Alan Boyle writes: William Holland, a genealogical researcher living in Atlanta, has seen some pretty strange twists in his family tree. Several years ago, he found out that his great-grandfather was a black slave … who wound up serving as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. But this year Holland’s research resulted in something even stranger.
Thanks to DNA testing, Holland is being welcomed as a long-lost relative by a ruling family of the West African nation of Cameroon. He’s visited the country once already, back in March, and he’ll be getting the royal treatment in November when he goes back with additional members of his family, including his 79-year-old mother.
“Imagine receiving that news, after all these years when you grew up as the son of a sharecropper. … Everybody tells you that you came from slaves, you came from slaves. And now you find out that you came from royalty,” Holland told me.
Holland’s case shows how genetic genealogy can untangle mysteries in a family tree — even for African-Americans, who typically face tougher challenges because the vital records for slaves are so scant.
Holland attributes his success to GeneTree, a Utah-based DNA testing service that came up with the Cameroon connection. But GeneTree’s chief scientific officer, geneticist Scott Woodward, said Williams’ case was far from unusual.
“This isn’t our home run,” Woodward told me. “It takes a lot of regular work. But what [the DNA analysis] did do was give us some nice clues and hints about where he should concentrate his efforts. Should he be looking in Cameroon, or should he be looking in Nigeria? That makes a big difference.”
In fact, previous genetic tests had indeed suggested that Holland’s African roots went back to Nigeria — so much so that Holland arranged for some of his supposed Nigerian relatives to get tested as well. “When the results came back, it wasn’t a match,” Holland said. (I can sympathize with that situation: Nine years ago, I went down a similar blind alley in search of my Irish roots.)
So Holland went back to the drawing board. This time, Holland plugged his genetic markers into a database provided by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which draws upon GeneTree results as well as global genetic surveys.
Unlike whole-genome sequencing or paternity tests, genealogical testing generally looks at only a limited number of DNA markers — either on the Y-chromosome, which is passed down from fathers to their sons; or in mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers to their children. Such markers can’t be used to figure out your susceptibility to disease or even trace all your relatives. It can only give you an idea who you’re related to along your all-paternal or all-maternal line of ancestry.
The freely available Sorenson database takes the family search to an extra level, by linking the genetic data with traditional pedigrees contributed by those who have been tested. What’s more, Sorenson’s researchers — including Woodward, who serves as the foundation’s executive director — have added test results from places around the world that would otherwise be poorly represented in genetic databases. For example, about 12,000 of the 110,000 DNA samples in the Sorenson files have come from Africa.
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