Many African Americans and others are using an African DNA test to get answers about their ethnic ancestry.
Typical questions include the following:
Fortunately, there are several reasonably-priced African DNA tests that answer these and other questions about one’s ethnic ancestry.
The tests all use home test kits and sample collection is easy and painless. Depending on which company you use, you might wipe some cells from inside your cheek with a little swab or spit some saliva into a tube. No blood is required.
Here are my top seven recommendations for anyone interested in an African DNA test.
1. Ancestry DNA
AncestryDNA recently rose to the top of this list. Both men and women can take the test and it will identify other people in the database who share common ancestors with you. It is an autosomal test similar in technology to Family Finder and 23andMe, discussed below.
The test includes an Ethnicity Estimate that summarizes the percentage contributions of different regions of the world to your overall ancestry. That estimate now breaks African Ancestry into nine regions:
This is the first widely recognized, legitimate DNA test to provide this detailed a breakdown of African ancestry
2. Family Finder, which includes Population Finder
Family Finder is an autosomal DNA test from Family Tree DNA. It’s widely used by genealogists, including those interested in African American genealogy.
The company will compare your DNA against a database of other users to find genetic matches. Most often these genetic matches will be cousins, having a common ancestor with you somewhere in the last five or so generations.
By emailing your matches you can connect with previously unknown relatives and learn much more about your family tree.
As part of the Family Finder test, you receive a myOrigins report, formerly called Population Finder, where the company compares your DNA with over 60 reference populations from around the world. This is a biogeographical analysis of the DNA you received from ALL of your ancestors.
The African part of your DNA may place you in any of four sub continental groups based on similarities to certain scientifically studied populations. The groups and populations are as follows:
Very few people outside Africa are 100% African. Population Finder will classify the remaining portion of your ancestry using other populations.
3. Y-DNA Test at Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA also offers a Y-DNA test, which tracks your paternal line. Since only men have a Y-chromosome, only men can take this test. But women can still test a man from their paternal line, e.g. a brother, a father, a brother of your father, or a son of your father’s brother.
Like Family Finder, this test finds genetic matches who share a common ancestor. But with the Y-DNA test you know the common ancestor has to be a male in the direct paternal line like your father’s father’s father etc.
The Y-DNA test will also predict a man’s Y-DNA haplogroup. And many haplogroups are clearly tied to origins in sub-Saharan Africa. This is the real indicator of your paternal line’s ethnic ancestry.
TIP: If you’re interested in finding genetic matches, you should order the Y-DNA 37 test, which checks 37 markers. But if you’re only interested in determining your haplogroup, you only need 12 markers. I suggest you go to Family Tree DNA and look for the combination package of Family Finder plus Y-DNA 12. The combo price is an excellent buy.
If you later decide that you want to discover your precise position in the Y-DNA tree of life, you can upgrade to more markers or even order a Deep Clade test. That will tell you exactly which subclade of your haplogroup you’re in. In many cases this can tighten the geographic origins of your paternal line.
4. mtDNA Test at Family Tree DNA
Both men and women have mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to test. But only women pass it on to their children. So mtDNA is the test to track your maternal line. That’s your mother’s mother’s mother etc.
As with the test described previously, you will probably see matches with other users. But mtDNA mutates so slowly that your common ancestors may have lived thousands of years ago. That makes mtDNA less useful than Y-DNA as a genealogy tool.
Still, mtDNA also has a haplogroup that relates directly to the origins of your maternal line. And some of those are clear indicators of African origin.
5. 23andMe Which Includes Ancestry Composition
23andMe is another autosomal DNA test like Family Finder. This test can also serve as an African DNA test, because it has an Ancestry Composition feature that tells you what parts of the world your ancestors lived a few hundred years ago.
This admixture report is similar to the Population Finder feature of the Family Finder test. It reports on African Ancestry from these three regions:
However, if you also test at least one of your parents on 23andMe, this test can split your ancestral percentages into your paternal and maternal sides.
23andMe also has a DNA Relatives feature that’s similar to Family Finder and it will estimate your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups. So if you want to cover all your bases—then the 23andMe test can be a great value as an African DNA test.
Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a pioneer in African DNA testing. He founded African DNA to encourage more African Americans to get their DNA tested.
The company offers a Y-DNA test of 25 markers and an mtDNA test like the mtDNA Plus test at Family Tree DNA. In fact, Family Tree DNA is affiliated with the company and does their DNA testing.
Now they can also offer the Family Finder test that they renamed Ancestry Finder.
Note that African DNA only offers one paternal line Y-DNA test and one maternal line mtDNA test. They do not offer additional Y-DNA markers, the Full Mitochondrial Sequence (FMS) test, or Deep Clade testing. You need to order those tests directly from Family Tree DNA.
The African DNA web site does have more content specific to African DNA testing than any of the more general DNA testing companies. So I encourage anyone looking for an African DNA test to visit the site and learn all you can.
Uniquely, African DNA does offer some higher priced packages that combine DNA testing with genealogy research to build your family tree.
For most African-Americans there are no genealogical records prior to the 1870 census, when last names of former slaves began to be recorded. If you want someone to build a few generations of your family tree, however, this is an option to consider.
MONEY-SAVING TIP: If you’re not ordering a package with genealogy research, be sure to recheck Family Tree DNA to compare prices before placing an order with African DNA. At the time of this writing, you can order the same Y-DNA and mtDNA tests directly through Family Tree DNA for significantly less money.
7. Y-DNA and mtDNA Testing at African Ancestry
African Ancestry is another company that specifically features African DNA tests. Like the companies above, they check your Y-DNA and mtDNA to determine your paternal and maternal lineages. Since their web site does not provide details of either test, I cannot compare them.
Unlike Family Tree DNA, they do not keep a database of customer results, so you will not receive any matches to people with similar DNA. Since the company does not have an autosomal test like Family Finder and 23andMe, it cannot provide any admixture percentages. You won’t learn anything about ancestors outside your narrow paternal and maternal lines.
I found some interesting data on the web site. Even though this site specifically attracts people of African descent, 35% of the paternal line tests show European ancestry. Much of that non-African DNA was introduced into the family tree during the era of slavery. In addition, 8% of their maternal line samples show non-African haplogroups.
An article in the Wall Street Journal was critical of the African DNA test reports provided by this company. Independent experts say that mitochondrial DNA is not sufficient to nail down an ancestor’s origin to a specific country.
Furthermore, the large migrations of Africans over the last 3,000 years means that the typical black American’s DNA will match Africans living today in several countries. Even the founder of African DNA was quoted in the article that the country-specific reports his company provides are largely a “best guess.”
The testing prices at African DNA are higher than those of the companies listed above. Even if you have your African DNA test done elsewhere, the African Ancestry web site includes some interesting information on African heritage and a list of country-by-country resources in Africa for genealogists.
DNA Tribes uses autosomal markers representing all your ancestors. But unlike AncestryDNA, Family Finder and 23andMe, which check nearly a million autosomal SNPs, DNA Tribes checks a maximum of 27 STRs.
I won’t try to explain the difference between an STR and a SNP here. But autosomal STRs are what police forces around the world have been collecting from criminals for decades.
The company examined 383,000 STR records and claims to have identified major genetic regions around the world. They compare your DNA with their proprietary database and issue reports on your most closely matched regions.
The company does not share its database or reveal its methods. And independent experts are skeptical when such detailed reports arise from so few markers.
Roots for Real offers Y-DNA, mtDNA, and an autosomal test based on 16 STR markers. They position their autosomal admixture test as an African DNA test. But their database is only about one third the size of the already questionable DNA Tribes test. And all of their tests are overpriced compared to market leaders Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and Ancestry.com.