Intended for healthcare professionals

Troubled Planet

Identity and genetic ancestry tracing

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1469
  1. Carl Elliott, associate professora,
  2. Paul Brodwin, associate professor (
  1. a Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, N504 Boynton, 410 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455-0346, USA
  2. b Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA
  1. Correspondence to: C Elliott

    Tracing genetic identity can lead to resolution of uncertainty but can cause more problems than it solves. Will establishment of genetic identity be cohesive or divisive?

    What can our genes tell us about who we are? The answer to that question depends on exactly what you want to know. In 1997, a Virginia pathologist and his colleagues used Y chromosome testing to corroborate (and in another case, fail to corroborate) the claims of families of African-Americans who believed themselves to be the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.1 Researchers have used genetic testing to uncover evidence of genetic markers in the Lemba, a black southern African tribe whose oral history and customs have long suggested Jewish ancestry.24 In June 2002, the results of a genetic ancestry study were announced to a gathering of Melungeons,5 a “mixed ancestry” group in eastern Tennessee and Virginia6 whose ethnic origins have been clouded in mystery for centuries.7

    Fig 1

    Confederate soldier, Vardy Collins, a Melungeon listed on an 1830 census as a “free person of colour”

    Genetic ancestry tracing is not a purely academic exercise. A geneticist at Howard University has announced plans to offer commercial genetic ancestry tracing to African-Americans who want to trace their genetic lineage back to the areas of Africa from which their ancestors were captured and brought to America as slaves.8 The past few years have also seen the emergence of several commercial genetic testing ventures offering fee-for-service paternity testing, tests for evidence of Jewish ancestry, native American ancestry, or, in the case of Oxford Ancestors, a genetic connection to one of the so called “seven daughters of Eve.”9

    Summary points

    Genetic ancestry tracing is being used to decide claims about ethnic, political, familial, and religious identity

    While genetic ancestry …

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