Did You Know? Ancestry is Not So Black and White

Data from the 2010 census showed that about 13% of people living in the United States self-identify as African American, but from a genetic point of view, ethnicity isn’t so black and white. Most African Americans have genetic ancestry tracing back to both Africa and Europe but the exact proportion can vary widely. And conversely, many Americans who consider themselves of completely European descent may actually have some African ancestry as well.

A study published a few years ago found that the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome that could be traced back to West Africa was about 77%, but ranged from as little as one percent to as much as 99%.

At 23andMe, researchers have looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that somewhere between three to four percent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry ranging from 0.5 to 0.75 percent. These findings suggest that this group of customers have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

The United States is often referred to as a “melting pot” and although African Americans comprise the largest racial minority, this country is also home to many other genetically mixed groups. Indeed, Americans with ties to Latin America typically have DNA deriving from Native American, European and sometimes African populations. By studying genetic ancestry, researchers can break down the proportion of a person’s DNA that traces to different parts of the world and learn more about our unique and interconnected histories.

February is Black History Month — stay tuned for more posts!

Did you know? provides tidbits of information about genetics (in humans and in other animals) and explains how DNA relates to both ancestry and health.


  • Carl Lumma

    It’s not black and white, it’s just separated by two orders of magnitude.

  • howard parker

    Anything about how much Native American ancestry black and white Americans have?

    • anen

      I want to know that as well

  • Wayne Roberts

    The Americas are not the only continents with a black history. Unfortunately many European nations took slaves from Africa and we can go back to the Roman Empire and before where this occurred.

    My country, Australia, also has a Black History. Our’s is one of invasion by Europeans that commences with the arrival of the First Fleet (of Europeans) in 1788. Our indigenous Aboriginal populations on the mainland and on Tasmania as well the Torres Strait Islander populations of northern Queensland, were subjected to new diseases, authorised “round ups”, killings and relocations, asimilatation policies, removal of children and placement with white families over the past 220 years.

    As one of the oldest of civilations having been on the continent for 40,000 to 60,000 years, I as a white Australian, am very proud of the indigenous Australian history and culture. I look forward to the day when this is recognised in our nation’s Constitution.

  • Dr. Oliver Lee Trimiew, Jr

    Can someone explain to me where the Native American heritage shows up in my genetic breakdown (African 53%, Europeon 44%, Asian 3%)? I know exactly what tribal group and state that my grandfather and his ancesters came from (Virginia, King Williams County/Hanover County, and Pamunkey Indian Reservations). I have speculated that the Pamunkey mixed with whites for so long and so early (16th century) that they have a much higher Europeon ancestry than most Native American groups which account for the high Europeon percentage in my back ground. Is this correct or do I have it all wrong?

    • http://23andme.com Shwu

      Hi Dr. Trimiew,

      Native American ancestry typically reflects itself as a percentage of East Asian ancestry in the Ancestry Painting. You can use this Labs tool to see what percentage of Native American ancestry you are predicted to have based on your DNA: https://www.23andme.com/you/labs/natam_finder/. Note that this tool does not define Native American ancestry by tribe.

      Perhaps someone else who knows more about the history of the Pamunkey tribe can comment on your second question!

  • April Robbins-Bobyn

    Hi,

    I too, have questions regarding the Native American ancestry in my familly. I not only have pictures but I have had the rare fortune of being able to have talked to my great-grandmother.
    Why asn’t this represented in my genetic data?

    • http://23andme.com Shwu

      Hi April,

      If your results in the Native American Ancestry Finder tool don’t match what you know, there could be a few reasons. Genetic ancestry can be a tricky thing due to the random nature of what pieces of DNA get passed down from each parent, so if your great grandmother was not full Native American, it’s certainly possible that the parts of her DNA that were Native American just didn’t make it through the three generations down to you. You could also have Native American roots through genealogy but not necessarily through DNA (though if she is your direct great grandmother this would not be the case).

      Hope this helps!

  • chipoltespice

    @April,

    “I not only have pictures but I have had the rare fortune of being able to have talked to my great-grandmother. Why asn’t this represented in my genetic data?”

    I have seen plenty of paintings, both with 23andMe and Doug McDonald and I can pretty much guarantee that if your great grandmother was Native American even if she was admixed to some extent, you would have a few Asian segments on your genome. If 23andMe has missed your markers which is common, Doug McDonald would pretty much catch it. Even a 2nd or 3rd great grandparent would display something on 23andMe Ancestry Painting.
    Since 23andMe only goes as far back as the 4th great grandparent (5th Generation), Asian/Native markers can drop off after 3 generations. My comment above is based on 1 Native Ancestor.

    23andMe is painting your DNA frequency which is in the non-coding region. Only 2% of the human DNA is actual genetic inheritance (i.e. hair color, eye shape etc). I have seen people partly Native American who look very European and have seen people 1/16 or 1/8 Native American and I can see the Native admixture in them. People can vary in actual genetic inheritance. So although a person 1/2 NA may inherit more *markers* may not necessarily inherit genetic Native traits.

    The problem with these test are, most people don’t understand the science behind it.

    • http://ancestryisnotsoBlack,andWhitethe23andmeblog JDerekinFL

      Yes beause I can lok in the mirrior,and see my Native American side in my face some,and in my mother ,and her mother a lot,and my dad’s father’s father a lot,and I can’t see any Black in any of my family,and I don’t understand why my maternal line is Nigerian,and not White,and I don’t understand why my paternal line was in eastern Europe 500 years ago or really any of my DNA results,and it just confused me more after getting a DNA test at 23andme,even though it’s still very interesting results.

      • http://ancestryisnotsoBlack,andWhitethe23andmeblog JDerekinFL

        Look I meant,not lok,sorry for the typo

        • http://ancestryisnotsoBlack,andWhitethe23andmeblog JDerekinFL

          I traced my paternal surname to Devon county England in the 1700′s,and since my paternal line 23andme is saying is eastern European I’m trying to figure it all out,and I did find that there were a lot of immigrants to England

  • E. R. Reid

    “A study published a few years ago found that the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome that could be traced back to West Africa was about 77%, but ranged from as little as one percent to as much as 99%.”

    I’m curious. What individual with 1% African ancestry identifies as African American?

    • BethannH

      Hi E.R. Reid,
      You raise a good question. The authors of the original study acknowledge that, “the range of genetic ancestry captured under the term African American is extremely diverse.” How people self-identify and what their genetics say aren’t always the same thing. It’s also possible that some of the African Americans in the study do actually have a significant amount of DNA that traces to parts of Africa. If the African reference populations used in the study weren’t comprehensive (note they were only from W. Africa) then people could appear to not have African ancestry when they actually do.

    • AA

      A lot of how one self identifies comes from external factors like the laws that were in place at the time and how one’s family members look. A person with a small percentage of African ancestry can have parents whose features lean towards the small percentage of African, which would have made them black 60 years ago by law. Therefore, regardless of how you come out and what percentage you are, you would self identify as African American as well.

      • GW

        60 years ago??? The one drop law still applies in the United States. One drop of African blood from 100 years ago, means you African American.

        • Fiftysix

          The “one drop rule” is meaningless. A person can identify themself with just part of their ancestry or all of it if they choose. To tell another person how they should self-indentify is boorish and an example of bullying.

  • pls

    What is the “one drop” law? I’ve never heard of it and am curious.

    • Tommie

      Hi, pls. It’s not a law, just an insidious practice in the Southern states. If you “google” the name Walter Ashby Plecker, you will see that this first registrar of the Virginia state Bureau of Vital Statistics (1912-1946) was a proponent of eugenics and a strong supporter of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act (1924) which created two racial categories –Pure White and Everything Else (those with one-sixteenth or more of African American, Native American, Asian, or southern European heritage). Southern racists redefined this to any traceable African ancestry at all, unto “one drop” of African blood. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act in 1967 and declared that Americans may identify themselves however they choose. Our census forms now provide for that, hence the rise of “mixed blood” statistics and the decline of Black/Negro/African American statistics. Oregon, when becoming a state, declared that children should identify with their father’s race no matter what the mother’s race was. This was mostly aimed at Native American women, however, since Blacks were forbidden to live in the state. But that’s another story….

  • seedwards1202

    I recently received my DNA results from ancestry.com, my results indicated an admixture of 37% Western African, 35% Scandinavian, 15% Eastern European, 6% Central African and 7% Uncertain.

    The genetic composition (especially the percentages of European) of my DNA was not surprising, however the Scandinavian part was shocking!! I read an article on the internet last night about ancestry.com DNA results having a tendency to indicate a higher percentage than other DNA companies results, of Scandinavian ancestry. I am considering having another DNA test to resolve the Scandinavian % and the 7% Uncertain.

    I do however realize, that Scandinavians were Vikings that travelled across the globe and the Scandinavian percentage of my admixture might be valid. I also know that Vikings were not all bad people and they were explorers, etc. But I’m having difficulty getting beyond that part of my admixture.

    What do you think and advise?

    • ScottH

      Seedwards1202,
      I can’t really make an assessment of the results you got from another company. I can say that 23andMe’s results are very accurate. 23andMe is also very transparent about how our product makes ancestry assignments so you can see the science behind how we do what we do. I work for 23andMe and so of course I’m going to tell you, you should give 23andMe a try.

      • seedwards1202

        Thanks for taking a moment to reply to my comment, I might very well take your advice.

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