/ 11 May 2018

Ancestry: The ultimate selfie

Investigating ancestry: Tshegofatso Senne awaits her DNA test results
Investigating ancestry: Tshegofatso Senne awaits her DNA test results

I have never felt compelled to investigate the history of my bloodline further than the generations just before my grandparents.

I have a Zulu mother and a Tswana father. As far as I’ve understood, my family is black. South African black. Blackitty black, black.

But, as I’ve come to understand, ancestry is more complex than this. In most cases, it doesn’t even get as recent as looking into who your great-grandparents’ great-grandparents were. It can go thousands of years into the past.

The first time I heard about a process that revealed a person’s ancestry — and why anyone would want to so such a thing — was in a 2006 documentary series African American Lives. In it, Oprah Winfrey went through the process of investigating her DNA, hoping she would turn out to be Zulu.

The documentary series showed us black celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Tucker looking thousands of years into their families’ ancestries, alongside Harvard scholar, historian and author Henry Louis Gates Jnr. Winfrey eventually found out that she had West African ancestry, and called the revelation the “ultimate selfie”, adding the process to the list of her Favourite Things of 2017.

Now, inquiries into one’s ancestry have become such a trend that YouTubers who reveal their DNA results online gain millions of views.

My experience began at the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand with an hour-long talk by Dr Ian McKay, who talked us through evolution, the migration of our ancestors in Africa and how these processes began.

He began by reminding us just how insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things, noting that scientists remain humble about what they know about human existence.

Littered with quips, jokes and an entertaining slide show, McKay simplified concepts and terms that many would find confusing, all in an effort to contextualise what they do at the centre. McKay also spoke of the reasons for why people want to learn more about their ancestry.

He took us through the similarities we share with other animals, showing us the characteristics in our embryonic development, highlighting the limb structures and organs we have in common with creatures such as octopuses, birds and fish.

I was most intrigued by the concept of mutation. As McKay explained, our cells include DNA. Occasionally, mutations in those cells occur. These mutations are the ones used to track our ancestry.

Dr Rajeshree Mahabeer, of the National Health Laboratory Service, then led us into a deeper conversation about DNA. She began by saying that the earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens (the species to which all modern humans belong) was found in Ethiopia. I thought it was now common knowledge that humankind began on our continent, so I had a hearty chuckle at some of the disgruntled faces around me when she said this.

We were given a short but rich look into how migration from Africa occurred more than 70 000 years ago, with many of our ancestors following animals and vegetation, whereas others may have been driven by curiosity.

Having given a brief take on how humankind has been studied, through art and culture, archaeology, palaeontology and linguistics, Mahabeer then took us into the study of genetics. She explained everything from genome pairs, the haplogroups (a group of people who share a common ancestor) used to determine the tracking of our ancestors’ migration across countries, as well as which DNA we inherit from our parents: mitochondrial from our mothers and the Y chromosome from our fathers.

“Yup, dads determine the sex of their children, so don’t blame your wife when you don’t get the son you wanted,” she joked.

As interesting and informative as these sessions had been, I was eager to get on with the test, not to mention that we had been told not to eat or drink for at least an hour.

We were all there for our own reasons. I was sandwiched between an older couple and a white man in a dashiki who seemed charmed every time there was a mention of Nelson Mandela. Some came because they had received the test as a gift, whereas others were simply curious.

After signing our consent forms, we spent a few minutes swabbing our cheeks and inserting the little brush into a labelled container. The process took less than 10 minutes.

Mahabeer said that our samples would be sent to a lab to be analysed, and our results would be sent back to us in a report that includes genetic matching that may sometimes include celebrities.

The limitation of the centre’s test was that we would only receive information about our direct lineages. She warned us that ancestry tests had been used as a way to discriminate against certain groups — and that we couldn’t use these ancestry tests to apply for broad-based black economic empowerment opportunities.

The deep dive into all aspects about ancestry was an incredibly absorbing process. The eight weeks for my results to be sent could not pass fast enough. But what is eight weeks, or millions of years, between ancestors?