06:23:13 pm »
I can see where people who were adopted or who never knew one of their parents might find DNA tests helpful in learning who their biological family was.

There is also situations where families have something which isn't talked about and it causes tension and affects the whole family . Sometimes there is different stories about what that is , and a DNA test might be helpful in learning the truth . I can understand people in situations like that wanting to know .

I think these tests are interesting in what they can show about the average unwritten history within a group . Applied in that way , I think this information is mostly accurate .

Like the mtDNA tests which showed the Spanish population of Puerto Rico absorbed a large number of the Tanio people .

I don't think DNA tests can do more than prove a persons relationship to their immediate family and identify the major components of a persons or populations distant ancestral history .

From everything I have read , the claim that a person can learn their tribal origin in Africa or the America's from DNA is really misleading . It sounds like the subtle mutations that can be seen on Y or mtDNA , that might indicate this , show such an incredibly tiny tiny tiny fraction of a persons tribal origins , all they will see is what was passed down from one maternal or paternal ancestor thousands of years ago . The tribal origins of the thousands of other ancestors who are not on an unbroken maternal or paternal line , don't show up at all . With all the intermarriage that has occured over thousands of years , the information on this one bit of DNA is an extremely tiny piece of the whole picture.
When people take one of these admixture tests and get a %5 or %12 "Native American" result, many people innocently assume this is true and through a process of elimination try and figure out who in their family this could have been . The NA percentage often gets attributed to whichever great grandparent didn't recently arrive from Europe, and this person is then assumed to have been "proven" to be Indian .

This great grandparent usually had brothers and sisters and lots of cousins and   misinterpreting these tests can create dozens of European Americans who mistakenly believe a DNA test proves they are of American Indian descent. 

Unfortunately , these admixture tests , or the tiny fraction of a persons heritage shown in a Y or mtDNA test , is enough to get some folks imagining they should be entitled to something .... And this is being encouraged by companies wanting to sell DNA tests .

Such as this website below :

"Advances in modern DNA testing have provided new tools to document Native American ancestry.  If you are interested in establishing your eligibility for Native American rights or just want to satisfy your curiosity, DNA testing may be the only method available for this purpose."

" Is it important to establish membership in a Tribe?

Nineteenth-century treaties with Native American tribes, obligate the U.S. government to provide such things as education, health care and other services and benefits to many of the tribes. The important issue of Indian sovereignty also means tribes can set up casinos on reservations. Indian casinos now generate over $18 billion annually, and the numbers are growing.  As you know, the many tribes also has extensive oil holdings, mineral rights, fishing and agricultural rights which produce substantial income. (con..)"

What this website fails to adaquetly explain , is that a test of the mtDNA or Y won't provide any information as to whether the person carrying this DNA , inherited this from a single gggggggggggggrandparent or a full blood enrolled parent,and it will probably not be able to distinguish , with certainty , if this came from European" Native American " DNA or American Indian  " Native American"DNA.

"DNA testing can help you establish your membership in most of the 562 federally recognized American Indian Tribes.  "

I can't see how this could be true , unless it is a straight forward paternity test to prove a relationship to an enrolled parent . But that doesn't stop these DNA test companies from encouraging people to believe this .

"With the new economic opportunities afforded Native Americans, this test can legitimize claims of ancestry, and our DNA ancestry services can even indicate the specific tribe your Native American ancestors belonged to."

And as far as I can tell this is not true   ....

This seems misleading and exploitive . These adds seem to take advantage of the publics general lack of respect and misconceptions about Native people and culture , and encourage people in their greed. I notice nothing is said about obtaining political
citizenship and entitlement to financial advantages , through any other ancestral DNA that might be found through one of these tests .   

The website below explores some of the social implications of this ;

“Native American DNA??? Tests: What are the Risks to Tribes?
« Last Edit: October 20, 2007, 12:42:25 pm by Moma_porcupine »

Offline Moma_porcupine

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #3 on: October 21, 2007, 08:14:49 pm »
Here is a few more links to information from some authoritive sources;

"Genetic Ancestral Testing Cannot Deliver On Its Promise, Study Warns"  


"The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and other Oregon Tribes have seen a rise both in the number of companies offering DNA tests and the number of inquiries about becoming Tribal members based solely on those results.

"We get many calls for this," said Grand Ronde Tribal member and Member Services Enrollment coordinator Margo Mercier. "I tell them that a DNA test will not help."

"People seeking Tribal membership based solely on DNA testing results should be careful before spending their money, consumer advocates advise.

"There’s a kazillion of them targeting Tribal members," said Jan Margosian, the Oregon Justice Department’s longtime consumer advocate, though she reports no complaints to date about DNA testing companies.

Margosian also wonders, however, if victims would know to contact her with problems."

Thinking a DNA test could help an individual establish membership in a tribe seems unrealistic, especially as even the DNA testing companies tell their customers that tests showing personal DNA admixture, often do not accurately reflect actual ancestry;

"Every member of the family will get a different Ancestry Result"

"A person may get some markers from one of the population groups more than others or just as  likely not. Their genetics may have some contributions from all of their ancestors but which ones actually appear within their own genetic markers are not certain and could be quite different from those genetic markers recorded in a mother or father, brother or sister, or a fraternal twin, even though they are from the same parents, grandparents, etc."

Below is a link to the first page of 187 pages, of people discussing the results of their DNA admixture tests .

Reading through a few pages of this is enough to give anyone a headache , but if you do
the outcome of peoples tests seems to change depending on what company does the test . It seems this confuses some people even more, so they go to another company and get another test, hopeing to find a pattern in the results. These tests seem like a very expensive way to be curious .  

And below is a link with a long list of admixture test results, which seem to only sometimes match up with what people know about their background ;

When it comes to testing individual admixtures , it sounds like looking in the mirror and talking to your grandparents would often give much more reliable information .  

And lastly , I couldn't resist having some fun with the advertisement that comes up when
I do a Google search on "American Indian DNA"

EDIT Jan 2010

The title on the google search page reads ;

Cherokee Nation
American Indian DNA. your Indian Heritage. Your Indian Ancestry. It is really strange but, nobody else in the United States has to prove their ancestry ... - 12k - Cached - Similar pages  

So changing a couple words , this would be like an advertisement aimed at mixed blood Indians or European descended Americans , that said things like ;

"Government of England"
European Caucasian DNA. your European Heritage. Your European Ancestry. It is really strange but, nobody else who is European has to prove their ancestry to become a citizen of their own country ... - 12k - Cached - Similar pages"  

(which isn't even true - people are expected to prove their citizenship in their own country every time they apply for government services )

"If you are interested in establishing your eligibility for European rights or just want to
satisfy your curiosity, DNA testing may be the only method available for this purpose."

"Is it important to establish citizenship in a European country?

Nineteenth-century constitutional agreements within many European countries, obligate their governments to provide such things as education, health care and other services and benefits to many of their citizens. The important issue of sovereignty also means countries can set up casinos within their nations . European casinos now generate over
$18 billion annually, and the numbers are growing.  As you know, the many European countries also have extensive oil holdings, mineral rights, fishing and agricultural rights which produce substantial income.

There are 49 countries in Europe .  Many of these countries have set citizenship requirements that say a person must have at least one of the following; a European parent, or a grandparent, or a great-grandparent in order to receive citizenship."

"We now have a lot of information about the genetic traits of Europeans and the populations living within various Eurpoean countries .It appears that there are certain "European" genetic markers. Scientists believe that if a person has these genetic markers
in their DNA, they are most likely of European blood."


If you are discouraged by the lack of economic opprotunities of living on an Indian
reservation , and you think you might have some European blood , DNA testing can help you establish your citizenship in most of the 49 European countries."

The DNA Collection Kit is FREE

This test is available for only $240.00

Pretty silly and exploitive when you turn the reasoning around ...
« Last Edit: January 25, 2010, 04:29:41 pm by Moma_porcupine »


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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2007, 11:59:52 pm »
I think it has its place, though it is still pretty new. The Tanios already knew they were there, guess someone else need proof. It good for immediate identification, crime, paternity, and so on. But I think this is commericalization and pretty close to exploitation. I have to agree there. I don't think they know enough but most of it is way over my head.

Offline Moma_porcupine

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #5 on: October 24, 2007, 02:04:43 pm »
When I started this thread I was mostly wanting to post those images which showed people claiming to be Indian from an unrecognized tribe who had almost identical DNA to the average US Caucaision .

As this study says it was done on people who were claiming their grandparent was either Sioux , Arapaho , Cheyanne or Cherokee , but from an unrecognized tribe , and I have never heard of any Cheyanne , Arapaho or Sioux tribes that were having trouble being recognized , I am guessing that DNA study mostly represents members of unrecognized tribes of Cherokee .

Reading some of the conversations on some other message boards made me realize a lot of people find this subject confusing. When it gets into those rows of numbers my mind goes blank , but , I think ( ?) I understand the basic concepts . So today I edited my first post in this thread , trying to explain some of this , so maybe the rest of what is posted here will be easier for people to follow . 

I think it has its place, though it is still pretty new.

One way mtDNA and Y DNA studies seem like they could be accurate and helpful is in the recognition of unrecognized tribes . As it did with the Tanio , the percentage of people in a popultion with indigenous mtDNA or YDNA can be used to correctly show the average BQ within a population of people . mtDNA and Y DNA can also prove the people in this population were all related . Together with historical and genealogical information , the evidence provided by mtDNA and YDNA could be helpful in establishing proof of a tribes continuing biological existence .

But , except for the advertisements and a few lucky guesses , all the information I have seen says these tests can't identify which tribe an individual's ancestors came from , or give the real percentages of ancestry in individuals .

Here is another way of explaining why these tests can't possibly be accurate ;

fwsweet Administrator Thu 18 Aug 2005 17:18

There is a big difference between "admixture" (measurable DNA) and "ancestry." This is because each person can carry only one person's quota of DNA. You had a million ancestors in 1500 but you have only one person's worth of DNA. So 999,999 millionths of your ancestral DNA was discarded long before you were a gleam in your father's eye. Only one/one-millionth  of your ancestral DNA was passed down to you. Anyone can measure your admixture. No one can measure the other 999,999 millionths of your ancestry.

Unfortunantly , many people are trying to use these often innaccurate tests, as a basis for claiming a Native identity and rights .,race,and%20ancestry/5.html

I sympathize with why some of these people want to get these tests , but there is also a lot of  abuse .
« Last Edit: October 24, 2007, 02:58:59 pm by Moma_porcupine »

Offline Moma_porcupine

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #6 on: November 14, 2007, 06:22:56 pm »

The above URL contains the results of many peoples mtDNA tests , along with information about what they know of their oldest matrilineal ancestor .  There are links which lead to similar results from 2006 -2003

When I first looked at the pages , I was surprised to see how many people said they had thought their matrilineal ancestors were ndn , when their test results did not support this.

I was curious what percentage of these old colonial American families have the mtDNA haplotypes that would be inherited if they had an American Indian ancestor on the maternal line .

The only haplotypes of mtDNA that are known to occur in the people indigenous to North and South America are A , B , C , D and some varities of X , so any other hapoltype on a maternal line would indicated that line goes back to a European origin.

So I did some counting ....

At times my eyes glazed over , and a couple times I may have counted or not counted someone , but the totals are basicly accurate . 

I counted 443 people who indicated they were of primarily English , French , or African descent , who reported that they weren't sure of the source of their matrilineal line , but they knew their matrilineal ancestors were living in the US prior to 1875 .

Many of the people included in this count, traced their matrilineal branch of the family tree back to the early colonization of America . The majority of these early families seemed to track back to the states of Kentucky , Vermont, Virgina , North Carolina , South Carolina , Arkansas , Louisiana , Mississippi , Ohio, Illinois , Missouri ,Tennessee , Alabama , Texas and Oklahoma .

In other words most these people descend from early colonial families who lived in the same areas where people often claim the Cherokee or other tribes misplaced a bunch of their relatives , and these Indian ancestors were then supposedly forced to hide and intermarry with the local non native population .

There was also a few people who reported matrilinal ancestors who came from the early colonial period in Maryland , New York , Connecticut , Rhode island , Maine , Nova Scotia , Massachusetts, Vermont, Quebec and Ontario .

I didn't include Hispanic families, as other mtDNA studies have shown the early Spanish colonists in South America frequently intermarried with the indigenous people , and this is reflected in almost 1/2 of Hispanic people having  A , B , C or D mtDNA haplotypes.

( more info on what the general percentages of indigenous mtDNA  haplotypes in the Hispanic peoples can be found in the article below )

As North American families come from a different historical background , I did not want to mix that information in with the information coming from families of Hispanic descent .

Out of these 443 people who's matrilineal families were part of the early colonial history of North America , only 11 had mtDNA which may have originated in the Americas .

Of this 11 , 2 tests involved different descendants of the same ancestor, and 2 tests showed haplotype X mtDNA which is common in both Europe or the Americas , so 3 of these 11 tests were not really statistically conclusive.

I'm not good at math , but including the results of all 11 of these tests , I think this works out to slightly less than 2.5 percent of these old colonial families showing mtDNA evidence of a matrilineal line that may have originated on this continent .

There is some other stuff to consider that could make the actual percentage in the general population substantially lower than 2.5 .

For one thing , a small percentage of Europeans also have mtDNA haplotypes commonly refered to as "Native American" , so some of these people finding a Amerindian haplotype may have inherited this through a purely European ancestor . I did notice at least a couple people in these pages who reported a A B C D or X haplotype also reported their matrilineal line definently originated in Europe .

So there is some mtDNA evidence that a SMALL percentage of early American colonists intermarried with Native women and some descendants of these unions survived , and remained living in a non native community .

On the other hand ....

Not including the aforementioned 11 , a whoping 76 people out of this 443 thought their matrilineal ancestor would have shown an Amerindian mtDNA haplotype , and were a totally surprised or disappointed to learn the matrilineal ancestor they thought was an ndn , had a European matrilineal line . About half of these families had very specific information that a named female ancestor was an Indian , and the other half just had a vauge family traditon that someone on the maternal side was Native .

When the families who were thinking Grandma was an Indian get a result showing Grandmas matrilineal line is of European origins , the common response is that people guess it must have been someones husband who was partly ndn , as this would not show in an mtDNA test  .

Although this is likely true in many individual situations , the average frequency of early intermarriage in a population is generally reflected in average percentage A,B,C,D,X mtDNA  found in the general population made up of their descendants . The frequent occurence of indigenous mtDNA haplotypes seen in Hispanic peoples , and the Tanio , is an example of this .

But , based on the limited sample of tests contained in these reports , it appears the people who heard they had a Native ancestor greatly outnumber the percentage of the population with mtDNA evidence to back this up .

Probably it isn't that anyone lied about this . Family stories often get told about noteworthy relatives and over the generations the exact relationship to this noteworthy
person gets confused . I think often it happens that the story that was originally about the marriage of the cousin of an Uncle's wife , gets changed into a story about "someone in the family, somewhere back there ", and that gets interpreted as being a story about a grgrgr grandparent.

These reported test results probably give a somewhat distorted picture of the average population of descendants of old colonial families, as the people who pay to learn their mtDNA haplotype often have particualr interests , and a disporportionate number of people looking to confirm Native ancestry probably take these tests .

There is also a choice made to post the results , and some people with some intrests might be less inclined to post their results, which could also distort the actual percentages obtained through these tests . So the percentages here are probably not completely accurate .

However , based on the results that are posted in the above link , it would seem that the very large majority of these old family stories claiming an Indian grgrgrandma, are just not true. People might want to stop and seriously consider that , before claiming to be ndn and getting all upset about the lost sovreignty of an invisible tribe , based on nothing but a collection of old family stories , circulating in the community .

(edited to remove a guess about percentages which was probably incorrect )
« Last Edit: November 15, 2007, 01:43:24 am by Moma_porcupine »

Offline MikePutfus

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #7 on: November 14, 2007, 08:23:01 pm »
Some time back our reservation was asked if all the women would allow testing on dna for a data base somewhere. Most laughed it off, but some did have it done. Most of us know who our Mothers are, and the lines going back as we were born and raised with-in our families and Bands. It's sad so many don't know. While at a Gathering in NM there were many claiming this and that blood, and mt DNA that proved this and that. I told one young man a drop of blood or DNA doesn't make you anything except human. Our Culture is so much more. It's in how you were raised, and the contact with-in your family and Tribe. It's in your beliefs and Culture that makes you what you are. Not that you put on Feathers and learned how to dance. It's all the day to day life you live. There is so much more in being our culture that so many don't think about or know. That's why in my last visit home I was so happy to see young ladies having naihes or sunrise ceremony to become a woman. Homes have put in a shadehouse next to their homes. Pride in who they are is coming back, and many of the older ways are being retained. Along with all the new ways they have to live in just to survive. Even our grade schools at Whiteriver now teaches children our language.

Offline earthw7

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Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #8 on: November 25, 2007, 09:47:04 pm »

DNA Tests Find Branches but Few Roots

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., whose PBS special “African American Lives??? explores the ancestry of famous African-Americans using DNA testing, has done more than anyone to help popularize such tests and companies that offer them. But recently this Harvard professor has become one of the industry’s critics.

Mr. Gates says his concerns date back to 2000, when a company told him his maternal ancestry could most likely be traced back to Egypt, probably to the Nubian ethnic group. Five years later, however, a test by a second company startled him. It concluded that his maternal ancestors were not Nubian or even African, but most likely European.

Why the completely different results? Mr. Gates said the first company never told him he had multiple genetic matches, most of them in Europe. “They told me what they thought I wanted to hear,??? Mr. Gates said.

An estimated 460,000 people have taken genetic tests to determine their ancestry or to expand their known family trees, according to Science magazine. Census records, birth and death certificates, ship manifests, slave narratives and other documents have become easier to find through the Internet, making the hunt for family history less daunting than in years past.

Yet for many, the paper or digital trail eventually ends. And for those who have reached that point, genetic DNA tests may help to provide the final piece of the puzzle.

The expectations and reasons for taking the test vary. For some, the test allows them to reconnect with African ancestors after centuries of slavery wiped out links between African-Americans and their forebears. Others want to see if they have links to historical figures like Genghis Khan or Marie Antoinette. For still others, it’s an attempt to fill gaps in family histories and find distant cousins they might not otherwise have known.

The demand has spawned an industry. Almost two dozen companies now offer such services, up from just two or three only six years ago. The field is so hot that private equity investors have moved in: Spectrum Equity Investors recently bought, an online genealogy site, for about $300 million shortly after the site added genetic testing as a service.

But as the number of test takers and companies has grown, so has the number of scientists or scholars like Mr. Gates who have questioned assertions that companies make about their tests. One of the most controversial issues is the ability of the tests to determine the country or the ethnic group of origin for African-Americans or Native Americans.

Mr. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, said his experience and similar stories from others have prompted him to enter the field.

Mr. Gates recently teamed up with Family Tree DNA, a DNA testing and genealogy firm in Houston, to provide genetic testing and genealogy work for African-Americans. The new venture is called AfricanDNA.

“What we hope to do is combine this with genealogical and other records to try to help people discover their roots,??? he said. “The limitations of current genetic DNA tests mean you can’t rely on this alone to tell you anything. We hope to bring a little order to the field.???

In an editorial in Science magazine in October, a number of scientists and scholars said companies might not be fully explaining the limitations of genetic testing, or what results actually mean.

The authors said that limited information in the databases used to compare DNA results might lead people to draw the wrong conclusions or to misinterpret results. The tests trace only a few of a customer’s ancestors and cannot tell exactly where ancestors might have lived, or the specific ethnic group to which they might have belonged. And the databases of many companies are not only small — they’re also proprietary, making it hard to verify results.

“My concern is that the marketing is coming before the science,??? said Troy Duster, a professor of sociology at New York University who was an adviser on the Human Genome Project and an author of the Science editorial.

“People are making life-changing decisions based on these tests and may not be aware of the limitations,??? he added. “While I don’t think any of the companies are deliberately misleading customers, they may have a financial incentive to tell people what they want to hear.???

Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, said his company sometimes has to tell clients just the opposite. “We’ll have people who may think that they have a certain type of ancestry and we’ll tell them based on the test they are not,??? he said. “I can only tell them what the tests show, nothing more. And sometimes it’s not what they want to hear.???

HERE’S how the test works: A customer swabs his or her cheeks and gums, collects microscopic tissue samples and sends them to a laboratory. The lab extracts and digitizes the DNA and sends the results back to the companies. Using computer software, the companies try to identify matches between the customer’s DNA and those in their databases.

The test, which costs $100 to $900, typically comes in two forms. One test analyzes mitochondrial DNA, which reveals information only about a person’s maternal line, traced back through the mother’s mother to other female forebears (but not the males, because mitochondrial DNA is passed to all children only from their mothers).

The second test looks at the Y chromosome, which can provide clues only about a customer’s paternal line — so only men can take the Y-chromosome test.

Several companies, including DNA Tribes of Arlington, Va., also offer a test that examines the DNA contribution of both parents. These tests are the most controversial because many scientists say there isn’t enough data yet to get accurate results.

Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome tests combined reveal information pertaining to just 1 percent of a person’s DNA. But testing companies say that this 1 percent can reveal a lot about a person and bridge gaps in paper records. Mr. Greenspan said that anyone who starts to research his or her family history will eventually encounter roadblocks.

“This is where DNA comes in and offers clues that might otherwise never be known,??? said Mr. Greenspan, who started Family Tree DNA in 2000, after encountering his own roadblocks while researching his Jewish ancestry. “Can it answer all your questions? No. But used in combination with other tools, it can be extremely helpful.???

Gina M. Paige, president of African Ancestry Inc., based in Washington, said the DNA tests could be even more important for people whose lineage is loosely or sparsely documented.

“For most African-Americans, there is no paper trail,??? Ms. Paige said. Speaking of her company, she added, “we make money, but we see this as a service to a people who have been cut off from their history and culture.???

Sharing that view is the actor Isaiah Washington, formerly of “Grey’s Anatomy??? and now appearing on “Bionic Woman??? on NBC. After taking a DNA test to determine his ancestry in 2005, he says African Ancestry told him that his maternal ancestors most likely came from the Mende people in Sierra Leone. “I was excited because I didn’t know what to expect,??? he said. “I remember watching ‘Roots’ when I was young and it stuck with me. I always wanted to know where my ancestors came from before slavery, and here you have the science telling you.???

Still, Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, a nonprofit group that finances social programs, said it’s important that customers not expect too much from DNA tests. Family Tree DNA examined the DNA of Mr. Jealous’s grandfather before he died last year. The test showed both European and African ancestry, which wasn’t surprising to family members, but it also connected them to an ethnic group in Africa that they had never heard of.

“Over all, I think we were satisfied with the service we received,??? Mr. Jealous said. “But again, it’s a relatively new area, so we went in not expecting a lot. Some people are looking for definite answers.???

The author Edward Ball had a different experience with DNA ancestry tests.

A native of Savannah, Ga., Mr. Ball has a new book, “The Genetic Strand,??? (Simon & Schuster) that explores his family history through DNA. He became intrigued when he found labeled hair samples of various family members hidden in a drawer; some of the hair was more than 100 years old. He sent it to various companies for DNA testing. The first tests found that some of the family’s DNA was American Indian. Another company found African genes in his family tree, but no Native American ones. Then he was told by one of the various experts he consulted that the DNA most likely originated in Northern Europe. Mr. Ball didn’t know what to believe.

“My sense of family and identity were radically altered,??? he said. “Then it simply became confusing after getting ambiguous and contradictory results.???

EVEN some early proponents of DNA testing for ancestry have doubts about how useful the tests are.

Bert Ely, a geneticist at the University of South Carolina, was a co-founder of the African-American DNA Roots Project in 2000, hoping to use DNA tests as a way to find connections between African-Americans and ethnic groups in Africa.

“I originally thought that the mitochondrial DNA test might be a good way for African-Americans to trace their country of origin,??? Mr. Ely said. “Now I’m coming to the opposite conclusion.???

Last October, he matched the DNA sequences of 170 African-Americans against those of 3,725 people living in Africa. He found that most African-Americans had genetic similarities to numerous ethnic groups in Africa, making it impossible to match African-Americans with a single ethnic group, as some companies assert they can do.

Mr. Ely also published a paper in which he tried to determine whether the country of origin of native Africans could be found by using mitochondrial DNA tests. Several of the Africans in the study matched multiple ethnic groups. For example, DNA results for a person from Ghana provided genetic matches with people in 20 African countries.

Other scientists have raised issues with the way companies analyze and present results. Of particular concern is the use of statistical methods to determine ancestry when there are multiple matches to different ethnic groups. Companies don’t always make it clear that the results are estimates, not definitive matches.

It’s not that the tests are wrong, scientists say. Most companies use the same methods and, in some cases, the same labs to extract DNA from samples. But even the largest databases have only a few thousand records in them, and some areas and populations are sampled more than others. Most companies get data from information published in publicly available research papers; few collect samples themselves. Scientists emphasize that much of this data was gathered for other purposes and was never intended to be used for personal genealogical testing.

For their part, testing companies say they continually update their databases to get a larger number of samples.

AS part of the reporting for this article, I decided to submit my own samples for a mitochondrial DNA test. “Roots??? had left an impression on me, as it had on Mr. Washington. Like most African-Americans, I longed to know where I came from. Could tests tell me?

I often travel to Africa, and no matter where I go, someone will say that I must belong to one of the ethnic groups there. I’ve always wondered if any of them could be right. Could I really be an Igbo or a Mende?

There were also stories in my family about Native American or European ancestry. What, if any, of this was true?

Six weeks after I submitted the first samples, the results started to roll in. Every company told me that my mother’s female ancestors were all African. But after that, things got murky.

African Ancestry said my DNA was a match with that of the Mende and Kru people from Liberia. Family Tree DNA’s database showed a match with one person who was Mende. But my DNA also matched that of several other groups, like the Songhai in Mali, and various ethnic groups from Mozambique and Angola. Other peoples cited were the Futa-Fula (also known as the Fulani), who live in eight African nations, and the Bambara, who are primarily in Mali.

Why so many? “We try to be brutally honest and give you everything the test results show,??? said Mr. Greenspan of Family Tree DNA. “If there are multiple matches, we’re going to show you that.???

Mr. Ely’s African-American DNA Roots Project, which examined DNA sequences that other companies provided to me, confirmed many matches from Family Tree DNA and African Ancestry, but added additional ethnic groups. DNA Tribes, whose test shows DNA results from a combination of genetic material from both parents, added even more ethnic matches.

I once thought that my ancestors, like those of most African-Americans, would have come from West Africa. But some of the results showed links to regions that I had thought weren’t engaged in the slave trade with the United States — like Mozambique. But then a search of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade database, which was compiled from slave ship records, showed that some Africans from Mozambique did indeed end up in the United States. So maybe the Mozambique results were possible.

The companies also offered technical support to understand the results, and I spent considerable time trying to make sense of them. I learned a lot about how they reached conclusions, but not much about where I or my ancestors ultimately came from.

“What this all means is that you can’t take one of these tests and go off and say you’re this or that,??? Mr. Gates said. “Somewhere down the road, the results could change and you might have another group of people who might also be your genetic cousins.???

Sandra Jamison contributed reporting.
In Spirit


  • Guest
Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #9 on: November 26, 2007, 02:05:56 am »
Unfortunately this has been commericalized for monetary purposes. They still do not know enough about it. It's like watching CSI and believing they can obtain DNA results back in a matter of minutes to hours.

Offline TerryNicholas

  • Posts: 1
Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #10 on: April 25, 2008, 03:42:37 pm »
I told one young man a drop of blood or DNA doesn't make you anything except human. Our Culture is so much more. It's in how you were raised, and the contact with-in your family and Tribe. It's in your beliefs and Culture that makes you what you are. Not that you put on Feathers and learned how to dance. It's all the day to day life you live. There is so much more in being our culture that so many don't think about or know.

I must say that I fully agree with you Mike.  I know what my heritage is without DNA, and I am sure after reading the threads from the others on this subject, there are people out there that would get confused or sent in the wrong direction.  These are all great posts!  Thank you all!


Offline E.P. Grondine

  • Posts: 401
    • Man and Impact in the Americas
Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #11 on: July 18, 2008, 02:09:08 am »
Hi Mama Porcupine -

Thanks for all the hard work, but there's a little confusion here.

mt (mitochondrial) DNA is the only DNA unchanged, and it is passed solely by the female line. Thus a person with an NDN father and a European mother would show 0% ancestry by mt DNA tests.

As near as I can make out, C mt DNA was the first over the land bridge, shortly after say 50,000 BCE and spread then clear to the tip of South America. In North America it is Iroquoian. The A mt DNA groups arrived via the land bridge and coast say around  28,000 BCE, and is reflected today in Algonquin and Siouian peoples, with the Algonquin initially coastal fishermen, and the Sioux ancestor's hunters in the coastal strip.

B and D mt DNA apparently arrived in South America by boat from Asia, sometime after the invention of the boat around 60,000 BCE. Parts of these peoples later moved north.

X mt DNA arrives on the east coast of today's Canada from Europe around 8,350 BCE, bringing European disease vectors with them which killed about 90-95% of the people living in eastern North America. These people are usually referred to as Red Paint people, and they later spread down the Ohio.

Of the Savanah River people (Ocanachee-Yuchi), there are very few members left to my knowledge, not enough to establish an mt DNA haplogroup. They crossed from the Sahara River region of Africa to Pedra Furada, Brazil around 35,000 BCE. Clovis appears to be connected with their move north across the Gulf-Caribbean.

Y DNA is the male DNA, and is commonly used in paternity tests, and as a result that is usually what the DNA services check, because the tests are developed and relatively cheap. And it does mix over time.

Oft times, Y DNA reports come back from labs speaking of Asian ancestry, when there is none, with absolute certainty, except for NDN ancestry.

"Blood" quanta is an issue which every people will face in the future, and which their leadership will have to decide.

E.P. Grondine
Man and Impact in the Americas

Offline AnnOminous

  • Posts: 99
Land bridge rediculousness
« Reply #12 on: July 18, 2008, 03:05:10 am »
Some good information in this thread.  However--and this is a very very big HOWEVER--I feel very sad to read of a fraud theory as tho it were somehow the truth on a website debunking and outing frauds.  Of course I'm referring to the above poster's message regarding a land bridge that somehow magically appeared and then magically/mystically disappeared after some lost souls and animals got across.  Please.  That theory has never been more than an ill conceived and executed piece of poorly construed and baseless acadamia.  Certainly in the more current literature it is apparent that it is just a matter of time before everything concerning the landbridge will simply be a laughable idea of the past.  Kind of like believing that eating Kellogg's Cornflakes would reduce masturbation.  Silly silly silly.  It is a theory that never has, and never will, hold either intuitive or academic merit.

I have never ever heard a First Nations person subscribe to that theory.  Every person from every First Nation has their own creation knowledge originating with their own People's oral traditions.  No one needs to listen to non-Native speculation about where Native People came from.  It's one thing Vine Deloria worked diligently to ensure. 

I just hate to read things like this here.

Offline E.P. Grondine

  • Posts: 401
    • Man and Impact in the Americas
Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #13 on: July 22, 2008, 08:30:43 am »
Hi Annonymous -

You're not prejudiced against people from China or the Pacific, are you?

From my experience, which is mostly eastern, only a few hold to the creation stories - most understand them as the allegories that they are. In other words, I've met only a few Native American "fundamentalists", or literalists about these earliest traditions.  I've also met several frauds who have aligned themselves with christian fundamentalists for various reasons.

There is an archaeological record of the earliest man, one that is becoming better defined everyday. Sorry, but people evolved first in Africa, and later in Asia, then came here. Sea levels were lower during the ice age, as some of Earth's water was held as ice, and Beringia was high and dry. That's the facts.

My general observation is that the creation traditions generally start at the Holocene start comet impacts (10,900 BCE) , as so few people made it through them that most earlier history was lost. Also, those impacts themselves appear to have been so remarkable as to replace everything remembered earlier.

Another thing which I've noticed is that the more devastated a people has been during the conquest, the more elaborate the "histories" they have create for themselves, after their tradition keepers have died.

My own personal belief is that if the Creator chose to make us from tree apes, then I am not one to question her.  Others can believe differently, and that is their business. Just as how they deal with the facts is.

E.P. Grondine
Man and Impact in the Americas

Offline AnnOminous

  • Posts: 99
Re: DNA tests 4 Ndn ancestry & some statistics
« Reply #14 on: July 22, 2008, 05:35:07 pm »
It is good to know that you come back here to read as that is  indicative of a willingness to learn, a desire for truth, and an openness to admitting fallibility. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping you further develop those qualities.  To even suggest, never mind attempt to state as fact, that tradition keepers are dead and gone speaks to me of a wealth of ignorance and it is of little surprise that knowledge holders are unwilling to speak to you.  I think they set a good example for me to follow as well.