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A firm in Houston, Texas that pioneered the use of DNA tests in genealogy studies is involved in a project in Africa that could help researchers there trace migration patterns over the centuries and help African Americans to connect with their roots. Family Tree DNA and its partners will start by collecting samples from specific ethnic groups in West Africa.

Most black people in America know that their ancestors were in Africa, but they have little information about where in Africa they were or to which tribe or ethnic group they belonged. 

The project being launched by Family Tree DNA, here in Houston, in cooperation with the Boston-based AfricanDNA.com enterprise, will begin by targeting five specific ethnic groups in Ghana that are known to have provided slaves to European traders during the Atlantic slave-trade era.  AfricanDNA.com was founded by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The founder and president of Family Tree DNA,

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, tells VOA that data from the tests being conducted in Africa can be compared to results from tests done by African Americans here in the United States to see which genetic indicators match.

"If we find individuals who match people from Africa, from particular countries and from particular tribes or ethnicities, then we have a much better idea that that individual in America probably is a descendant of people from that particular ethnicity in Africa," said Greenspan.

Greenspan says the idea of narrowing the focus of the Africa study to only a few ethnicities came from recent studies at Emory University in Atlanta that organized data drawn from logs kept by slave ship captains.

"Those people actually listed the ethnicities or the tribes that they came from, so we have, actually, a pretty good idea of all of the tribes who gave up sons and daughters to the Atlantic slave trade, even though 10 or 20 years ago this was not known at all," added Greenspan.

Family Tree DNA, which was founded in the year 2000, was the first private company to employ DNA testing for genealogical research. 

Bennett Greenspan says his company is providing the testing kits at no cost to the teams working in Africa.  The samples they provide will add to Family Tree's database as well as that of AfricanDNA.com. 

The genetic information will be extracted from the samples in a laboratory at the University of Arizona and will provide data for the Anthropology Department's academic studies.

But Greenspan cautions that DNA tests alone cannot tell a person exactly what group he or she belongs to since the genetic markers developed over millions of years and most tribes, in Africa and elsewhere, were formed only in the past several-thousand years.  In addition, he says, migrations within Africa resulted in genetic mixing.

"What we would expect to see is a fair amount of overlap between tribes that are close," continued Greenspan.  "Even after we do this project we may not be able to tell an African American that, for sure, you are from this particular tribe or ethnicity.  We think we will be able to tighten down, so to speak, a short list of tribes or ethnicities."

But he says many African Americans may find it preferable to have some general indicators of what area their ancestors came from rather than the blank slate they have now.

DNA samples are taken by using a cotton swab in the mouth of the person being tested.  Analysis of the material extracted can be used for checking both paternal and maternal lines.