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Rebuilding The Family Tree

Finding One's Roots 15:01

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 7, 2007. It was updated on June 26, 2008.

Genealogy -- researching family history -- is one of the most popular hobbies in this country, right up there with gardening. A nation of immigrants, we almost all come from somewhere else we wish we knew more about, so searching for our roots holds tremendous appeal. And today there is an exciting new addition to the genealogists' tool kit: genetic genealogy.

As correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported last fall, it turns out that inside each one of us, within every cell of our bodies, is information about who our ancestors were, where they lived, and who we're related to today. Our DNA contains hidden stories about our pasts, and scientists, together with businessmen, are now offering ways to help us read them.

Vy Higginsen is the founder and director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem. She believes it's crucial for African-Americans to know and celebrate their heritage. But for most of her life, she knew virtually nothing about her own.

"It happened when my grandmother died. When I saw her laying in the casket, and I realized I didn't know who she was," she explains.

She started researching her family tree, but could only get as far back as her grandmother's father, Robert West. Then she heard about a company that could explore her great grandfather's ancestry, using DNA from a direct male descendent. So she called her cousin James West and asked if she could come swab his cheek.

"So we go down to Washington D.C. We take the test and he's all excited. And we send it back. And, bam, there's a hit," Vy Higgensen remembers.

There was a match between cousin James' DNA and that of several other men whose last name was also West. That means that James, and therefore Vy, are related to all these men, who sent their DNA to the same company, also looking for matches.

Vy was reeling from that information, when she received a phone call from halfway across the country. "And he said, 'Hello. My name is Marion West. And I'm a cattle rancher from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. And I understand we're cousins," Vy, who is African-American, remembers.

Out of the blue, Marion West, who is white, had picked up the phone and reached out to his newfound DNA cousin. "I picked up the phone and dialed her," he tells Stahl.

"You probably never had a cousin that sounded like that before," Stahl remarks.

"No," Vy says. "Not even close. I mean I didn't see a cow 'til I was 22."

And she wasn't exactly what he'd been expecting either: he had tried DNA testing to prove a family story that his bloodline traced back to British royalty.

"You had this sense that your family was pure English, pure blood. Blue blood," Stahl says.

"Oh yeah, 100 percent," Marion West says.

Marion West and Vy's cousin James West are related through the tiny "Y" chromosome, which men pass down unchanged to their sons, so it traces an unbroken line from generation to generation. It was the "Y" chromosome that allowed family members of Sally Hemings to prove they descended from Thomas Jefferson, or at least from one of his male relatives.

Now if you want to find out about your ancestry, there are at least a dozen different companies offering to analyze DNA for prices ranging from $100 to $400 a test.

The company Marion and Vy chose, Family Tree DNA, is one of the largest. They say the DNA proves that Marion and Vy share a common male ancestor, probably within the last 100 to 300 years. And that common ancestor was Caucasian.

Marion says up to that point, it had never before occurred to him that he had a branch of the family that was African-American.

"How did you feel about the prospect of having black relatives?" Stahl asks.

"Well, you know, I really, to tell you the truth, it's just life. I didn't doubt it a bit," he says.

In fact, he embraced it, and extended an invitation to Vy for Thanksgiving dinner in Poplar Bluff, Mo. "And I thought it was really very charming and very nice. But I wasn't going to Missouri," Vy remembers, laughing.

Not on Thanksgiving, but she did go to Missouri. Marion drove two and a half hours to the airport to meet her and her daughter.

"And he grabs us, throws his arms around us. And he said, 'This is a day I have prayed for. I'm so glad you came. Thank you,'" Vy remembers.

"I grabbed her and hugged her, said, 'You're part of my blood. You're mine--cousins, God's put us together.' Exactly what I told her," Marion remembers.

"When you started this, in your wildest imagination, did you ever think you'd end up in a white family?" Stahl asks Vy.

"No," she replies.

Asked if it's funny, bemusing or weird, Vy, says, "All of it. …But there's some joy in the discovery. Who am I? Why do I look the way I do? It's like discovering American history through yourself."

The American history Vy discovered is a common one it turns out. Geneticist Rick Kittles runs a company called African Ancestry that specializes in DNA testing for black Americans. He says a full one third of the men he tests find out they have a white male relative somewhere back in time.

How do people who find this out react?

"Some black men get upset and say, 'Look, I'm black. Look at me, I'm black.' And you know and I say, 'Yeah, you are. But this small segment of your DNA doesn't go back to Africa but to Europe,'" Kittles says. "We are a mosaic of many different ancestors. We can go back several generations and there are hundreds of people who, thousands of people who actually contributed to our DNA."

And that's the rub. This business of genetic genealogy is fraught with limitations. For one thing, it can only provide information about a tiny fraction of our ancestry. Because we get half our DNA from our mothers and half from our fathers, almost all of our DNA gets shuffled and remixed every generation, making it impossible to trace what comes from whom. There are just two bits of DNA that remain pure - the "Y" chromosome, which passes directly from father to son, and something called mitochondrial DNA, which passes unchanged from mother to child.

Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University, has studied this new field. He worries that people don't realize just how many ancestors they actually have.

"Eight generations ago both you and I had 256 great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents," Greely points out. "It doubles every generation. So you've got two parents. You have four grandparents. You have eight great grandparents. Sixteen great-great grandparents. And it adds up fast. It adds up so fast in fact that if you go back 20 generations you've got over a million grandparents."

1,048,576 to be exact. And in each generation, DNA testing can provide information about only two of them.

"So you could be Peruvian on your mother's mother's mother's side, Japanese on your father's father's father's side. Swedish on everything else," Greely explains.

"And you'll never know?" Stahl asks.

"And you'll never know the Swedish from the 'Y' chromosome or the mitochondrial DNA," Greely says.

"We don't oversell. I mean, we just say, 'Look, we provide a service.' If you're interested in exploring a tiny bit of your DNA and trace it's ancestry we can do that," Kittles says.

"When you say it's a tiny little amount…," Stahl says.

"It's less than point one percent," Kittles explains.

"That's pretty teeny," Stahl remarks.

"Yeah, but for people who know nothing about any of them, I think it's very important," Kittles says.

Kittles' company has amassed the largest database of DNA sequences from countries in Africa, particularly those from which slaves were taken. His goal is to help American blacks trace their ancestry back to Africa, a history totally lost to them.

To Vy Higgensen, the prospect of tracing even a tiny fraction of her ancestry back to Africa was enthralling. 60 Minutes sent her DNA to African Ancestry, as well as several other genetic genealogy companies, to see what they could tell us about Vy's maternal lineage.

Kittles' company sent Vy what they call a certificate of ancestry.

"It says … that you share maternal genetic ancestry with people from the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone. Do you know anything about Sierra Leone or … the Mende people?" Stahl asks.

"No," Vy says, tearing up. "Nothing."

"People have been waiting a lifetime for something like this. Now this is just a tiny bit of information now," Kittles says.

"But they take it as huge," Stahl remarks.

"Right. Because it's cracking open the door that was closed for centuries," Kittles tells Stahl.

"There's a place in Africa you could say that I'm from?" Vy asks.

"A tribe," Stahl says.

"A tribe? I'm thrilled," Vy says. "It puts a name, a place, a location, a people. It opens up such possibilities."

But the problem is Sierra Leone wasn't the only answer Vy got. A company called Relative Genetics found a match to a single person in the Wobe tribe in the Ivory Coast.

"Different? Now, I got all excited about that and this is different?" Vy asks. "Now, how could that happen?"

Then a third company, Trace Genetics, found that Vy's sequence matched sequences reported among multiple Mendenka individuals in Senegal.

And Family Tree DNA, the company that linked Vy with Marion in the first place, came up with a whole list of matches.

So what do we know about Vy's ancestry? The DNA does indicate that she has distant relatives in the Mende tribe, but she also has relatives in all those other tribes. So no one can say for sure where Vy's maternal ancestor actually came from.

"When I handed Vy the certificate, she got extremely emotional about it. She wept. And it meant so very much to her," Stahl tells Hank Greely.

"People want to believe," Greely says. "And it's not fair of us to let them believe that we're giving 'em certain answers because scientifically we just can't."

"Hank Greely is concerned that the science isn't really there yet for you to be giving them the name of a tribe," Stahl tells Kittles.

"I think for most companies, I would be concerned too," Kittles says.

"But what about your own company?" Stahl asks. "He didn't exclude you."

"He included you," Stahl points out.

"But we have the largest set of sequences from Africa. And so with that … we're able to provide some level of probability in terms of frequency," Kittles says.

"But he would say that even though you have the largest database, it's still small on the scope of things," Stahl remarks.

"As I said, I share those concerns," Kittles replies.

"About yourself," Stahl says.

"About the field," Kittles tells Stahl.

Asked if he thinks there is any fraud involved here, Greely tells Stahl, "I don't think there's fraud. I think there is hype."

"You know, beer commercials imply that drinking their beer will make beautiful women fall all over you. I think the genetic genealogy companies don't go below the normal standards of the marketplace. But they don't go above it either," Greely says. "Some do a better job than others, but there's not one that couldn't improve. And that bothers me because they're using science to sell their product. And science is about the whole truth."

In Vy and Marion's case, the truth is that they are related -- no doubt there -- even if it's not apparent on the surface.

"You know, Marion, you told me that the first time you looked at Vy, you said, 'She's a West,'" Stahl remarks. "I'm looking at the two of you, and I have to be honest … you don't look anything alike. Nothing. You don't look anything alike."

"Look at the eyes," Vy says.

"I'm looking at the eyes," Stahl says.

"You look at my eyes…," Marion tells Stahl. "Then you look at her eyes."

"Sorry, sorry, Marion," Stahl says.

But to them, it doesn't matter a bit.

Their genetic connection, however small, has made each of their worlds larger. Vy says she's actually come to enjoy hearing about how the hay is growing on Marion's ranch, and Marion is on his second trip to Harlem.

And the circle keeps on widening: remember all those other men whose Y chromosomes matched Vy's cousin James? Last month, Vy and Marion traveled to Nashville to meet a whole new batch of genetic cousins, a family reunion, courtesy of DNA.

Produced By Shari Finkelstein

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