Haplogroups of the Rich and Famous

Jesse James

One of the most engaging features of 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service is a customer’s ability to trace his or her genetic ancestry using the mitochondrial DNA and the Y-chromosome. Once customers learn their own ancestry, the Genome Sharing feature allows them to see how they compare with friends and family.

However, the ancestry section of 23andMe also allows customers to see how they compare to well-known individuals. In the maternal and paternal ancestry features, customers can view the haplogroup assignments of such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Genghis Khan and Bono. But how can anyone know the ancestry of someone like Thomas Jefferson, who has been dead for a few hundred years, or Genghis Khan, who has been dead for close to a thousand?

It turns out there are several ways to find out these well-known figures’ ancestry. The most obvious: Celebrities can sign up for 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service, just like the rest of us! For example, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett have been interested for years in finding out whether their shared surname was an indication of common genetic ancestry. Unfortunately, their genetic profiles show the two are not closely related.

But what about people like Thomas Jefferson? He is no 23andMe customer, but this does not mean that scientists cannot trace his ancestry by other means. Tracing the maternal or paternal ancestry of any deceased individual is usually done by one of two ways: either getting DNA from the physical remains of the individual, or getting DNA from direct descendants of a relevant lineage.

In the cases of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, scientists used DNA from direct descendants of their ancestors. For example, in 1998 scientists inferred Jefferson’s paternal ancestry by analyzing the Y-chromosome of direct descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle (Jefferson had no confirmed sons). Likewise, in the case of historical royalty such as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia or Marie Antoinette of France, extensive and detailed royal pedigrees make finding direct descendants a breeze.

In the case of the infamous outlaw Jesse James, a more direct approach was used. It had been widely believed that after James died in 1882, his body was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Nebraska. In order to test this hypothesis, scientists exhumed the body, extracting a few teeth. They compared DNA from the teeth to that of the great-grandson and great great-grandson of James’ sister. Scientists found an exact match between the extracted teeth and James’ sister’s descendants, thus confirming that the body in Mt. Olivet Cemetery was most likely that of Jesse James and establishing his ancestry to boot.

How about Genghis Khan? He is listed in our famous people sidebar as being a member of Y-chromosome Haplogroup C. But we do not have any information on his direct descendants alive today, nor do we have any preserved remains of his body. However, scientists have examined the Y-chromosomes of many present-day inhabitants of Mongolia (the ancestral home of Genghis Khan). In doing so, they have found that about 8% of Mongolian males share the exact same DNA pattern in a highly variable part of their Y-chromosomes. Further analysis has revealed that this particular Y-chromosome type, which falls into haplogroup C, originated about 1,000 years ago and that its dispersal across Central Asia corresponds to the boundaries of the Mongol Empire. Historians have long noted Khan’s prolific nature; he is rumored to have fathered more than 40 sons, with some of his descendants also fathering many sons of their own. So it’s a good bet that we’re seeing Genghis Khan’s legacy in the 8% of Mongolian males alive today who have identical Y-chromosome signatures.

So now you know how we can tell Benjamin Franklin and Bono share ancestry on their maternal side. There are a number of ways we can determine the haplogroups of well-known figures – both past and present – and displaying information about these individuals adds to the fun of understanding and comparing the genetic ancestry of ourselves, our friends and family, and the rich and famous (or infamous).


  • Ken Dunlap

    The article incorrectly implies, twice, that information is available on Benjamin Franklin’s genetic makeup when in fact, no living descendants are today identified.
    Also, Jesse James’ sister’s descendants are not Jesse James’ descendants.

    • http://23andme.com Shwu

      Ken, good clarification about the use of the term “direct descendants”. We’ve corrected places in the article where this was used inaccurately. And it turns out that there is some information about Benjamin Franklin’s maternal ancestry available through a 9th great granddaughter of one of his mother’s sisters! We know of no direct descendants of Benjamin Franklin today, but can infer his maternal haplogroup through descendants of his mother’s ancestors.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    You mention the two Buffets and say they are “not closely related.” But aren’t they in the same haplogroup as Marie Antoinette? Doesn’t that mean they are distantly related? How distant can two people in the same haplogroup be? And does that mean their shared last name is an ironic coincidence?

    Forgive me if I am asking obvious questions.

  • Elias Provitt

    I’m apart of his haplogroup :) And Benjamin Franklin

  • Helen

    You might want to add the haplogroups of South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to your website (mtDNA haplogroup L0d and Y-DNA haplogroup E1b1a8a).
    [Source: Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa, published in Nature 18 February 2010, link http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7283/full/nature08795.html

  • Helen

    P.S. Apparently Nelson Mandela has mtDNA haplogroup L1d (now called L0d?) and Y-DNA haplogroup E-M2 (E1b1a?).

    Sources:
    http://www.southafrica.info/mandela/origins-centre-150306.htm
    http://beta.mnet.co.za/carteblanche/Article.aspx?Id=2619
    http://anthrocivitas.net/forum/showthread.php?t=2385

  • Helen

    Another recent finding is that Napoleon Bonaparte’s Y-DNA haplogroup was E1b1b1c1*.

    Source:
    http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/jmbr/article/view/10609

  • http://www.wardlecollegeoflaw.co.za BRENDA WARDLE

    I did my maternal DNA test and discovered that my ancestors are from Haplogroup La01. What kinda irks me is that I know there are identical matches out there but for ethical reasons the laboratory cannot share the information.

  • ZZ

    When the services says you are related to Marie Antoinette, for example, is that because you have the H haplogroup in common, in which case tons of people are getting the same notice, or is it more specific, e.g., that she had the H10 haplogroup?

    • ScottH

      It is because you you have the H haplogroup in common. H is the most common haplogroup in Europe.

  • D. Bowen

    A historical correction. Jesse James was buried in the comparatively small town of Kearney Missouri, where his family lived, not Kearney Nebraska.

    While many dime novels and movies have portrayed him as a sort of romantic robber, a bit like a character from ‘Ocean’s 11,’ Jesse James was motivated by politics, and was equivalent to a modern terrorist, or, for those sympathetic to the Confederacy, a resistance fighter.

    As ardent slaveholders (before the Civil War) and advocates of the Confederacy, the James family were pillars of the community in Missouri. Kearney Nebraska however, has always been “Free State” (supporting free men, and the Union) and the James family would not have felt welcome with such views in the Civil War or Reconstruction period.

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