The ancestry of a 21st century multi-racial American family

My wife identifies as African American and was born and raised in Ohio. I identify as white and was born and raised in Alabama. We met while serving together in the Peace Corps in Thailand.

As our kids grow older we've become fascinated by our family's ancestry, so we recently completed autosomal DNA tests to fill in the gaps on our family trees. The results came in today.

My ancestry breaks down as 3% from Africa (divided between northern Africa and Mali), 95% from Europe (with Great Britain at 30%, Europe West at 26%, Ireland at 17%, Scandinavia at 13%, and other regions like Greece and Italy at 9%), and the Middle East at 2%.

Here's my ancestry map. The darker the shading the more ancestry I have from that region. Outlined regions indicate lower percentages and trace readings.

 Jason's ancestry map. The darker the shading the more ancestry from that region. Outlined regions indicate lower percentages and trace readings.

Jason's ancestry map. The darker the shading the more ancestry from that region. Outlined regions indicate lower percentages and trace readings.

My wife's ancestry breaks down as 46% from Africa (with Cameroon/Congo at 14%, Nigeria at 11%, Senegal at 10%, and other regions at 11%), 13% from Asia (with India at 11% and other regions making up the remainder), Europe at 38% (with Ireland at 16%. Europe West at 13%, and other regions at 9%), and Pacific Islanders at 2% and trace readings for other regions.

Here's my wife's ancestry map. 

 My wife's ancestry map. Again, the darker the shading the more ancestry from that region. Outlined regions indicate lower percentages and trace readings.

My wife's ancestry map. Again, the darker the shading the more ancestry from that region. Outlined regions indicate lower percentages and trace readings.

A lot of this matches up with what we already know from our family histories, but a good bit doesn't. My wife didn't know about her ancestors from the Asian region. I didn't know about the small amounts of African/Middle East ancestry, although since I'm from the American South I'm not overly shocked. We're also amused that we share almost identical ancestry percentages from Ireland.

So what do these percentages mean? Well, one way of looking at this is to compare the percentages of DNA we all share with our recent ancestors. Here's that breakdown:

  • Parents: We share exactly 50% of our DNA with each parent
  • Grandparents: 25% for each grandparent
  • Great-grandparents: 12.5%
  • Great-great-grandparents: 6.25% 
  • Great-great-great-grandparents: 3.13%
  • Great-great-great-great-grandparents: 1.56%

If you have 3% ancestry from a region that could mean one of your great-great-great-grandparents lived there. Or it could mean many ancestors had parts of their ancestry from there. Or it could even result from the margin of error of the DNA test (the lower the percentage the greater the chance of an error).

Of course, the fun part of human ancestry is that you don't have to go back very far to discover that all people are related. If you go back 10 generations, say around 200 years, you have 512 ancestors. If you could track your family tree back 600 years or a mere 30 generations, you'd discover that you have more than 500 million ancestors, or more people than lived in the world at that time.

Obviously we can't be descended from more people than existed at a time, which means everyone's family trees branch in and out of themselves. It also means the next time someone says they're descended from William the Conqueror or Genghis Khan or Cleopatra you can simply tell them so are you.

I understand the limitations of DNA tests, but they are still fascinating tools to explore our shared histories. Especially when you're part of a multi-racial family in the 21st century.