Lupita Nyong’o’s Mitochondrial DNA, and mine

This past week, I enjoyed another great episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. This episode featured actor Lupita Nyong’o, NBA future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony and Republican political strategist Ana Navarro.

The slave trade emerged as a key theme for the episode. As Americans, we tend to focus on the history of the slave trade to the United States. However, it is important to note that less than 10% of Africans forced into the slave trade between 1519 and 1867 arrived in the United States. The vast majority landed in ports throughout Europe, South America and the Caribbean.

This sets the stage for the stories of two of Dr. Gates guests. Carmelo Anthony’s father is Puerto Rican and his mother is African American. Dr. Gates was able to trace Carmelo’s paternal ancestry back to his third great grandmother who was born enslaved in Venezuela and was brought to Puerto Rico by her master during the Simon Bolivar led Venezuelan Revolution (1810–1823). Ana Navarro, who is Nicaraguan, learned that her fourth great grandfather Miguel Geronimo Pacheco was born mixed race and enslaved in Costa Rica. Pacheco’s son, Ana’s third great grandfather, looking to distance himself from his father’s enslaved past and African ancestry, took his mother’s name — Navarro — and moved to Nigaragua to start a new life.

Lupita and Mitochondrial Eve

Dr. Gates’s third guest Lupita Nyong’o offered the most interesting reveal of the show. Ms. Nyong’o is Kenyan and Mexican by nationality and is ethnically Luo. We learned through mitochondrial DNA testing that she shares a maternal haplogroup — L0 — with Mitochondrial Eve, a woman whom scientists estimate lived between 150–200,000 years ago in Southeastern Africa and is the most recent woman from whom all human beings descend.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing analyzes the DNA markers a mother passes down to her children through mitochondrial DNA to identify ancient ancestral origins.

Maternal haplogroups help to track slight variations in mtDNA. While mtDNA markers pass relatively untouched from mother to child, tiny mutations to them surface over the course of hundreds to thousands of generations. These small mutations create new mtDNA branches we call haplotypes. Mutations upon mutations create new branches from old branches and further splintering creates twigs called subgroups from those branches. Ms. Nyong’o’s mtDNA is about as close as it gets — with very little mutation — to Mitochondrial Eve — the original trunk to which human kind’s mtDNA branches have grown.

My Maternal Ancient History

According to 23andMe, my maternal haplogroup is U4a1a, which traces back to a woman who lived approximately 15,000 years ago in Europe. Today it is common among the people of Russia and Finland. Only 5% of African Americans trace direct maternal ancestry back to a European ancestor. This makes me unique from a genealogical perspective. I am a black man with a European maternal haplogroup.

How did I get my maternal haplogroup? The short answer is I am not sure, but here is my theory. My great-great grandmother was a woman named Martha Hall. She was born in Winton Township, Hertford County, NC in 1868 to a free family of color. The Halls and other families within their community — such as the Archers, Nickens, Weavers, Manleys and Cumbos — were mixed-race and traced their origins to unions between African men and European and Native American women, many of whom served together as indentured servants in early 1600s Jamestown prior to the establishment of institutionalized slavery and racism beginning in the mid-1600s.

The Making of Race in America

The first Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619. By the mid-1600s, institutionalized slavery was growing and the number of Africans free or indentured was dwindling. The landmark case of John Punch formalized racial distinctions and defined slavery as exclusive to blacks. In 1640 John Punch, an indentured servant of African ancestry, attempted to run away with two other indentured servants of European ancestry. All three were caught and tried. The two white servants received time added to their indenture agreement. The Virginia courts sentenced Punch to slavery for life. This is the first time courts recorded race as a factor in determining freedom or enslavement.

A landmark event that further formalized racial distinctions in America was Bacon’s Rebellion, an armed rebellion in 1676 by Virginia settlers led by Nathaniel Bacon against the ruling class. Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, society was divided by class — the elites vs everyone else. This meant that poor whites, poor free blacks, enslaved blacks and Native Americans lived together, celebrated together, struggled together and started families together. After the rebellion ended in failure, the ruling class determined that the best way to protect its power was to divide the governed class by race — black and white, slave and free. This emerging racial caste system would further calcify through the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. Events like this set in motion a racial divide in America which created a perilous life for my Hall ancestors and families like them, free men and women of color, living first in colonial Virginia slave society, and then in segregated societies under the rule of Jim Crow in North Carolina and throughout American South.

Lupita’s Parting Words — Before race was a thing

When Dr. Gates revealed Ms. Nyong’o mitochondrial DNA results to her, he remarked, “When mtDNA Eve was walking around, there were no human beings alive outside of Africa. Everybody was black in the whole world.”

She in turn responded, “I predate race! That’s dope.”

Lupita and I don’t share the same maternal Haplogroup but learning about our respective Haplogroups revealed that we share something fundamental in how we have come to think of race. Lupita’s DNA results helped her to trace back to ancestors who pre-dates race as we know it the world today. My DNA results helped me to trace back to ancestors who pre-date race in America.

Actor Lupita Nyong’o on Finding Your Roots
Lupita Nyong’o’s maternal haplogroup is L0.
My maternal haplogroup U4a1a
Photo of my great great grandmother Martha Hall born in Hertford County around 1868 to free colored parents. She is is my mother’s mother’s mother’s, mother.
Here is a panel from the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture tracing the origins of race in America.
Here is a panel from the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture featuring the story of John Punch.