Our Hidden African Ancestry

Update: A post at the blog Your Genetic Genealogist just went up with a very similar story to mine. Check it out.


It was just a few thin green segments on my fourth and seventh chromosomes that sent me searching.

I wanted to know more about my family history. I pestered my mom with questions about her parents, her grandparents and great grandparents. I even went digging on my own into birth records, old newspapers clippings and state archives. Eventually, I wandered into records of our family history on the plains of Nebraska, Iowa and then the hills of West Virginia.

I wanted to know what those segments represented — or more accurately — who they represented.

I’m white.

My hair, or at least the hair I once had, is blond. (That’s me on the left with my brother when we were kids.) Our family’s heritage is solidly English, Irish and German. I named my son after a Gaelic folk hero.

But those thin green segments in my 23andMe Ancestry Painting meant that one of my grandmother’s great grandmothers, or one of her great grandfathers, was black.

It’s no secret, or it shouldn’t be, that a majority of African Americans have European ancestry – on average between 20 and 25 percent. It’s one of those vestiges of America’s history of slavery.

“For anyone still naïve enough to believe in the myth of racial purity, it is one more corroboration that the social categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’ are and always have been more porous than can be imagined,” wrote Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. in an article in The Root about Michelle Obama’s ancestry.

While much has been written about European ancestry among African Americans what’s less well known is how many Americans, like me, who consider themselves white also have African ancestry.

Researchers at 23andMe looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry.

The percent of African ancestry is relatively low with the majority of individuals having just 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent — which suggests that those people have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

This is by no means meant to represent the percent of African ancestry among those who identify themselves as being of European descent across America. It is simply a snapshot of those in our database at this time. Our researchers have also excluded those with more than 5 percent African ancestry with the assumption that it’s more likely that their ancestry is known. That doesn’t mean it is known, just as it doesn’t mean that those of European descent with 5 percent or less African ancestry are unaware of it. In addition, our database includes customers who are actually European so the actual percentage of Americans of European descent in our database who have African ancestry may be higher.

But we believe this is the first detailed look of the African ancestry among those who consider themselves white. It begs many questions for possible future study. For instance, looking at the generational distribution implied by the percentages it appears most of the mixing occurred 200 years ago or more. Was intermixing between black and white more acceptable during that time in American history? Or was the relative isolation of people then such that the societal taboos against such mixing were more lax?

At the very least these findings suggest a more nuanced picture of race relations at that time.

For our family, the news has recast our own picture of who our ancestors were. My sisters and I have 1 percent African ancestry. My mother, a generation closer to the source, has more. For a family that thought we were a mix of Irish, German and French, it was a surprise.

But the surprise triggered our search to find out about our genealogical history.

Just as 23andMe’s findings offer a new narrative about American social history and race relations, our family’s discovery offered another look at where we came from. Somewhere in our family’s past we had a black ancestor who was “absorbed” into white society. That story was hidden until our DNA revealed it.

This ancestor would have lived during the era of slavery and at a time and in a place where the “Rule of Hypodescent” — more commonly known as the “one drop rule” — held that anyone with any African ancestry was considered “black.”

Beyond what this might say about American history, the finding also comes at a time when people appear to be much more comfortable with mixed ancestry. So what will this finding mean for other families now?

On a personal note, each generation in our family had a different reaction to the news of having an African ancestor. What’s also interesting is that our evidence of  African ancestry, which is very small, can’t be seen in the next generation — the generation of my children and my sisters’ children — who seemed most excited by the new finding and were most disappointed that they didn’t have it.

James Larry Vick, whom we’ve written about before in this blog, talked about his own similar discovery through 23andMe that he had African ancestors.

At first he thought it was a mistake, but he has since pieced together the link. He believes it was from his mother’s 2nd great grandmother, who had come from the Cumberland Gap area of Appalachia, home to a tri-racial population known as “Melungeons.” The Melungeons are of European, African and Native American ancestry.

“I do not think anyone in our family would have believed we could have an African segment and none would believe we could have Melungeon ancestry,” Vick said. “I doubt anyone in my family would know what Melungeon is.”

Our own family’s search of records hasn’t led to quite as detailed of a discovery, but it’s offered some tantalizing hints — a “free man of color” with the same surname as my mother’s great grandmother in the same small West Virginia town.

Using 23andMe’s Relative Finder tool I’ve hunted for people with the same surname and family history from that area and this may lead us to new clues. But the journey through this hidden family history has already taught us a lot not just about ourselves but about America’s own hidden history.

  • Pacifica Progress

    I believed I was 100% white. I just found out I am 13.3% Sub Saharan African decent. So I guess that would mean my mom was 1/4 right? My mom also looked white and never let on anything. She always kept her side of the family a secret. I never saw pictures of her mom, uncles, grandmother. They moved to NJ from Virginia in the 20’s. Very surprised by all this.

  • Reon

    Hi there. I have a great interest in my family history. I am from South Africa and I am considered coloured or mixed race depending on how pc you want to be. I look like my indian grandfather on my fathers side but on my mothers side there is English and German ancestry. Now my family acknowledge the european ancestry but that till does not answer why there are some members of the extended family that looks really ethnically African and other who look european. Because of apartheid we lost touch with our ‘European’ family in RSA and still have no contact with then after 20 years of freedom. However I would like to have my DNA checked to track my family tree. Any advice?

    • 23blog

      Hi Reon,
      Our Ancestry Composition feature is very good and discerning your European Ancestry. So you would get a good snapshot of where in Europe your ancestry comes from. We can also match you to relatives on all branches of your family tree. Whether you will find a close relative – a second cousin or closer – is not a sure thing, but you will likely find third and more distant cousins. That can be very informative about your family history. It just may take some additional sleuthing. If you have more questions about our ancestry offerings go here: https://customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/categories/200196910-Ancestry

  • ResourceDragon

    Some correspondents here seem to take the view that very small segments of unexpected DNA are “noise”. In the case of sub-Saharan African DNA, it’s interesting that people with ancestors from the southern United States seem to have noisier results than those with ancestors from the north…

  • 23blog

    Your percentage of African ancestry indicates admixture within within the last five or six generations. It is a significant percentage.

  • Sam Harris

    Yes same issue here I have had at least 2% african dna yet there are no records so far to show this in my lineage. So hard to say in my experience currently.

  • beedieeyez

    Firstly African American is not a race …its and ethnicity ..you cant be part AA.

  • beedieeyez

    One more thing blacks populate every place on the planet. Pacific Islanders, peoples of South East Asia, India were all black as stated by Spanish and Portugese and other European explorers. These negritos came from Africa and did not stop being black once they left. My point is there are a lot more part African ethnic groups all over the globe, Puerto RIcans, the Portugese, there are peoples of Spain and so forth.

  • Aubrey Pappyplayraw West

    Where does my blood originate from? Who came to america and why? Im of african descent and i know i should be chasing genealogy but it still would be nice to know ..i was born here but what i dont get is why blacks feel the need to say why they should move back like we got a choice and other ppl that bother asking us this like we have a choice ..oh well im american now.

  • 23blog

    That’s not accurate. Five percent is very high. U

  • 23blog

    One percent is unlikely to be noise. Below one percent is when you need to look more carefully at the results. You can do that by looking at other relatives with whom you share and see if can find a match of the same ancestry. If either of your parents have tested you can look to see if that small percentage is on your mother or father’s side and see if they have the same ancestry, but more. And of course you can look at more traditional genealogical records to see if you can trace where that ancestry might have come from.

    • Disqusted

      My 23andme DNA analysis returned 99.4% European, .4% West African, .1% Native American, and .1% undetermined. Prior to this, I tested with FamilyTree DNA, and their report claimed 100% European. While I find 100% of anything difficult to believe, my reason for testing a second time with 23andme was due to the (then) included ‘Predisposition for Disease Report.’ (Very cool…)

      Should I bother testing again? As I was adopted through a closed, Louisiana adoption and my parents have since died, I find it nigh-on impossible to even consider tracing my lineage. I filed for non-identifying information, which I received. This report claims my biological mother stated my biological father was of Native American descent. It went on to say she claimed Irish, Scotch, and Native American descent. Both companies gave very similar European break-downs. Best two out of three?

  • Grimoire of Aldebran

    thats me! I took a DNA test and found out I was 25% Irish 19% African, 5% Middle Eastern, 2% Native American, 1% Indian and the rest is mixed European, I have Auburn Reddish Brown Hair, Freckles, and Blue eyes. A double mutant and a hidden African, a modern American human. I wonder how many other people out there are like myself and my brothers.

  • Nope

    This is silly. The article quotes Henry Louis Gates yet then acts as though racial purity is a myth. Gates himself has discussed the fact that the overwhelming majority of whites in the US are entirely white. Only a rather small number have any “African” DNA beyond the margin of error, those that do typically have only a tiny amount, and that is without delving into the fact that a lot of what people often dub “African” DNA is from North African admixture, not actually from Sub-Saharan Africans.

    Also, percentages alone do not tell us when admixture occurred. It is only an estimate based on a series of assumptions. For example, 0.4-0.8% could suggest one ancestor 7-8 generations ago, but studies have found modern Northern Italians with 0.2% African DNA through admixture that occurred 150-200 generations ago. That’s 4,000-6,000 years ago. Using this article’s standard, however, it would be assumed that admixture occurred just 9 generations ago. That’s a huge difference.

    There are also Southern European populations with more admixture than mentioned in this article (1-3%), but it mostly occurred during the late Roman Empire. The few whites in the US that carry African DNA may be carrying it from Late Antiquity or even earlier. The percentages tell us nothing about the likelihood of miscegenation in America’s past, and it is nothing more than a fantasy to suggest otherwise. Some DNA tests look only at recent ancestry, but, even then, it is not actually possible to determine specific admixture from percentages.

    It is also irresponsible to suggest that people should use percentages to estimate recent admixture and then start guessing about how it happened. Carrying just 1% African DNA does not necessarily mean it was a recent event. Portuguese have ~2.1% African DNA from about the time of the Muslim invasions of the Iberian Peninsula. It is silly to tell people that they should rethink their family history, who they are, or America’s history based on admixture that could be the result of invading armies dozens of generations ago or even earlier.

    • xxaleenazxx

      You bring up a good point but notice how the African DNA is higher in the South. That kind of speaks for itself.

  • Eugena Lieu

    I know I have a coarse-face, and may look totally uncivilized even though I am Eastern Chinese- I do have Hidden African Ancestry. I used to have just only an average oval- face, but when I developed good manners with grinding my food, or this adopted second-nature habit that becomes deeply ingrained, not only do I appreciate the Eastern Customary Food, I could even appreciate the way I look with a bigger Frontal-bone. This is the Biggest Changeover, or radical change that happened to me, and it didn’t mean I didn’t start with just an average oval-face which was my Hidden African Identity.

  • interesting read thanks. Perhaps it should be noted that we are all effectively an African species that has migrated away from the continent and hybridized with Neanderthals and Denisovans developing a multitude of adaptive traits while still remaining the same species.

  • roland von freiser

    In this day and age one can not help wondering if this is the ultimate genetic ploy. How is it possible that someone can be 45 percent “broadly” European and yet the test can pin down a .i percent piece of DNA to “subsaharan Africa or the Middle east? I can not understand how this is possible. I hope this is not becoming a political game using “science” to justify an agenda. There are some disturbing conclusions to be made if this is the case. None of us will EVER know what took place 500 years ago. Historical records are helpful but obviously do not tell the whole story. In my case, I have traced my line back to 1500….and to the same town. Beyond that point, unless one is noble or has some means to find specific records, surnames were not even in existence. The bottom line is this is conjecture and FUN. beyond that I hope I am not being used to further an agenda of some sort.

  • Dianna

    Your statement defining noise is false.

    • 23blog

      You are correct. One percent is actually a pretty significant segment. It is more of an issue when you get below .5 percent. It doesn’t mean that that is indeed noise, it’s just that one has to take into consideration that possibility.

  • werebat

    23andme revealed that I am 0.1% West African, and between 3-4% Neanderthal. Can I identify as Neanderthal?

  • vinder

    How does the fact that some white people have African ancestry due to recent admixture disprove the concept of race?

    • 23blog

      Not sure what you are referring to. The argument about race as a social construct as opposed to a biological one has been debated for some time and doesn’t rest on issues around admixture.

  • Richard Simpson

    Not to mention the Iberians of Spain and Portugal. They have a strong connection to Moorish and Jewish ancestry. And the Moors came from North Africa. Apparently the Jewish connection has been a bit lost over the years as the Jews and Moors interbred to a certain extent. Imagine an age where Jews and Muslims actually were friendly to one another.

  • Jerry Shrewsbury

    “African” ancestry is not enough to claim Melungeon anything. Sub-Saharan African is not the same as Barbary Coast African which has an Arab mix. if you have 1% northwest African DNA et cetera… that is not the same as “black” (sub-Saharan) African DNA which is what is found in Melungeon DNA.

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