by Larry Smith
Are the Long Island Deans descended from the Queen of Sheba?
Do the Sweetings of Green Turtle Cay trace their heritage to a Roman soldier?
Are the Eleuthera Neely's related to the tall "blue men" of the Sahara?
Do the Hope Town Malone's descend from Irish royals?
These and other fascinating questions are now being answered by the Bahamas DNA Project, which is slowly filling in the gaps of Bahamian family history. Whether black, white or in-between, if you have ever wondered who your ancestors were, this research will lead you to them.
Launched in 2004, the project is the brainchild of Peter Roberts, a Bahamian professor at Georgia State University, where he has worked as an archivist for the past 18 years. Professor Roberts interned at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, and part of his studies focused on African retentions in Bahamian culture.
"I thought many Bahamians would be interested in discovering family members separated by slavery or by the adoption of different surnames," Mr Roberts explained. "We have a rich heritage with origins from various ethnic groups. And one remarkable feature of genetic testing is that it is possible to determine ethnic origin prior to the Bahamas."
The Bahamas DNA Project is similar to a much larger study aimed at mapping how humankind populated the earth. That global project is a five-year research partnership between National Geographic and IBM, with public participation through Family Tree DNA, the same testing company used by the Bahamas Project.
The worldwide Genographic Project was launched in the spring of 2005 and aims to analyse DNA contributions from hundreds of thousands of people, in order to report on the genetic roots of modern humans.
It is expected to reveal "rich details about global human migratory history and to drive new understanding about the connections and differences that make up the human species," according to a spokesman for National Geographic.
"Our DNA carries a story that is shared by everyone. The more we can improve our understanding of the common origin and journey of humankind, the greater the possibility for all of us to see each other as members of the same family,"
With about 50 participants so far, the Bahamas DNA Project is on a much smaller scale, but the results can be no less interesting. According to Mr. Roberts, more participants are needed for the project to chart a clearer understanding of our Bahamian heritage.
Anyone joining the Bahamas DNA Project will be able to add their results to the larger genographic database. And those with direct Bahamian ancestry, who order one of the National Geographic test kits, will be able to have their results added to the Bahamas DNA Project.
The Bahamas project will perform a genetic test on anyone with direct Bahamian ancestry. A maternal test can reveal deep ancestry while a paternal test is more suited for genealogy purposes. The cost for a mail order test from Family Tree DNA is less than $170. Collecting a DNA sample requires only a simple mouth swab; no blood or pain is involved, and privacy is strictly maintained.
Early results for the Bahamas project show that sharing the same surname is no guarantee of being related. But tests can also help identify an unknown ancestor, or provide clues of early ancestral origin. So far, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Berber, Abyssinian and West African origins have been identified for Bahamian participants.
One of the most famous examples of the use of DNA analysis proved that the third American president, Thomas Jefferson, fathered children with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings, who worked in the Jefferson home. In this case, DNA tests confirmed the oral history of the descendants of Sally Hemings.
Over the past two decades scientists have been solving the mystery of human origins by DNA analysis. These studies suggest that all humans are descended from a single African woman who lived some 150,000 years ago. Every non-African has a genetic marker that appeared in eastern Africa around that time - giving rise to the so-called Mitochondrial Eve theory.
Eve is the most recent common ancestor of all humans alive on Earth today with respect to matrilineal descent. As many as 10,000 individuals of her group may have lived at the same time she did, but only Eve produced an unbroken line of daughters that persists today. Researchers therefore reason that all living humans descend from Africans - some of whom migrated out of Africa to populate the rest of the world.
This is believed to have happened about 80,000 years ago when an ice age lowered sea levels and turned much of Africa into desert. Genetic evidence says this was about the time that one group of Africans crossed into Arabia and headed toward India and Southeast Asia. Later, when climate changes permitted, they moved into Europe. Other migrations out of Africa occurred before this, but those populations died without without leaving any genetic imprint on present-day humans.
Our genetic code is derived from our parents, each of whom contributes half of a child's DNA, which combines with the other parent's DNA to form a new genetic combination. This produces a unique set of attributes: hair, eye, and skin colour; athleticism or lack thereof; susceptibility to certain diseases; and so on.
However, the chunk of DNA known as the y chromosome, which only males possess, is passed from father to son without recombining. The y chromosome, therefore, remains basically unchanged through generations, except for random mutations. Similarly, women pass mitochondrial DNA, which also does not recombine, on to both their sons and daughters.
Random mutations to DNA, which happen naturally and are usually harmless, establish markers. Once a marker has been identified, geneticists can go back in time and trace it to the point at which it first occurred. In this way, they are able to determine when and where a new lineage began. These lineages can be used to track prehistoric migration patterns.
So what does all this mean for the more recent past, and for Bahamians in particular?
Well, the author's Bahamian roots go back to Wyannie Malone, a loyalist who settled in Hope Town, Abaco in 1785, and to other English immigrants from Bermuda who came here in the 1650s. A detailed genealogy of Wyannie's descendents has been produced by researchers at the Hope Town Museum, but little is known of her antecedents.
Now, recent results from the Bahamas DNA Project are shedding new light on the Hope Town Malones. A direct Bahamian descendant of Wyannie's son, David Malone, is a perfect DNA match with an American Malone who traces his genealogy to North Carolina and Virginia, with origin in Westmeath, Ireland.
Interestingly, this Malone's family history says they came to the American colonies by way of the Bahamas, but that an ancestor named Daniel Malone was "in the colonies" by 1665.
And it is certainly feasible that the Hope Town Malones descend from the Malone branch of the royal O'Connors of Connacht, who derive their name from an Irish High King who died in 970. The Malone name comes from the Irish Ó Maoil Eoin- Maol being Irish for bald.
The reference to the so-called "blue men" of the Sahara at the beginning of this article is to members of the Taureg ethnic group of Mali, in northwest Africa, who dye their robes a distinctive indigo blue. In the 15th century the Tuareg traded slaves with the Portuguese in West Africa. They controlled trade routes across the Sahara until the 20th century.
Mike Nealy, an insurance executive in California, is a descendent of William Neely, who was born on Eleuthera about 1820. And recent DNA tests show that his family shares ancestry with the Taureg of Mali.
William Neely's children were born at The Bluff, and Mike's family history speculates that he is descended from the slaves of John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, who came here from Virginia after the American Revolution to become governor. Mike's great grandparents moved to Key West from Eleuthera about 1879, and from there went to Harlem in New York.
"My aunts have been to the Bahamas several times and have often commented on the striking resemblance of some of the men on Eleuthera to my grandfather. My grandfather (and all of his five brothers) were very tall men, slender and with dark skin...I've always been interested in genealogy, and my grandmother made it a point that we knew that grandpa's people were from the Bahamas.
"I've never been there myself, but last year I began calling Neely's on Eleuthera. A friend copied the local telephone directory for all the Neelys he could find. I called every one of them, inquiring as to whether we might be related. Several believed we were. Perhaps sometime soon, I'll be able to make a trip down there."
Other results from the Bahamas DNA Project include the following...
A descendant of Pompey Adderley is of Bantu origin. The Bantus are an ancient group of peoples in sub-Saharan Africa.
A Hanna descendant from Andros (and earlier Acklins or Crooked Island) is of European origin.
A descendant of Cuffee Johnson, born in the 1820s in Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, shares ancestry with the Mende ethnic group of Sierra Leone in West Africa.
A direct paternal descendant of John Henry Sweeting (born 1843 in Green Turtle Cay) can trace his lineage to a Roman soldier of Balkan origin who was stationed in what is now England. That line is rare in the British Isles but is commonly found in the Balkans.
A direct maternal line descendant of Paulina Ann Dean (born about 1820 on Long Island) shows matches with Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. Some Ashkenazis are genetically related to the Bassa of the Cameroon.
And the Bassa are believed to descend from a larger group that was part of the Abyssinian Empire - the home of the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have had a son by King Solomon of Israel. Sheba was the ancient name for Abyssinia, which is now known as Ethiopia.
And there are other interesting - and perhaps more pregnant - questions:
Do the Bethells share a common direct paternal ancestor with the Bethels?
Do the Lightbournes share a common direct paternal ancestor with the Lightbourns? (Or are the Lightbournes of African or European ancestry?)
Where do the Pyfroms originate? Do the Bowlegs have Native American ancestry?
According to Professor Roberts, the worldwide Genographic Project may also be interested in analysing samples of Lucayan DNA from ancient remains found here. The Puerto Rican DNA Project has already identified Taíno Indian genetic markers in participants from that island.
Some 40,000 Lucayan Indians were deported from the Bahamas by the Spanish in the 16th century. It would be interesting to see if there were any survivors whose descendents live here today.