Case Studies

Genetics and the Meaning of Race [top]

When the sequencing of the human genome was completed in 2000, it was heralded as evidence that race was a cultural construction with little base in science. The sequencing apparently shows that approximately 99.9% of the human genome is the same in everybody, and that there is greater genetic variation within each race than there is between races.

According to Dr Craig Venter of Celera Genomics, one of the organizations involved in the sequencing, the level of genetic similarity shows that: "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one." There is only one race, Dr Venter and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have unanimously declared: the human race.

Dr Harold Freemen of the North General Hospital in Manhattan told the New York Times that only about 0.01% of our genes are responsible for our external appearance, on which we base our racial categorizations. The humans brain is finely attuned to recognize differences in appearance to facilitate differentiating between individuals. We therefore place great emphasis on appearance. But these differences in appearance translate into only tiny differences in our genetic make-up.

Many scientists and academics believe that this new information challenges the legitimacy of racial categorizations and shows that race is a meaningless notion. In 1997 the American Anthropological Association, which has published an official statement on race, urged the government to cease using racial categories.

Other writers, such as Professor Joseph Graves, author of "The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological theories of race at the Millennium," have questioned the value of racial categories in medicine. However, not everyone agrees with this statement. Some researchers continue to see racial classifications as scientifically useful, while others, such as surgeon general Dr David Satcher, believe that the evidence correlating race with health disparities in America warrants the continued use of the categories.


American Anthropological Association, "American Anthropological Association Statement On 'Race',"

Natalie Angier, "Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show," The New York Times, Aug. 22 2000,

Linda Villarosa, "A Conversation With Joseph Graves: races as the same machines in different colors," The New York Times, Jan. 1 2002,

Eliot Marshall, "DNA Studies Challenge the Meaning of Race," Science, 282 (Oct. 22 1998): 654-655,

M A Rothstein and P G Epps, "Pharmacogenomics and the (ir)relevance of race," The Pharmacogenomics Journal, 1 (2) (2001): 104-8

Sally Satel, "Medicine's Race Problem," Policy Review, 110 (Dec. 2001/Jan. 2002),

Nicholas Wade, "For Genome Mappers, the Tricky Terrain of Race Requires Some careful Navigation," The New York Times, Jul. 20 2001,

Genetic Science and American Indian Identity [top]

The American Indian identity is a complex matter. As with many contemporary ethnic identities, genetics, in the form of ancestry and blood quantum, plays an important role in identity construction. While many American Indian tribes require that potential members show a particular blood quantum before they are accorded tribal membership, few tribes currently use genetic tests to determine eligibility.

However, genetic tests to identify ancestry are becoming available. A new Texas based company, Family Tree DNA Genealogy by Genetics, Ltd performs genetic testing for Native American ancestry on individual customers. The company carries out mitochondrial DNA testing to determine Native American ancestry inherited through a direct line of maternal descent. They can also perform Y chromosome testing on men. These tests are, of course, limited to exclusively the maternal or paternal line.

There are no reports of American Indian tribes requiring or relying on DNA testing for membership, but the Western Mohegan an officially unrecognised tribe of the upper Hudson, has reportedly tested the DNA of its members in an effort to prove they possess American Indian blood.

In February 2000 a piece of legislation was introduced into the Vermont Legislature that proposed that the State's Commissioner of Health establish standards and procedures for DNA-HLA testing to determine the identity of an individual as a Native American. It was intended that the results of such testing would be conclusive proof of the Native American ancestry. The bill failed to become law before the end of the 1999 legislative session and has not been reintroduced. However, during its short life it provoked a strong reaction. Debra Harry, the director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism called it "outrageous" and said that it "demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about genetics." One internet site even set up a petition against the bill.

But Kimberly Tallbear, of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, has suggested that critics misinterpreted the Vermont bill, which she says was intended to provide an additional, rather than sole, means of establishing Indian heritage. Nevertheless, she notes that the bill is an example of an approach that assumes "that a person's culture and identity are chiefly biologically determined rather than being socially constructed." She also cautions that "scientists, policy makers, and others who advocate that genetic testing be used to determine culture or identity, imply a eugenics-type belief that genetic markers are synonymous with culture and somehow guarantee cultural continuity."

Genetic testing is approached with a certain amount of skepticism and resistance by some in American Indian circles. Tallbear considers this reluctance to be in part based on "an increasingly widespread belief among Indian people that to entertain ideas about the benefits of science and technology is to be anti-traditional." She also believes that tribes fear that scientific establishments cannot be trusted with their genetic resources. This concern to retain control over genetic material is evidenced in The Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed at the 1993 First International Conference on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in the 1995 Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project.


Kimberly Tallbear, "Genetics, Culture and Identity in Indian Country," paper presented at the Seventh International Congress on Ethnobiology, Athens, Georgia, Oct. 23-27 2000,

"Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project," signed at Phoenix, Arizona, Feb. 19 1995,

"The Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples," signed at the First International Conference on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Jun. 12-18 1993, Whakatane, New Zealand,

Fred Lebrun, "The limits of science, and of sense," The Times Union, Mar. 6 2000, page B1 (visited Jul. 9 2001 at LEXIS-NEXIS® Academic Universe).

Family Tree DNA Genealogy by Genetics, Ltd, "Native American Match,"

Nokwisa Yona, "DNA testing in Vermont," The Abolitionist Examiner, Apr./May, 2001,

The Cohanim

According to Jewish tradition male descendants of Moses' brother Aaron were selected by God to serve as priests. These priests are known as the Cohanim.

Given that the Y chromosome is passed from father to son one might expect that male members of the Cohanim living today would carry similar Y chromosomes. In addition, it might be expected that these Y chromosomes would show that the Cohanim and the Levites (the Jewish caste of which Moses was a member) shared a common ancestor in the Temple period, approximately 3,000 or 2,000 ago.

A study conducted by researchers from the United Kingdom and Israel showed that although the Y chromosomes of Levite men are very diverse, Cohen Y chromosomes are relatively homogenous. In a sample of 306 Jewish males from Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom the researchers found that a particular series of polymorphisms, known as a haplotype, was noticeably common among both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Cohanim. This haplotype is called the Cohen modal haplotype or CMH. Identification of the CMH in a high proportion of men belonging to a particular group can be used to support claims that the group has Jewish ancestry.

From the results of their study the researchers were also able to estimate how long ago the Cohanim they sampled had shared a common ancestor. They estimated that the common ancestor had lived approximately 2,600 years ago, sometime between the Exodus and the destruction of the first temple.


Bradman N, Thomas M. "Why Y? The Y chromosome in the study of human evolution." Science Spectra, number 14, 1998, 32-37. Available online at

Thomas MG, Skorecki K, Ben-Ami H, Parfitt T, Bradmann N, Goldstein DB. "Origins of Old Testament Priests." Nature, volume 394, 9 July 1998, 138-140.

The Lemba [top]

The Lemba are a black Southern African Bantu speaking group who claim to have Jewish ancestry. They observe customs that suggest a Jewish link such as not eating pork, male circumcision, and keeping one day a week holy. According to their oral history, they came to Africa from "Sena in the north by boat". The original group, which is said to have been almost entirely male, made its way to the coasts of Eastern Africa. If the Lemba do indeed have Jewish ancestry then one might expect to find a similarity between the Y chromosomes of Lemba men and those of Jewish men living in other parts of the world.

In a recent study the Y chromosomes of around 136 Lemba were compared to the Y chromosomes of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, Yemeni and non-Lemba Bantu speakers. The study's results were suggestive of a genetic history the Lemba that is not incompatible with the Lemba's oral tradition. Researchers found evidence of Semitic origin in the Lemba, although it was not clear whether this origin was Jewish or Arab, or a mixture of both.

The study also found that the Lemba carry the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH) at a frequency similar to that found in Jewish populations. The CMH has been suggested as a signature for the ancient Hebrew population. In fact, the Lemba men who showed a very high frequency of the CMH were those who identified themselves as belonging to the Buba clan. The Buba is recognized as the senior of the twelve Lemba clans, being the oldest and for some ritual purposes the most important. In many ways the Buba may be likened to the Cohen. Non-Lemba Bantu speakers in the study did not carry the CMH.

The researchers concluded that the Lemba most likely have a mixture of Jewish, Arab and Bantu origins, although the CMH present in Lemba men could have an exclusively Jewish origin. The genetic evidence is therefore consistent with the Lemba oral tradition of a Jewish origin.


Bradman N, Thomas M. "Why Y? The Y chromosome in the study of human evolution." Science Spectra, number 14, 1998, 32-37. Available online at Article on the use of Y-chromosome analysis to trace the alleged Jewish ancestry of the Lemba people of southern Africa. Site with an interactive game illustrating the Y-chromosome analysis, along with articles on the use of this technique in tracing the ancestry of the Lemba, the Cohanim, and Sally Hemings' children. Interview with Tudor Parfitt, describing his investigation of the Lemba's claims of Semitic origin.

Thomas MG, Parfitt T, Weiss DA, Skorecki K, Wilson JF, le Roux M, Bradman N, Goldstein DB. "Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba - the 'Black Jews of Southern Africa'." American Journal of Human Genetics, volume 66, number 2, February 2000, 674-686.

The Black Seminoles [top]

The Seminoles are an American Indian tribe that originated in Florida around the beginning of the 18th century. Over a period of approximately 200 years slaves in neighbouring states fled to Florida, where many found refuge among the Seminole Indians. These former slaves fought alongside the Seminoles in a number of wars against the Americans and were relocated to Oklahoma in the mid 1800s, where the tribe was given a reservation. In 1866 the Seminoles in Oklahoma signed a treaty with the United States government under which the blood Seminoles and the Black Seminoles were accorded equal rights. Thereafter the Black Seminoles of Oklahoma were known as "Freedmen."

In July 2000 the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma passed a resolution to amend their tribal membership criteria to require possession of one-eighth Seminole Indian blood. This new focus on blood quantum is not only in breach of the 1866 treaty, but it also has the effect of expelling many of the Freedmen from the tribe because many cannot show possession of Indian blood.

At a time when using genetics to prove identity is becoming more and more common, the Freedmen are an interesting case primarily because genetics has traditionally taken a back seat in the construction of their "Indianness". Their membership of an American Indian tribe has for generations been based on a shared history, rather than on shared Indian genetics. However, the Freedmen's membership of the Nation is now under threat as the tribe moves over to an identity system that places genetics above history, that values blood quantum over contribution to tribal affairs.

The story of the Freedmen offers a very unusual understanding of what it can mean to belong to an American Indian tribe. It also illustrates how genetics is becoming a popular way of defining identity.


Jamie Wickliffe-Ary, "Seminole Nation in Election Conflict Over Freedmen and Their Voting Rights," Native Times,

Charles Gardner, "Lawyer discusses Seminoles," The Dartmouth, Jan 19 2001,

William Glaberson, "Who is a Seminole and Who Gets to Decide," The New York Times, Jan. 29 2001,

Official homepage of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma,

Joseph Opala, A Brief History of the Seminole Freedmen. Austin: African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1980.

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson [top]

The African Ancestry Project from Howard University [top] Article outlining the controversy surrounding Howard University geneticist Rick Kittles' African Ancestry Project, which employs both mitochondrial and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. Gannett News Service article which provides an overview of the African Ancestry Project and describes African-American interest in such testing.

African Genealogy and Genetics: Looking back to move forward [top] A Dialogue on the Importance and Implications of Using Technologies and Genealogical Methods to Reconstruct an African Identity.

The Maori [top] Article on the use of mitrochondrial DNA analysis to trace the founding female Maori population of New Zealand, which also refers to a study showing genetic links between Polynesians (including Maori) and a people who lived in Taiwan around 5,000 years ago.

The Melungeons [top]

Article by University of North Carolina sociology professor John Shelton Reed on the Melungeons, an ethnic group from the Southern United States about whose ethnic ancestry little is known. Official website of the Melungeon Heritage Association. Website devoted to the "Melungeon Movement".

The Caste System in India [top]

Are caste-based hierarchies a form of racism? This question was the topic of a heated dispute between the Indian government and representatives of the Dalit (or "Untouchables") at the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Dalit argued that caste-based discrimination is a type of racism and that their political struggles should be included in the agenda of the conference. The Indian government resisted this argument, arguing that the caste system is unconnected to race.

The Indian government eventually succeeded in almost wholly excluding any substantive discussion of caste at the conference. However, a recent genetic study suggests that higher caste groups in India are genetically more similar to Europeans and that lower castes are more similar to Asians. Some observers have taken this study as evidence that discrimination based on caste is more similar to discrimination based on race than defenders of the caste system admit.

The caste system in India is a hierarchical social structure divided into four levels called varnas. Each varna is an endogamous group that has traditionally been assigned differing social roles. From highest to lowest, those occupying the four varnas are:

  • Brahmins
  • Kshatriyas
  • Vaishyas
  • Shudras

However, beyond the four varnas there is a fifth group called Achut, or Untouchable. Members of this last group are considered too polluted even to be included in the caste hierarchy. They are outcasts, and they are assigned roles that, though necessary, are thought too low for members of the four varnas.

In recent times, Gandhi tried to give the Untouchables a less offensive name, while still preserving the category. He called them Harijan, or children of Hari, a Hindu deity. Going even further, the constitution of the modern, democratic state of India outlawed the practice of untouchability in an attempt to efface the concept. Yet, despite this effort, the concept of untouchability is still part of the caste system as it survives in India today.

In reaction to this concept and the oppression it has been used to justify, the Untouchables of India have organized themselves into a political group demanding equal rights under the democratic constitution of India. As a start, they have discarded the terms "Untouchable" and "Harijan" and have adopted the title, "Dalit," which means broken, torn asunder, or crushed. Further, they have attempted to make the world aware of their situation. The Dalit community argued that their case needed to be heard at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, but the Indian government vigorously opposed this argument. They argued that the Dalits are not a racial group and thus have no place in a conference on racism.

The debate between the Dalits and the Indian government raises complex questions about the nature of race and caste. These questions have been complicated still further by a recent study suggesting that the notion of caste originated in the concept of race. A study led by Michael Bamshad of the University of Utah indicated that higher castes in India have more European genetic markers while the lower castes including Dalits have more Asian genetic markers. Critics of the caste system have taken this study as a refutation of the argument that caste was originally based not on birth but on the ''nature'' of individuals.

References: News article providing more details of the debate between Dalit and Indian government officials. Paper by Gerardo Vildostegui on the caste-race debate. A collection of links to articles on both sides of the race-caste debate. Abstract of Bamshad article mentioned above. (Full text is password-protected.)