Published: March 2006
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?"

Piero Gherardi, a genetic cousin from Waiheke Island, New Zealand, may have a better grasp on the answer than the rest of us. As a male participant in the Genographic Project, his results were derived from testing his Y chromosome, which is passed along the paternal line. Females don't carry the Y chromosome, so we're tested via mitochondrial DNA passed to offspring from our mothers. But Piero, a psychologist who has been interested in genealogy for the last six or seven years, wanted to know more. So he had his mitochondrial DNA tested as well. That's where the connection to me popped up. Through his own research, Piero already knew that his mother's line descends from a Maori woman named Puihi Ruawahine, who married an Englishman in 1842. Her ancestry stretches back to 1100 when the Maori of the Polynesian group, who genetically go back to Taiwan, first arrived in New Zealand. His DNA report confirms this. Somewhere in our history, perhaps thousands of years back, we share a common ancestor.

That's also the case with Valérie Chazottes-Louvat, a college-level Plastic Arts teacher from the east coast of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Valérie's father is French, and her mother is Chinese-Tahitian. (Again, that Polynesian connection.) She's most curious about how our ancestors came to be in Polynesia. What we know is that early human migrants made it into Southeast Asia a very long time ago, perhaps even 50,000 years ago, about the same time Aborigines arrived in Australia. Archaeological findings in Indonesia have been dated to around 40,000 years ago. Humans were certainly in that region by then, and many Polynesian histories tell of how—using innovative sailing techniques—they set out from a home base of Fiji on successive sea voyages to eventually inhabit the rest of Polynesia. In fact, they were so adept at open-sea travel that they made it as far as Easter Island and the Hawaiian archipelago.

That should answer some questions for Peggy Manner, whose husband, Wilfred, is another of my genetic cousins. Wilfred wasn't very interested in learning more about his Hawaiian heritage, so Peggy took the lead and had his mitochondrial DNA analyzed. The results were just as she expected: a migration route through New Zealand and Tahiti. Sadly, Wilfred passed away from Alzheimer's last December. He was 83. But Peggy will continue researching his origins, finding the history of Hawaii in his genetic background.

Unlike Wilfred, Lisa Ekberg Hopgood, my DNA cousin from Los Angeles who calls herself a "science and history geek," has embraced the Genographic Project. She talks about her results so much, she says, that her family and friends are getting tired of hearing about it. Still, she's got some of them excited enough to submit their own samples for analysis. "I bought kits for my father and his sister, my Aunt Rosemary, for Christmas," she says. "Their results will help put pieces together for me."

Lisa's maternal origins are Chinese-Hawaiian and possibly Tahitian, which shows in her face. But her red hair comes from her father's Norwegian roots. "I love how visually on the opposite sides of the spectrum we are," she says of me. "And yet we carry the exact same mitochondrial DNA."

To help me solve this mystery, geneticist Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project, and the project's scientific manager, Jason Blue-Smith, took a closer look at my maternal genetic sequence. With confirmation from other geneticists, they determined that I show no evidence of Native American DNA on my mother's side. I am a haplotype B4, a subgroup of haplogroup B, which gives me a predominant Polynesian genetic signature. That's not to say that I am a distant cousin of everyone from Polynesia. But, based on my signature, I share a common ancestor with a lot of the founding people from that part of the world. It's anyone's guess how that connection took place. Perhaps one of my distant ancestors shared a relationship with someone from the Pacific Islands or Polynesia. Maybe my origins go back to the African-Indonesian mix of the Malagasy people of Madagascar. Or, perhaps, a darker encounter took place during the shameful period of slavery that is part of my history.

And why isn't my Polynesian origin apparent in my face? My phenotype, the physical characteristics that identify me as African-American, is derived from more recent genetic influences—perhaps six or so generations ago—along both parental lines. If Vahine, Piero, Valérie, Wilfred, and Lisa have ethnically identifiable African DNA, it is more diluted and much farther back than my own. The same can be said about me and the Polynesian infusion that shows so prominently in some of them. "The story of DNA is more than skin deep," says Jason Blue-Smith. "We can't simply look at someone's skin color and say they come from Angola or Ireland. That's an important story for us to tell."

It will take a lot more digging on my part to discover my genetic story. But it's fascinating to think that all of us outside of Africa come from a small band of ancient ancestors who left there tens of thousands of years ago. "That means that, in the end, every human being I look at is my cousin," says Piero. "So what are we doing going mad in the world and carrying on like maniacs?" Perhaps the Genographic Project will inadvertently change the way we see each other, with the bond of blood and the call of "one world, one people" bringing us all into the family circle.