How do we determine our ethnicity?

[1] The family tree – one of the most common ways to track our ancestors. But what else can we use to do so?


For many people around the world, who are mixed, a few generations down the immigration line, or from relatively new countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States or whatnot, little do we know about our real family roots. A lot of people might say I am half this, two quarters that, an eighth there…but can genealogy be that simple with fractions and percentages? Problems of cultural identity aside, can we use more concrete methods to determine our ethnicity? I have figured out three main ways in which we can carry out our family research: family tree, DNA, other genealogy methods and the bigger picture. This is the type of direction I am willing to take in this article, and I hope you enjoy your read once again. I want to point out that I am no genealogy specialist – and only wrote this article because I found it intriguing enough to potentially find out more about my family, so if I am wrong in cases, comments for improvement are most welcomed below. 

1) Family tree 

One of the simplest ways to devise your roots is through a family tree. I felt that the British royal family – one of the longest surviving monarchies to have roots attributed to the Normans, Anglo-Saxon, Scottish, Hanoverian and English especially encapsulating. Unfortunately, I was highly disappointed when I encountered the problem through my own research, noting that most of the sites publicise themselves to be fully viable to allow us to find our ancestries and nothing further. We would need to pay tribute to expert archivists for that job, I suppose. Furthermore, with so many people on the tree and their names and surviving years, we do not take into the full account of one’s nationalities – therefore limiting our accuracy in discovering critical and interesting points. 

2) DNA 

Consequently, this drives me towards my next point – perhaps a more precise way to determine our ethnicity is by using scientific methods found in DNA testing. In a research conducted by the University of Arizona, there has been an African-American called Albert Perry from South Carolina who has chromosomes dating back to around 300,000 years ago. [2] It must be considered that if two Y chromosomes have the same mutation, this significantly means they both have a common ancestor at same point in history. Furthermore, if there are more mutations of these chromosomes, this is key, because this means there are even more ancestors dating further back in time. [2] 


3) Other genealogy methods 

There are four main other genealogy ways to find our heritage: 1) Y-DNA, 2) mitochondrial DNA (abbreviated as mtDNA), 3) ethnic tests and 4) biogeographical tests. These are expensive procedures and we should be meticulous about which process to choose from – as there can easily be inaccuracies. [3] You could extract blood, or extract moisture from your mouth or a piece of hair – like they do in CSI. 

Both the Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA ways provide choices for us interested in our family background or those who are family historians. On the one hand, Y-chromosomes helps us find combination to match with other male relatives – our father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great great grand-father and so on. [3] Conversely, this is mtDNA, that we can use for male and female descendants – but we can only trace the roots to the females before us – so our mother, grandmother, great-grandmather and so forth. We must be careful because according to the book, The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, there are one out of a seven of the world population that our female ancestors date back 10,000 to 45,000. [3] Weird stuff, huh? (More detailed information on the third link in the references section below). 

There are less complicated ways to determine one’s ethnicity – ethnic tests and biogeographical tests. Ethnic tests do tend to help us undertsand our ethnicity, in some shape or form – but should not over-rely on this, as it has been discovered Africa being the centre of 70 to 75 per cent of people’s early origins. [3] Another way is biogeographical tests, which categorises your background to four main parts: European, African, Asian and Native American. The problem with this again, is that there are no absolute truths because it goes so far back in history that it becomes somewhat unreliable. However, this type of technology is fast developing, and we can hopefully one day find out more for those who are half European with a EuroDNA test. [3] Fingers crossed. 

4) What is the bigger picture?

I have to admit, biology has never really been my strong point. I thought I would take some time to improve my understanding behind DNA and chromosomes. Sorry to those of you who are biological or genetics specialists already, but it is always nice to learn something better or new, right? Admittedly, some parts are pretty standard secondary school stuff. 

Anyway, back to the whole idea dealing with chromosomes and DNA. DNA, otherwise known with its scientific name, deoxyribonucleic acid. [4] There are four main chemicals in DNA: A, T, C and G. There are 23 pairs of chromosomes – 1 of which is female, that is why when men age – there hormones alter and become more and more feminine and vice versa with females. The rest of the chromosomes determine whether the baby is a male or female. Moreover, a mutation is basically the alteration of chromosomes, through the changing switching, dropping or repeated DNA combinations. [4] 

In conclusion, we have four fundamental ways to trace our ethnicity roots – whether they are fully reliable with their expensive price-tag is another thing entirely. Apart from the overall genealogical aspect, we have got to put our history hats on and question every truth we can given. The simplest way is the family tree, where you could draw your most recent relatives on it. However, this is limited because we only know so much on the paper with names and dates, rather than nationality of our ancestors. Indeed, you can have your respective Y-DNA and mtDNA tests in full swing, and it is advisable to be weary of the level of resolution in tests (medium seems appropriate according to the third site), so that we avoid too many anomalies and limitations to the relative truths given – as you saw with the ethnic and biogeographical tests. Hopefully, in the future, we can successfully trace ourselves to be a certain nationality and discover things we did not originally know. Cheers for reading and I will be back soon! 🙂