Letters from our ancestors: Part 4


Part 4 concludes the story encoded in my DNA (for now anyway).

My South African cousins

The apartheid system in South Africa lasted from 1948 to 1994. People were classified as Black, Coloured, Indian or White, and subjected to the following segregation laws among others:

Immorality Act: 1927-1985

Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act: 1949-1985

Group Areas Act: 1950-1991

I was born into a segregated society and grew up thinking that I was a first generation White South African. I was 28 years old when apartheid ended, and even the members of the next generation in my family born in South Africa were not technically “born free” although they have grown up in a post-apartheid South Africa. I have felt displaced and struggled to find a sense of belonging my whole life. I now know that all humans descend from our common ancestors who lived in Africa many thousands of years ago, and have also discovered that in more recent times my ancestral DNA returned to Africa and contributed to a diverse gene pool with ancient roots in Africa as well as Europe and Asia.

Knowing that I share DNA and ancestry with other South Africans outside my immediate family has helped me to feel more connected to my homeland and the people in it. Intellectually I know that we are all related if we go back far enough, but it helps to see it in black-and-white (or blue as the case may be).

I have many American genetic cousins so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I have South African genetic cousins even though my parents were not born in South Africa. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise and they count among my most interesting DNA matches to date. I am aware of four genetic cousins who were born in South Africa like me. One of them has European ancestry and our closest common relative may never have lived in Africa. The other three are siblings with ancestry from all three reference populations used by 23andMe in their Ancestry Painting. For the sake of interest, I am sharing some of the 23andMe results for one of the three siblings here (note that the surname and these results are used here with kind permission).

Cousin Albertyn’s mtDNA haplogroup (M5d) and Y-DNA haplogroup (R1b1b2a1a2f) are described below (he is a male so he has both mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups):

“Haplogroup: M, a subgroup of L3

Age: 60,000 years

Region: Asia

Populations: Indians, Chinese, Tibetans

Highlight: Haplogroup M spread from Africa to southeastern Asia in a few millennia.

Overview: Haplogroup M is one of two branches on the mitochondrial DNA tree that arose about 60,000 years ago, soon after humans first expanded out of Africa. Because of its deep roots it is widespread in southern and eastern Asia, and its branches extend into North America as well.”

Maternal Haplogroup: M5d (a subgroup of M), 23andMe

“Haplogroup: R1b1b2, a subgroup of R1b1

Age: 17,000 years

Region: Europe

Populations: Irish, Basques, British, French

Highlight: R1b1b2 is the most common haplogroup in western Europe, with distinct branches in specific regions.

Overview: R1b1b2 is the most common haplogroup in western Europe, where its branches are clustered in various national populations. R1b1b2a1a2b is characteristic of the Basque, while R1b1b2a1a2f2 reaches its peak in Ireland and R1b1b2a1a1 is most commonly found on the fringes of the North Sea.”

Paternal Haplogroup: R1b1b2a1a2f (a subgroup of R1b1b2), 23andMe

This Y-DNA haplogroup is a different subgroup of R1b1b2 from that of one of my Reinhardt cousins. The R1b1b2a1a2f subgroup of Y-DNA haplogroup R1b1b2 is very common among Irish men.


These haplogroups indicate that Cousin Albertyn is descended from an Asian ancestor in his direct maternal line and from a European ancestor in his direct paternal line, which is consistent with his Ancestry Painting results shown in terms of percentages below and illustrated in the chart on the left below. The light blue match on chromosome 9 in the chart on the right below shows the exact location of our shared DNA segment.

Europe: 56% (painted blue below)

Africa: 24% (painted green below)

Asia: 19% (painted orange below)

Cousin Albertyn Match

My Ancestry Painting is 100% European (painted blue) and the location of the DNA segment shared with Cousin Albertyn is painted European (blue) by 23andMe. It is likely that our closest common relative, either a common ancestor or a descendant of a common ancestor, came to Africa from Europe long before my parents did.

Genetic diversity of South Africans

Being South African and having South African cousins, I am interested in research relating to the genetics of South Africans in general.

The Living History Project conducted in 2007/8 by the Africa Genome Education Institute in partnership with Ancestry24 provides some very interesting results, e.g. “Approximately 1 in 12 individuals who identified as White have mtDNA lineages derived from African sources”. You can find the project results online here:

Living History Project Results (Ancestry24)

Living History Project (Africa Genome Education Institute)

In 2011, 23andMe launched a new research project studying the DNA of people of African descent, Roots into the Future, which should benefit 23andMe customers of African descent.

South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has also had his DNA sequenced and discovered that he is not exactly who he thought he was. His mtDNA haplogroup is L0d and his Y-DNA haplogroup is E1b1a8a (Source: Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa, Nature). Descriptions of these haplogroups, and Tutu’s comments about his results, are shown below:

“Among the oldest haplogroups in the human mitochondrial DNA tree, L0d is most common today among the traditional hunter-gatherer populations of the Kalahari desert.”

Maternal Haplogroup: L0d (a subgroup of L0), 23andMe

“The E1b1a branch of haplogroup E predominates in Africa south of the Sahara, where it spread about 4,000 years ago in conjunction with the expansion of Bantu-speaking people out of western Africa.”

Paternal Haplogroup: E1b1a8a (a subgroup of E1b1a), 23andMe

“Tutu was delighted at some of the unexpected discoveries from his genes. He is Bantu, a traditionally agricultural people, and was included in the study to represent their ancestry. But his genome revealed that he is also maternally related to the San, a hunter-gatherer population that has traditionally lived around the Kalahari Desert. ‘The fact that the test found that I am related to these wise people who paint rocks makes me feel very privileged and blessed,’ he told the BBC.”

What Secrets Lie in Archbishop Tutu’s Genome?

by Eben Harrell (TIME, 18 February 2010)

“According to my genome, which was sequenced, I am related to the San people, so I am coloured.”

I am coloured says Tutu by Michelle Jones (Independent Online, 10 March 2011)

This result is not that unusual. In the Living History Project “At least 1 in 5 people who self identified as Black (predominantly southern Bantu-speakers) have a maternal ancestry linked with Khoesan people”, and according to online articles Tutu is not the only famous South African with Khoesan ancestry:

“Mandela had his genetic code analysed in 2004, with some surprising results. While he is Xhosa, his mitochondrial DNA shows that he can trace his maternal lineage back to the San Bushmen, the earliest inhabitants of Africa … Mandela’s paternal line, on the other hand, was traced to a group of Africans from the Great Lakes area of East Africa. Most of SA’s African population originated from this region and migrated down the continent’s east coast to settle in South Africa.”

Are you related to Mandela? by Mary Alexander (SouthAfrica.info, 24 April 2007)


Further reading:

Are we all ‘coloured?’ by Max du Preez (News24, 9 March 2011)

Being an African makes me who I am by Lee Rondganger (Independent Online, 6 June 2006)

DNA test may reveal you’re related to Madiba by Sahm Venter (Independent Online, 7 March 2006)

SA ‘one big family’ by Neels Jackson (News 24, 20 September 2004)

So, Where Do We Come From? video clip (Tilde Café)

So, Where Do We Come From? by Curious Pictures for Carte Blanche (M-Net, 19 September 2004)

Who do you think you are?

“Ubuntu … speaks of the very essence of being human … It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’… ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.'”

No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Mpilo Tutu (1931-)


Originally posted here http://mywingsofdesireblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/letters-from-our-ancestors-part-4.html


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2 Responses

  1. Helen says:

    Thanks for your comment Christopher, I agree. 🙂

  2. Christopher Blackwell says:

    Even here in the United States we are all more mixed than we think. I do have a Black branch of the family, not surprising as some of my ancestors were slave owners and often plantation owners had more black kids than white kids. As you say all of us eventually trace ancestry back to Africa. However if any Blacks became White enough they lived as White, so it is quite possible I may have African ancestry far closer to my time than I know about. Would not surprise me at all as we had intermarried with local Native Americans and in Texas I would not be surprised if we have some Latino blood, because that to was common at the time in order to get land in then the Spanish, and the later Mexican period of Texas. So the whole concept of alleged pure race is silly from start to finish, except for being Human which we all are.

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