Genographic Project public participants swab the inside of their cheeks

Genographic Project public participants swab the inside of their cheeks

Americans like to think of their country as a cultural melting pot. But that diversity can make it difficult for those trying to trace their ancestry. DNA testing is teaching us more about our nation’s earliest settlers and providing interesting, often surprising, insights into our shared past. Geneticist Bryan Sykes joins Kojo to explore what he uncovered on a trip across the United States.


  • Bryan Sykes Professor of human genetics, University of Oxford; founder, Oxford Ancestors, author, "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America" (Liveright, 2012)

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  • 13:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Americans ancestors come from all over the world. And countless people born in the USA has been intrigued by their genealogy, tracing their roots back through the generations to unearth stories about their forefathers and mothers, what brought them to American and why they settled where they did. Eventually, though, most people hit a dead end, records lost, memories faded. But advances in DNA testing now make it possible to go back, way back, in finding out about our lineage and helping us figure out where the first Americans came from.

  • 13:07:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now, in studio, is Bryan Sykes. Bryan Sykes is a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and the founder of Oxford Ancestors. He's the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." Bryan Sykes joins us in studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:03

    DR. BRYAN SYKESThank you.

  • 13:08:04

    NNAMDIAllow me to start out with what one of the more controversial aspects of "DNA USA," native American truly believe that they were the first ones here and that they are from here, yet the first Americans origins have been traced to Siberia and Asia. Can you give us a sense of when they arrived and how they got here?

  • 13:08:27

    SYKESWell, it is a very fundamental question because it goes to the root of -- in the case of Native Americans, to their spiritual beliefs about their own origins which are completely different from what genetic science tells us. Now, that wouldn't be so bad, were it not the fact that the genetic science was done on samples taken from Native Americans and their ancestry investigated through those samples. But without the consent of the Native Americans, by and large, from whom they were taken. These samples were taken for medical research purposes and then used to investigate the answers to Native Americans or that consent.

  • 13:09:12

    SYKESThe reason I think, was it wasn't a malicious intent there, but it was just because Europeans have no qualms at all about using DNA to found out about their origins. So I think they just didn't think that Native Americans would have reservations about it. But they do. So you have two opposing truths really. The Native Americans spiritual beliefs and what genetics tells us. So I'm being a geneticist and not being able to speak more than superficially about Native Americans origin myths, although I do talk about a few of them in "DNA USA." I can tell you what the genetics says.

  • 13:09:59

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:09:59

    SYKESWhich is that this is using probably the best piece of DNA for this kind of research, which is inherited down the maternal line. In amongst Native American tribes, there are five groups of maternal clans, if you like. Three of them came from Siberia, from Northeast Asia and they crossed the Bering Strait maybe 13,000 years ago, maybe earlier.

  • 13:10:26

    SYKESAnother group came by boat from China, the coast of China, Taiwan and a small group, I've been able to identify which I talk about in "DNA USA," I think, came from Europe, directly, and many thousands of years ago. That's controversial and it's, nonetheless, I think the most reasonable explanation for the genetic data you see, which in that case, that the Ojibwa tribe and others around the Great Lakes region have a maternal type of DNA which you don't find in Asia at all, but is plentiful in Europe.

  • 13:11:07

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that's where the genetics lead us because for those among us who may have fallen asleep the day that DNA lesson was taught or who just need a refresher, what exactly is DNA and how do it's component parts work?

  • 13:11:23

    SYKESWell, it's a chemical, in essence, a very long string of information really that we inherit from our parents. And it instructs our body how to build itself , how to work. So it's extremely important in that respect. We get -- we aren't issued with it like we might be a national insurance number or something like that. It's always come from our ancestors. And that's how it's used to investigate personal ancestry and the origins of large groups of people. And because you can use many forms of DNA testing, to start with the simplest which is the maternal line, it's a little organelle within the cell has, called the mitochondrion, has its own DNA.

  • 13:12:14

    NNAMDIWhich is what your research focuses primarily on, the mitochondrion line.

  • 13:12:18

    SYKESThe first of -- first of all, that's what I first worked on because it's such an excellent witness to the past because...

  • 13:12:25

    NNAMDIWhy is that?

  • 13:12:26

    SYKESWell it's because we only get our mitochondria from one parent. Most of data comes from both our parent. But mitochondria only comes from our mothers who got it from their mothers and so forth, so back in time, along a single genealogical track. So I have my mitochondrial data in my maternal DNA has virtually unchanged for hundreds, for thousands and even tens of thousands of years. So you can link people together along those maternal genealogies.

  • 13:12:58

    NNAMDIBut do you worry that you're only getting one side of the story if you focus entirely on mitochondrial DNA?

  • 13:13:04

    SYKESWell, that's perfectly true, you do. But it is -- it is a magnificent report because you can get very close matches and you know people are maternally related. But I don't just use mitochondrial, that's the first one I use and it's still very, very valuable. There's an equivalent piece of data that comes down the paternal line, the Y-chromosome, that tells the history of men in the same way that mitochondrial tells the history of women. And when you compare the two, you get some very interesting comparisons as we'll come onto. And then there's the rest of the DNA which is, in the other chromosomes, which we've only now being able to find a way of analyzing sufficient detail to make it useful for genealogy.

  • 13:13:48

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Bryan Sykes, he's a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and the founder of Oxford Ancestors. He's author of numerous books, the latest of which is "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." If you're interesting in calling, joining the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Have you had your DNA tested? What did you learn? You can send email to

  • 13:14:14

    NNAMDIIf you would consider DNA testing to find out more about your ancestry, what questions are you hoping that it would answer for you? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website and join the conversation there. Bryan Sykes, when we think about DNA, our thoughts may first go to a crime lab or research into the cause of diseases. What made you realize that it was a useful tool in exploring ancestry?

  • 13:14:42

    SYKESThat's a very good question. I was one of the first things I did when I was working on DNA was to try and get after some medical research, get some DNA out of old bones and succeeded about 20 years ago. And one of the first cases that I was sent was from a frozen body that was found in the Swiss Alps on the borders between Italy and Austria in the Alps, 5,000 years old. And I managed to get some DNA from that, which showed that it was a European, the DNA from the Iceman, Oetzi the Iceman he's called.

  • 13:15:22

    SYKESAnd then a reporter asked me, so well, who's he related to? How do you know he's European? And I thought, well I don't know, I mean, these -- I have some European DNA, but it's all been anonymized. But fortunately, one of the people whose genetic fingerprint along the maternal line matched the Iceman, was a friend of mine. I was able to ask her if she minded her identity being revealed to the papers and she said, fine. So what was interesting then was that the story moved away from the science and the discovery of the extraction of DNA from this 5,000 year old body to the fact that my friend Marie began to feel as if this Iceman was a relative, which of course he was, literally a relative.

  • 13:16:08

    SYKESAnd she began to feel that, well, she saw pictures of him being dissected and bits taken away and then moved from fridge to freezer and getting mold growing on it and everything and began to get rather upset about this. That's no way to treat a relative. So that's when I realized that, you know, (unintelligible) academic work that I was involved at the time, that people did feel a strong sense of connection through DNA and that's gone on. I wrote about that in "The Seven Daughters of Eve," and it's continued. And so it's a transition between, well, it showed that people are very, very interested on an individual level about their own origins.

  • 13:16:55

    NNAMDII have a why question about that because Americans are proud of our country and we're often proud of the connections to the places that our forefathers, our fore-parents or forefathers and mothers left behind. Why do you think we're so intrigued by our families past?

  • 13:17:11

    SYKESWell, that is something that's fascinated being -- has puzzled me a little bit. And it's something that not everybody immediately thinks that, say for an example, a DNA test is going to tell them anything very interesting. And it is something, Kojo, that you have to let it sort of marinate. And you think, well, hold on a minute. I've got a bit of DNA in me. I wonder where, you know, what was my ancestor who had this, where were they? Let's say, where were they in 1492? Were they in Italy or Africa or where? Or what about the -- in the period of the Roman empire, where was that piece of DNA because it's got to come from somewhere?

  • 13:17:56

    SYKESSo you can image that we're all made up of DNA from ancestors, from here, there and everywhere. And it's an intriguing mystery really to try and think about where they were. Because they weren't just given out, these were real people. They survived. They had survived very tough times, very different from the times we have now and tough in other ways than today's world. But they've survived. They had children, they prospered, their children had children and so on. And their DNA came through to us. So, you know, it takes a little while. Women are better at it than men, fairly enough. And they see it straight away and men take a little bit longer. But it sinks in and then people ask themselves, well, it would be interesting to know that.

  • 13:18:44

    NNAMDIWell, I'm not going to ask anymore whys because I'm curious about why women are better at it than men, but I won't pursue that line of questioning, it will likely get me in trouble. Here is Nancy. Let's go to the telephones. Please put your headphones on. Here is Nancy in Silver Spring, Md. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:02

    NANCYYes, I have too much to talk about, but I'll just try to mention a couple of things that you might comment upon.

  • 13:19:08

    NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you said you had too much to talk about, but one of the things you find out from reading Bryan Sykes, is that invariably we find the stories of our ancestors fascinating, don't we?

  • 13:19:19

    NANCYYes, we do, especially at how far back you can go. Now, I got in on the Spencer Wells Genographic Project through my daughter. She had her genetic code from North Africa on through Europe, on through the caucuses into China, into Siberia and going into the North America. And I find that I'm well 10 generations away from being a Mi'kmaq Indian, which is fascinating. I mean, I don't mind being an Indian. I'm sorry. Indians don't like to be white, but anyway, that was fascinating.

  • 13:20:12

    NANCYAnd number one, I would like you to answer the question or speculate on the question which I've never understood completely -- oh, incidentally, my daughter's written two books on this. The first one was "Finding Ann Marie."

  • 13:20:28


  • 13:20:29

    NANCYAnd that was very interesting and she has another book that is just coming out on the subject where (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:20:37


  • 13:20:38

    NANCY...connect these people to the Acadians who have come out of Canada.

  • 13:20:43

    NNAMDI…families' interests seems to be genetically driven. But go ahead.

  • 13:20:47

    NANCYWell, anyway, what I would like to ask...

  • 13:20:47

    NNAMDIWhat's the question you have for Bryan Sykes?

  • 13:20:49, I read the book by Spencer Wells on this DNA project and on the DNA research in general. And it goes back 150,000 years and -- with various markings along the way. And you can match up with other people in these markings and so forth. And I'm just amazed at that. Now what is -- I'm perfectly happy with my Indian ancestry, but I just don't understand this way back thing with the mitochondrial DNA that has been mapped for me.

  • 13:21:28

    NNAMDIWhat do you mean, you don't understand it?

  • 13:21:31

    NANCYWhat do I don't understand?

  • 13:21:33


  • 13:21:33

    NANCYHow they can possibly, through this...

  • 13:21:38

    NNAMDIHow they can reach that far back?

  • 13:21:39

    NANCY...these swabs in the mouth or how they can judge that through...

  • 13:21:44

    NNAMDIHere's Bryan Sykes.

  • 13:21:47

    SYKESI should've thought the Genographic Project would've told you, but anyway, the way it works is that the DNA that you've got is very stable. And you can get a DNA fingerprint from that from the mitochondrial. And by matching that up with other people's DNA fingerprints, you recognize distant groups of people, I call them clans, to which everyone belongs. So if you have a maternal ancestry in Europe, you'll likely belong to one of seven mitochondrial clans.

  • 13:22:21

    NNAMDIWhich you call the Seven Daughters of Eve.

  • 13:22:22

    SYKESThat's right. Those are the founders because each of those clans have a single woman as their founder. It sounds as though you may be in one of the four Native American clans that came over from Asia. All the clans in Europe and in Asia and in Africa ultimately tracked back to just one woman. And she lived about 150,000 years ago. That's what you were mentioning. And the way we find that out is to see how the DNA changes over time. So for example, if a clan has a lot of mutations, it must've been around a lot longer than a clan that has fewer mutations among the members. That's how we know how long ago the clan members lived.

  • 13:23:09

    SYKESAnd that's how we know how long ago the first woman who is the maternal ancestor of all of us lived. By looking at the mutations and knowing the rate at which they change we can sort of taught it out and work it out. So that's how it's done.

  • 13:23:26

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. We have to take a short break. When we come back, we will return to our conversation with Bryan Sykes. His latest book is called "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Are there gaps in your family's oral history that you think genetic testing could help to fill in? Call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:25:34

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Bryan Sykes. He's a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and the founder of Oxford Ancestors. He's author of numerous books, the latest of which is "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." Bryan Sykes, America is known as a melting pot so exploring the genetic makeup of its inhabitants was bound to be a huge job. How do you make that manageable?

  • 13:26:00

    SYKESWell, it was a huge job, but astonishingly interesting because a new genetic technique has allowed us to identify parts of DNA that is of -- in any individual that are African origin, of European origin or of Native American origin. So I was excited by the possibility that in America, where you have a convergence of three continents, genetically speaking, of Africa, Europe and Asia, North America – and Native America.

  • 13:26:35

    SYKESAnd I thought, well, wouldn't it be interesting to go over to America -- this is a bit impertinent, I know, for an English scientist to think he can do much about genetics in America, but anyway, there we are, and to try out this technique amongst Americans of different groups of Americans or anyone I met actually in the end.

  • 13:26:59

    NNAMDIHow did you collect and analyze DNA from your volunteers?

  • 13:27:03

    SYKESWell, I mean, I've done quite a few studies of this kind, but -- to looking at the origins of people from different parts of the world, but I chose a different tact in America. For starts, it's far too big to do any kind of systematic statistically significant study. So I thought instead I'd -- well, I'd just seen the movie "Easy Rider" a little bit before. And I thought, well, this is the way to do it. I'll just kind of drift around aimlessly.

  • 13:27:37

    NNAMDIGet on a motorcycle and just ride around.

  • 13:27:39

    SYKESYeah, that's right, with, like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper did and just see what turns up. So instead of a large research group, I brought with me my son Richard, who's 20, and my wife Ola, who -- and we just sort of went around and see what happened really. And actually it worked out really well. So we started in New England because I was interested to see what the DNA of New England's looked like, particularly those that had arrived -- the descendents of those that had arrived very early with the Mayflower shortly thereafter.

  • 13:28:19

    SYKESAnd then I'd never really known how big America was. I'd been to the East Coast, the West Coast and Chicago and that was it, always by plane. So I thought the way to find out is to go by train. So my son and I just got on the train at Boston and we went all the way to San Francisco right away across, three-and-a-half days on the train.

  • 13:28:44

    SYKESThen we broke the journey and we broke the journey. We went to three Indian reservations. Now, I've already mentioned that the way in which the Native American genetic history was obtained was shameful. And so I certainly didn't want to, and I didn't, collect any DNA from Native Americans. And most reservations have moratoriums on that anyway because of fuss and the upset that they feel.

  • 13:29:17

    SYKESAnd what I wanted to talk to them about was what they thought about genetic testing and hear what they thought about their own origins. So that was utterly fascinating. Then we moved on to the West Coast and just met up with people and heard what -- their stories and, you know, as everybody did they were happy to give a DNA sample. So that's how we did it.

  • 13:29:42

    NNAMDIOne of the things that people will find when they read "DNA USA" is the names of several extremely famous stars of Hollywood, some deceased, some still living. Explain how those names got into the book.

  • 13:29:57

    SYKESWell, I think I have tried to point -- to make out at every point that these names, the Hollywood names were pseudonyms to protect the identity of my volunteers. My volunteers were given the opportunity to reveal who they really were and some did. The way that the testing was...

  • 13:30:19

    NNAMDIIncluding my friend Mark Thompson, as a matter of fact.

  • 13:30:20

    SYKESYes, yes. I saw him only yesterday. I think he was Norma Desmond at first.

  • 13:30:28

    NNAMDIHe's a fellow broadcaster (unintelligible) serious.

  • 13:30:29

    SYKESYes, he is. He's -- that's right. And he -- so just the way it worked I had to give the names and they have to test -- to carry the names of the people before I knew who they were going to be. So I used pseudonyms. I thought, well the rest of the world knows America through films so Hollywood names are the ones to choose so that's how that came about.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDIAnd that's how it ended up. We have a lot of people who would like to talk to you so please put on the headphones again and we will start with Craig in Hyattsville, Md. Craig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:03

    CRAIGYes, thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. I have one question. I would like to have both my mother and father swabbed for their genetic makeup. Can you recommend a copy or site 'cause I tried to look online, but I wasn't sure how to do the follow-up.

  • 13:31:19

    NNAMDIBrian Sykes.

  • 13:31:20

    SYKESWell, it's a difficult question to answer completely with complete disinterested answer.

  • 13:31:25

    NNAMDIThis is true 'cause you do this yourself.

  • 13:31:27

    SYKESNow, so the University of Oxford and myself set up a company, Oxford Ancestors, who does this. But I should say that other organizations, which you will find on the web that also offer a similar service.

  • 13:31:39

    NNAMDIBut Craig is afraid of scams so are there any guides you could give him to make sure that whoever he is approaching to do this is a legitimate researcher?

  • 13:31:50

    SYKESYeah, well again, Oxford Ancestors does exist. If you give us money, you get the test. I know there are some scams out there, but there are also other organizations who give a cheap test, but they don't understand the genetics behind it. So we're often asked. For example, I've had some people would say, I've had my DNA tested here, there or somewhere else. I don't understand it and can you explain it? And we -- they got those results cheaper than they would if they got it through us. But they didn't understand them so as in many other things in life, you get what you pay for.

  • 13:32:33

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Craig, and good luck to you. One of the things that stood out about your research on the genetic makeup of the people of England was how dominant certain backgrounds were despite centuries of immigration. Did you find the same to be true here in the U.S.?

  • 13:32:51

    SYKESNot quite to the same extent, no. No, I didn't. One of the remarkable things about England and Britain for a big research project I did in contrast to the American work, this one involved 10,000 volunteers. It was very statistically significant. But what was very surprising -- I think the most surprising thing there was that a few men had actually had much greater than their fair share of offspring. So there was a lot of -- I think for most English people and Scottish people and Irish come to that, men had actually once been -- their ancestors once been the children of warlords or clan chiefs or Mita kings and that sort of thing. It's had a very great affect.

  • 13:33:45

    SYKESAnd I'm sure that may have happened, for example, amongst Native American tribes but there's very little evidence of that. But generally speaking that same thing hasn't happened in America, except I suppose in those few religious communities that have in the past promoted polygamy, in which case you have the same affect.

  • 13:34:08

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Monica who says, "Could you discuss what our daughter, who was adopted from China, learn about her birth family ancestors with DNA testing?" And here we go again. "Do you have a recommendation for a company that does DNA testing?"

  • 13:34:22

    SYKESWell, yes. If you could see me I'd be blushing. There are reputable companies. Look for the ones that have been around the longest. And Oxford Ancestors in that context has been around longer than any of the others, if that's a good enough answer without blowing my own trumpet too much. What your daughter -- I recommend that your daughter takes a test for her maternal line, a mitochondrial DNA because that's the one that's going to give the most information. Only about one maternal ancestor -- one ancestor but at least you know who it is. It's your mother's -- it's her mother's mother's mother's and so on back in time.

  • 13:35:08

    SYKESAnd there's a great deal of information you can get from that. And there's enough samples been done in China, all around the world now, for your daughter to find a match with somebody else. If so if her genetic fingerprint matches somebody else and you can find out where they came from, or maybe not one person but several people, you can begin to tease out where your daughter's ancestors came from and where they lived. And you may even find relatives who you're able to talk to, as this often happens at Oxford Ancestors, and share stories about their (word?) and in a way, piggyback their own genealogical research by finding a genetic match to them.

  • 13:35:53

    NNAMDIOn to Brooke in Washington, D.C. Brooke, your turn.

  • 13:35:57

    BROOKEHi. Thanks for taking my call. My questions is, is it possible that siblings with the same mother, same father reveal something different through DNA tests, or would their results always be the same? And does it matter between male and female siblings? Thank you.

  • 13:36:16

    SYKESThis isn't identical twins, just siblings then.

  • 13:36:21

    NNAMDINot identical twins, right, just siblings.

  • 13:36:24

    BROOKEYes, just siblings.

  • 13:36:25


  • 13:36:25

    SYKESWell, siblings will on average share half of the DNA. They'd be identical from half of their DNA. That's the average figure. So they won't have exactly the same DNA. That only happens with identical twins. So that's why siblings can be so very different from one another, in appearance as well as in behavior and everything else. So the average figure's 50 percent. And if you do a comparison between two siblings, that's largely what you find.

  • 13:36:57

    NNAMDIBrooke, thank you for your call. We got a Tweet from Pat who says, here we go again, "I have ordered a test for $150 from an online site. I come from South America where a lot of races have mixed and wanted to know the percentage of my makeup." Can Pat find that out for her $150 online test -- or test from an online site?

  • 13:37:18

    SYKESWell, in DNA, you would say that the test that I use there to distinguish African, European and Native American ancestry can be, of course, in other parts of the world. So in South America, you would be able to tease apart your -- well, I don't know about your individual makeup, of course, but if there were European, African and Aborigian, in case of South America ancestors, you'd be able to tease apart which genes you’ve got from each of them. So if you can get that for $150, you're doing very well, I'd say.

  • 13:37:54

    NNAMDIThis work hits on a point -- perhaps the point where history, anthropology and genetics intersect. How do these fields influence one another?

  • 13:38:06

    SYKESWell, genetics is absolutely superb when it's used in conjunction with other things. It's reliable enough to come up with its own ideas. But it's -- for example, take genealogical research where it's used extensively, it's always best in conjunction with traditional genealogical methods. So for example -- I'll give you one example. I found out many years ago that surnames and Y chromosomes -- that's the bit of DNA that fathers get from -- give to their sons -- there's a strong association between the two.

  • 13:38:42

    SYKESSo in genealogical research if two families have the same surname they often want to know whether this means they're related to one another. And they can spend many years trying to find out through the records. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. If they have a genetic test to compare the Y chromosomes in those two men or families then they can know straight away whether they really are going to be genetically related and is worth trying to trace the paper trail through the records, or whether they're not. And they just happen to have the same name, but doesn't mean to say they came from the same founding ancestors.

  • 13:39:25

    SYKESSo that's where the two work very well together. And it's also true of historical questions. So in the case of the first settlers in America the ancestors of the Native Americans, did they arrive relatively recently about 10,000 years ago or was it 30,000 years ago? History, if you like, or anthropology has given to hypotheses which genetics can examine and see which is more likely to be right. And that's what's happened.

  • 13:39:58

    NNAMDIOn to Kojo in Middleville, Md. Kojo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:03

    KOJOGood afternoon. Thank you very much for a very interesting program. I'm just curious to know if the doctor is familiar with the later Dr. Ivan Van Sertima who did a book around 1980. The title of the book is "The African Presence in Ancient America: They Came Before Columbus." Are you by any chance familiar with the book or Dr. Van Sertima?

  • 13:40:28

    NNAMDII am familiar with both the book and Dr. Sertima. He happens to have been born in the same country as I was, Guyana, South America, and I interviewed him on several occasions before he died, and in indeed, the book "They Came Before Columbus" was about the travels of Africans to other continents. Bryan Sykes are you familiar with that work at all?

  • 13:40:46

    SYKESWell, I think you two are more familiar with it than I am, but I have heard about that theory certainly, and I know some of the evidence that's put forward for it. But I don't think that there has yet been any genetic corroboration of that hypothesis.

  • 13:41:02

    NNAMDII haven't seen it so far, but Kojo, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you have called already, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call as quickly as possible. If the lines are busy, go to our website, Joins the conversations there. Do you have concerns about DNA testing, or if you've read Bryan Sykes' earlier books and have questions about them, you can give us a call too, or send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:09

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Bryan Sykes. He's the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." He's a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and the founder of Oxford Ancestors. Can you tell our audience exactly what Oxford Ancestors is and does?

  • 13:43:29

    SYKESYes. When I was doing this academic work back in Oxford, and I discovered the unexpected fact that most Europeans could trace their ancestry back to seven women, this came out in the newspapers, in the London Times, and the next day we had 900 phones calls or emails from people, members of the public, wanting to know which of the seven women, the seven daughters of Eve, they were related to. I mean, you could have, in an English phrase, blown me down with a feather, really. I had no idea this sort of amount of publicity or enthusiasm would follow.

  • 13:44:15

    SYKESSo we had to decide what to do. As a research lab, we couldn't really justify using our research time or funds to answer individual questions, so we thought about it and we discussed it a great length. Should we develop a commercial service to do this, and we decided, well, yes, but we had a choice. Either we don't do -- we stumbled upon something of immense interest. Should you do nothing about it, or should we say yes, we will help you find out about your genetics roots, and we decided on the latter because to do nothing about it was tantamount to saying, well, we're doing all this work on the history of the world and the history of people, but actually we don't want you to verify that about yourself.

  • 13:44:58

    SYKESSo we did do that, and within a week we had set up Oxford Ancestors and started taking orders from customers, and it's still going.

  • 13:45:07

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Marie in Baltimore, Md. Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:14

    MARIEGood afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you so much. I'll try to make this as brief as I can. I have contacted the genetic ancestry in England, and my question was in reference to the indigenous Indian that I found in another DNA company in the United States. And my question was to the genetic ancestor, and I think this place is -- hold on here, Genetic Ancestor Limited, Four Market Hill, Suffolk S-U-F-F-O-L-K, England, and they clearly stated that I have no Blackfoot ancestry in my MTA DNA lineage, and I have heard through the years through my family, it was Blackfoot or Blackfeet.

  • 13:46:20

    MARIENow, another DNA company in the United States here stated I have over 60 percent ancestry coming from Africa...

  • 13:46:30


  • 13:46:30

    MARIE...a certain teen number of ancestry Indian in America, and a white part of my DNA is the lowest.

  • 13:46:41

    NNAMDIWell, the Indian ancestry, did it identify the ethnic group or the tribe you came from as Blackfoot or not?

  • 13:46:48

    MARIENo, they did not. That's what my question is. How can I get my tribal lineage?

  • 13:46:55

    NNAMDIHere's Bryan Sykes.

  • 13:46:56

    SYKESWell, I think the fact you got two answers from two different companies is not because they weren't -- didn't know what they were doing. Your mitochondrial DNA is the only -- that you had done in England is only following one line. So it's quite conceivable you wouldn't -- that line would not have been a Native American line, and it sounds that it wasn't. The other test, I don't exactly know what you had done, but it sounds similar to the tests that I've used in DNA USA where you can assign segments of your DNA to those three different continental origins.

  • 13:47:31

    SYKESNow, I think there isn't a very -- so as far as we know, not a very close correspondence between any genetic marker and particular tribes. Now, for the reasons which I had touched on earlier in the program, Native Americans are not keen on having -- Native American tribes are not keen, and very suspicious of genetic testing, so a lot of work has not been done. But what work has been done is showing that, not surprisingly really, because they were mixing up amongst themselves, that there are no genetic markers which are specific to specific Indian tribes be they Sioux, Blackfoot, or Cheyenne, or what have you. So I think you won't find a definite answer about your Blackfoot ancestry in that way.

  • 13:48:23

    NNAMDIMarie, thank you very much for your call. You tested Mexican-American Catholics who turned out to be descendants of Spanish Jews, and white southerners who had significant African American ancestry. When you reveal something about someone's genetic background that is different, maybe even counter to what they were raised to believe, how do they generally react?

  • 13:48:45

    SYKESWell, it depends if the results match their expectations. Sometimes they do, quite often they don't. Now, the reaction, for example, I think the most severe reaction, and I get this -- I've experienced it myself, but I've also had the same news from colleagues who run a company in the United States (word?) Ancestry, that if African-Americans are tested and they discover, as a third of them will, that they have a white chromosome, a paternal line that is European, they first of all disbelieve it, and they can be very angry, and of course the tests are repeated.

  • 13:49:33

    SYKESWhen they're repeated, the answer comes back the same. And eventually they settle down. They will then talk to other members of the family, usually the women who know everything, and they'll say, well, actually, yes, there was an ancestor on your father's side who we think probably was European. And so things usually settle down, but it's quite a...

  • 13:49:55

    NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that when things settle down, African-Americans tend to take, or have more of an interest in the African part of their ancestry than the European part.

  • 13:50:05

    SYKESYes. That's my experience. The African part of their ancestry, African-Americans have got a lot from that, and many people, your friend Mark Thompson included, have been back to Africa to visit regions that are identified as being where their ancestors came from through DNA. I don't really note exact -- the same degree of enthusiasm for tracing the genealogy of their European ancestors, but in some cases that's also true.

  • 13:50:38

    SYKESSo it helps a lot of African-Americans as I say to link back to Africa. The European component of African Americans is certainly there, I think probably in all African-Americans, certainly everyone I tested. But similarly, in European Americans from the south, not from the north, but European Americans from the south always had -- all that I tested had some African DNA. I always regret that I never managed to test anyone from the KKK, because I would have -- if they had shown up, and they would have done if they had South African ancestry, then I would have had a series of questions.

  • 13:51:19

    SYKESYou see, one of the things I could do with my test is to identify which genes had been inherited from which ancestor. So in the case of KKK member with African ancestry, let's say they denied it, I'd say, well actually, if I look at this, your kidneys are running off African genes. So the next question would be well, would you like to have your kidneys out then, and I think then reality would come home.

  • 13:51:47

    NNAMDIWould begin to set in. Here is Skip in Vienna, Va. Skip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:53

    SKIPYes. Dr. Sykes, my wife and I have both had our DNA analyzed through Oxford Ancestors, and my wife came back as being related to a woman that you call a fictional woman in Southern France, Helena, and mine was traced back to a person in Western Europe called fictionally Osean (sp?) about 35,000 years ago. So these things, of course, are just interesting from a human interest point of view.

  • 13:52:26

    SKIPFor my wife, she's an artist and of course Southern France is where the cave dwellers are and all that, so that's also an interest. But my basic question for you is, as a result of all this, I've read a fair amount about DNA ancestry, but I've never really understood the basis of the periodocy of the dating, how you can assume that these mutations occur with some kind of regularity to the extent that you can actually use that regularity for dating.

  • 13:52:58

    SYKESYeah. Good question. It is explained in "DNA USA." Basically it isn't regular, but it's a random process, but if you study it enough, people for example, the descendants of your wife's ancestor, Helena, then you will find that the mutations average our at one every 10,000 years. Now in individual lines, that doesn't mean to say that there will be one mutation every 10,000 years, but on average that's how it works out. So in some lines there won't be any, some there will be one, some two, some three, and so on. So it's the average over large numbers of genealogies that give you what appears to be a regular molecular clock.

  • 13:53:43

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Skip. Onto Mary in Silver Spring, Md. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:54

    MARYHi. I'm interested in tracing my father's ancestry. He dates back on his mother's side to 1619 in Jamestown, which means they were among the first 900 Europeans into the country, and even before that they came from Normandy invasion into England way back then. But I don't have a brother. My father is long dead. Is there any way that I can trace the genetics of my father?

  • 13:54:23

    SYKESYeah. That's a question that people at Oxford Ancestors are always asked. You do have to have, unfortunately, because you don't, and none of your female relatives will have a Y chromosome. You have to find someone who does have a Y chromosome that is paternally directly linked to your father. Now, this could be -- it doesn't really matter how far you go back. So your grandfather may have had a brother who then had patrilineal descendants living today. Anyone like that who has a direct patrilineal line linking them to your father, will have the same Y chromosome. So you must find one of them. When you do, then all those questions can be answered.

  • 13:55:14

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mary. We got an email from Jim in Arlington, Va., who says, "In addition to Oxford Ancestors, the Genographic Project run by National Geographic is a reputable server for DNA testing, and provides testing and matching results to other test takers. More broadly, the best way to seek out a reputable DNA testing service is to ask an accredited genealogist for advice." Do you agree?

  • 13:55:41

    SYKESYeah. Fair enough.

  • 13:55:43

    NNAMDIAnd it says, "ICAPGen is the industry body for accreditation." We do have a link to the National Geographic site up on And this email we got from Mary in Arnold. "How is it that there is one protowoman if evolution is a given? Wouldn't life be evolving simultaneously if in different places at least in more than one organism at a time giving rise to more than one early woman?"

  • 13:56:11

    SYKESWell, this one early woman wasn't the only woman alive at the time. She was the maternal -- direct matrilineal ancestor of everybody. So a lot of other woman around, up to 10,000 in some estimates, but she's the only one of them that left direct matrilineal descendants that are still alive today. The other women either themselves or descendants either didn't have any children at all or they had sons, and so their matrilineal lines died out leaving only her descendants alive today.

  • 13:56:43

    NNAMDIThis research isn't just academic. It's also your business. People have serious concerns about the ways in which their genetic information is stored and shared. How do you protect your clients?

  • 13:56:53

    SYKESIn the case of Oxford Ancestors, the first thing we do, which doesn't done by all organizations, as soon as we've got the tests done we destroy the DNA so it can't be used again. If somebody buys the company, they're not gonna get any DNA from us. The second thing is that we only tell the individuals what the result is, so we -- that keeps the confidentiality very tight.

  • 13:57:18

    NNAMDIBryan Sykes. He's a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford and the founder of Oxford Ancestors. He's the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America." Bryan Sykes, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:32

    SYKESMy pleasure.

  • 13:57:33

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineers are Andrew Chadwick, Timmy Olmstead, and Kellan Quigley. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, To share questions or comments with us, email, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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