Published: March 2006

Online Extra

Meet the Family

By Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa
National Geographic Staff

One world, one people. The idea isn't that far-fetched. Geneticists in different parts of the world are collecting DNA samples from indigenous groups to determine our relationship to each other and the paths of migration taken by our early ancestors. Their findings further support the scientifically accepted belief that we are all related, and that the evidence is in our blood. This ambitious, five-year initiative—launched in 2005 and sponsored by the National Geographic Society and IBM—is called the Genographic Project. When the call went out for participants from the general public, I purchased a DNA sample kit immediately. What a thrill, I thought, to be able to learn about my own deep ancestry, to discover where my maternal genetic line arose along the journey that began with Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of all humans, who lived in east Africa some 150,000 years ago.

When my results came in several weeks later on the project's website, I discovered that I descend from the matrilineal haplogroup B, an ancestral clan of hunter-gatherers that arose about 60,000 years ago and migrated eastward with their food source across Eurasia and into the Americas. These were among the first people to populate the Americas around 15,000 years ago, the ancestors of North and South American Indians. That made sense. Although I'm African-American, family lore has long held that I'm also part Native American on both sides. Haplogroup B isn't among the highest-frequency haplogroups; maybe five percent or less of all project participants come from it. But it has a very wide geographic distribution. People in this lineage are also found in East and Central Asia.

The Genographic Project also offers participants the opportunity to share results with Family Tree DNA, the United States' first genealogy-driven DNA testing service. I've always been interested in exploring family histories, but I'd never heard of this new, scientific method. Curious about what I might learn, I submitted my results to their global database. Minutes later as I browsed their website, I received an email from them with a list of people identified as my genetic matches, my DNA cousins.

But I was in for some unexpected surprises. As I scanned the list, I noticed names that were clearly French, Italian, and Polynesian. That struck me as strange. But what's in a name, right? So I composed an email and introduced myself to the family.

Vahine Narruhn, a delightful woman from San Francisco, was the first to respond. Samoan on her mother's side, Vahine came up with the idea of exchanging photos to create a DNA cousins album. "I thought you were Malaysian or Hawaiian," she says. "Until I saw your picture." But she was no more surprised than I was when I saw her. Now, the big question for Vahine and all of us is, "How do they connect to me?"

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