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“Genetic Genealogy and the Ancestries of African Americans” at the U of C

On June 28, the University of Chicago’s Newberry Library presented a panel discussion entitled “Genetic Genealogy and the Ancestries of African Americans” with Rick Kittles. In addition to being an associate professor of medicine at the University, Mr. Kittles is also the science director of AfricanAncestry.com.

The panel also included Christopher Rabb, a genealogist. The two discussed the difficulties facing African Americans who are interested in discovering their roots. After exhausting paper records, Mr. Rabb used DNA testing to learn more about his paternal and maternal lineages.

Despite the successes of genetic genealogy, “[b]oth Rabb and Kittles recognized that genetic testing for ancestry complicates the history and social reality of race in the United States,” noting that 30% of African Americans descend from Europeans.

Then the articles states the following:

Genetic genealogy has its detractors. In a heated question-and-answer session, panel moderator and genealogist Tony Burroughs grilled Kittles on African Ancestry’s accuracy. Using a proprietary database of 30,000 genetic samples from Africa, the company’s work has never been published, reproduced, or otherwise independently verified. Furthermore, because the tests use the DNA of current population groups, the “ancestry tests” in effect tell only the location of “cousins” in Africa, not necessarily where African Americans’ ancestors were located 400 years ago.

“The audience was largely unconcerned by Burroughs’s objections, responding with murmurs, sighs, and rolled eyes. After the program, glowing smiles and firm handshakes bombarded the man whose work promises history and identity for millions.”

I don’t think I would classify Tony Burroughs as a “detractor” of genetic genealogy. He’s just a big fan of good science. Like Mr. Burroughs, I too am wary of any database that isn’t public, or available for peer review, such as the AfricanAncestry.com database. Here’s a comment by Mr. Burroughs in a previous interview:

“DNA is going to be very important and it’s on the cutting edge,” said professional genealogist Tony Burroughs, who teaches at Chicago State University. “But it’s not a panacea. You’re not going to discover your entire family tree from a little spit on a cotton swab.”

Eventually, a video of this panel discussion will be available online.

Megan Smolenyak picked up on a small but very interesting detail in the story – the fact that 60 minutes was filming the presentation. It seems that they might be planning a piece on genetic genealogy. Megan also discussed some of the reasons that Burroughs questions AfricanAncestry.com’s database.

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

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