DNA, Maternal Kin

DNAnigma: Throwback Thursday.

First I wrote:

Just before I was about to pick up the phone again to lay into the African Ancestry people about my DNA results, the packet arrived in the mail. I’d had a mitochondrial DNA analysis done. In other words, AA examined a few cheek cells to isolate a segment of DNA that has passed consistently and unchanged from some distant ancestor through her daughter, and then her daughter, and so on, through Margaret McConnaughey (b. ca. 1820) and her daughter Martha Miller McNeely (1855-1934), and her daughter Caroline M.M.F.V. McNeely Colvert (1877-1957), and her daughter Margaret Colvert Allen (1908-2010), and her daughter, to me. It’s a bit of DNA from only one of innumerable and unknowable ancestors, but it’s the only genetic material that is absolutely passed on in women from generation to generation, ad infinitum. (For men, there’s also Y-DNA.) Theoretically at least, comparing an individual’s mtDNA to those in a database such as that assembled by AA yields a match with identical mtDNA sequences found in some part of Africa. So. Genealogy lunatic that I am, this whole process held exciting possibilities for me. I’m not silly enough to think that I look like I descend from people in Senegal or Guinea or Cameroon, or that my personality is shaped by some distant Nigerian cultural link, or that I’m on my way to discovering my own Kamby Balongo, but I was pretty geeked about discovering a little something about my personal connection to West Africa and the Middle Passage. Imagine my surprise, then, when I ripped open the packet to find a “Certificate of Ancestry” asserting that my mtDNA Sequence Similarity Measure is “100% the same as sequences from people in Sudan today.” SUDAN???? So I’m a DINKA? Not a Wolof or Igbo or Nupe or Asante? Not even a West African? Well, I’ll be damned. After my surprise wore off a bit, I did a little Wikipedia’ing and discovered that, while uncommon, an East African origin is plausibly explained by the trans-Sahara trade and the Fulani people who ranged well into western Sudan in ancient times. So, wow, huh? I’m not just a hyperbolic Nubian!

And then a few days later, after the wonderment wore off:

A little Internet delving into my mtDNA results reveals that my “Sudanese” match is, scientifically speaking, a variant of the d1 clade of the L2 haplogroup. Haplogroup L2 encompasses about 1/3 of all sub-Saharan African mtDNAs. The clades, labeled a-d, are further branches of L2, and the clades themselves have further variations, i.e. d1. Anyway, the most common haplotypes are shared by and within ethnic groups in multiple regions of Africa. In other words, because of thousands of years of migration (and consequent assimilation) among individuals and ethnic groups across the continent (or, at least, its broad midsection), a sample, like mine, may match L2d1 samples obtained from people living in modern Sudan, but it doesn’t mean that 50,000 years ago (or whenever my variation mutated), our common maternal ancestor was in what is now Sudan, and she certainly wouldn’t have been a Dinka or Nuer or any other ethnic group that exists as we know them today. She may not have been anywhere near Sudan, for L2d1 is also found in other modern-day tribes. Sooo?


I wrote this note in 2008. I’ve since tested at other sites and, though my haplogroup remains the same, have gotten different analyses of its origin. More on that later.


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