Ancestry 5 things to know about family tree research

Interestingly, both tests were clear on something curious about the Native American roots everyone insisted were there: They weren’t! The fact is that only one in 20 African-Americans have any significant amount of Native DNA. Even Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the host of “Finding Our Roots,” reported in 2014 that despite his own family’s proudly presumed widespread Cherokee ancestry, his DNA carried less than 1 percent of that heritage but about 50 percent European. And his mother was not pleased about him busting the family myth wide-open.

What my tests did show were Central Asian DNA, from regions like Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and an area called Melanesia, islands in the South Pacific above Australia, in the Oceania region. This was news to me, so I called my family’s own amateur genetic sleuth — Janice Streeter of Pine Bluff, Ark.


Janice is married to my dad’s first cousin and has done both DNA and genealogical research on both sides of her family. She says she’s found Oceanic heritage throughout the Streeter side and that she’s always suspected that we were of some Asian descent because several of my relatives, including my dad’s late brother, had somewhat slanted eyes. But she’s still trying to figure that out. Plot twist!

“What we have to tell people is that you only get half of each parent’s DNA, so if (there is an ancestor) five generations back, you might have no DNA from that ancestor,” says Vick, treasurer and registrar of the Genealogical Society of Palm Beach. “They may be someone who is far enough back that you didn’t inherit any evidence. But as they say, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”

Rafi Mendelsohn, director of PR and Social Media for MyAncestry.com, has a great analogy: “You can test two siblings. You think they should get similar results. But the best example is chicken soup. You add vegetable, chicken and spices, and then ladle out a bowl. Then you ladle out another. There’s a bit more chicken in one bowl, a bit more vegetables in another bowl. Both siblings get their DNA from the same pot. It just comes out different in every bowl.”

It’s also important to remember that humans have always been mobile, and that the place where our DNA was found doesn’t mean it originated there, says Christine Scodari, a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Communications and Media Studies, author of the recent book “Alternate Roots: Ethnicity, Race and Identity in Genealogy Media” (University of Mississippi Press).

For instance, even though relatives on both sides of her family immigrated to the United States from Italy, Scodari’s DNA comes from the places where the settlers of those areas hailed from, like the Mediterranean in her case or North Africa in the case of other Italians. She cites Cleopatra, who was the most famous queen of Egypt but who was genetically Greek, from the Ptolemy Dynasty, rather than North African.

Hesman Saey, Science New senior writer, has another explanation for the absence of Native American DNA in my tests. The fact is that if there are “limited Native American samples in those databases, they would then refer to the next closest thing, which would be Asian or Oceanic, genetically. Also, every Asian person I know who’s taken one of these tests comes back with results saying they’re Chinese, when they’re Filipino or Tahitian or Japanese. Whatever is closest to you is what you match.”

FAU’s Scodari, who became something of a subject matter expert in genealogy while researching her own family history, recalls an Ancestry.com commercial about a man who believed his family to be German, and had completely immersed in the culture, down to the dance groups and the lederhosen. But when his Ancestry test revealed that he actually carried Irish and Scottish heritage, he took off the lederhosen and got a kilt.

Anyone who’s become intensely involved in their family’s genealogy research knows that it can become the deepest and most involved of rabbit holes. Solving my family’s mysteries will take more work, like comparing notes with relatives and the many strangers whose DNA I’ve apparently matched with. I haven’t contacted any of them yet, but I’ve known for years how that research can lead to new connections and intriguing questions about family traits.

Through an earlier family genealogy, I am now pen pals with one Kurt Streeter, a fourth or fifth cousin I never knew about but with whom I have a lot in common. Like me, he’s a newspaper columnist (formerly the L.A. Times, now the New York Times), and our late fathers were both named Edward Streeter, a common name in our family. It’s really cool.