The Best DNA Test for Black Ancestry

It’s not uncommon to wonder about the origins of your ancestors. Maybe you’re even considering purchasing a DNA test to shed light on your genetic heritage.

The world of ancestral DNA testing is relatively new, and some types of tests yield more comprehensive results than others. If you’re Black with African ancestry, it’s important to choose a DNA test that will give you the answers you need.

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So, what’s the best DNA test for Black ancestry? And what should you know before you take one?

How Do DNA Tests Work?

At the practical level, the process of DNA testing is simple. Here’s what happens:

  • You give a saliva sample
  • Your DNA is compared against the DNA of people with different known ancestries
  • Computer analysis estimates your genetic makeup

But how exactly does a DNA test decode your DNA to get meaningful insights? If you were to look at your genome (your complete DNA sequence), you would see three billion pairs of nucleotides, the molecules comprising DNA. Each nucleotide is represented by a letter, and there are four of them: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T).

However, an ancestry DNA test doesn’t need to analyze all three billion pairs. Research suggests that all humans are about 99.9% genetically identical. Scientists have identified certain locations in our genetic code where people differ. These are the spots examined by ancestral DNA tests.

To determine your ancestry, a company will compare your DNA at these locations to other people’s DNA in the company database. More extensive, diverse databases will give you more specific results.

Ancestry DNA tests can give you lots of information, but they have limitations. Here are a few:

  • If a company database doesn’t include members of your ancestral population, results might say your ancestors came from a related (but different) population
  • Because tests use short pieces of DNA, they aren’t always completely accurate
  • Some neighboring populations (like Scotland and Ireland) have a lot of ancestry in common, so it may be difficult to see which population your ancestors came from

DNA test results often include a “confidence interval” by different results. Higher confidence intervals mean those results are likely correct. With a lower confidence interval, there’s a greater chance that the result is inaccurate.

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Ancestry DNA tests help you learn about your broader family history and can also create personal connections. Test algorithms can determine whether your DNA is close to that of another person in the database. Through this feature, many people have connected with relatives they didn’t even know they had.

Most ancestry DNA tests use an algorithm that separates your genome into small pieces that are then compared to reference samples. However, some companies offer a service called “whole genome sequencing.” This is just what it sounds like: through the testing process, your entire genome is examined.

Whole genome sequencing provides useful ancestry and genealogy information. However, because it’s so comprehensive, it also helps you learn other valuable things about your genetic makeup, such as:

  • Disease Risks: Even if you haven’t started showing symptoms of a given disease, your genes can tell you whether you’re at risk (and you can make adjustments accordingly)
  • How You May Respond to Certain Medications: Certain medications may be more or less effective for you given your genetic makeup, so your doctors may be able to prescribe better medications for you
  • Your Nutritional Needs: When you know how your genetic makeup impacts your nutritional needs, you can make dietary changes to achieve optimal health

As you may have guessed, whole genome sequencing is considerably more expensive than tests focusing on ancestry. If your primary concern is learning about your heritage, it’s best to choose a test that focuses on determining your ancestry (doing so accurately and specifically).

Is There a Best DNA Test for Black Ancestry?

Some DNA tests are marketed toward the general public. Others are designed specifically for Black ancestry. However, if you’re trying to find the best one, it’s more important to look at the nuances of the test itself than at how it’s advertised.

Generally speaking, any test by a reputable DNA testing company will be accurate. That said, your results can vary significantly from company to company. Why?

Understanding Reference Groups

DNA testing companies estimate your heritage by comparing your DNA to the DNA of reference groups. So, if your DNA has significant commonalities with the DNA of a reference group with Sudanese heritage, your test may say that you have a high percentage of Sudanese ancestry.

However, different companies use different reference groups, and the people in said reference groups are regularly changing. So even if you take the same company’s test at a different point in time, you may find that your results are slightly different.

Some Reference Groups Are More Complete than Others

Many DNA testing companies have more people of European descent in their reference databases. As a result, they tend to have more specific results for test takers of European descent.

If a company doesn’t have many people of African descent in its database, results for Black ancestry can be frustratingly vague. For instance, one popular DNA testing company could initially only match African test takers to three large regions of sub-Saharan Africa. That only changed in 2018 as the company’s reference groups expanded.

People of African descent aren’t alone in this. For example, in many cases, DNA testing companies have very small Native American reference groups, so they often cannot distinguish between tribes.

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Accuracy vs. Specificity

Ultimately, the best DNA test for Black ancestry will be one with a large reference group (or database) of people of African descent. In this context, “best” doesn’t only mean “most accurate.”

Most at-home DNA tests boast 99.9% accuracy, a claim that many experts find plausible. But without specificity, accuracy doesn’t tell you a whole lot. Take the company referenced above. If you took that test prior to 2018, your results might tell you your ancestors came from one large African region.

Those results might be accurate, but they aren’t specific. You still wouldn’t know what tribe or African country your ancestors came from. You’d need a company with more data on other Black people for more specific results.

You can find information on reference groups and database limitations for most companies, but you generally have to do some digging. Some companies will tell you what ethnic groups they can identify. If a given company can’t match you to specific regions or ethnic groups in Africa, it’s a good idea to seek out a company with more complete data.

If that information isn’t readily available on the company website, it’s worth contacting a customer service representative.

How to Pick the Best DNA Test for Black Ancestry

A DNA test is an investment. The right one can give you incredible insight into your history, but the wrong one can give you false results or results that are simply too vague to be useful. If you’re hoping to find the best test for Black ancestry, here are some things to consider.

Does the Company Specialize in African Ancestry?

The African diaspora can make it more difficult to determine your genetic history. As a result, it’s often a good idea to choose a company or a kit specializing in African ancestry. As you research African DNA tests, you’ll find that many major testing companies offer specific Black ancestry kits. There are also companies that exclusively produce tests for Black ancestry.

Does the Kit Include Information on Maternal and Paternal Lines?

Not all DNA tests are equally comprehensive. There are three main types on the market: mitochondrial DNA tests (mtDNA), Y-chromosome DNA tests (Y-DNA), and autosomal DNA tests.

  • Mitochondrial DNA tests cover your matrilineal ancestry, meaning they analyze your mother-line DNA. That’s because mitochondria pass from mothers to their children. Both men and women can take mtDNA tests, but the results do not include any men you descended from.
  • Y-chromosome DNA tests trace your patrilineal (father-line) ancestry. Because Y chromosomes pass from fathers to sons, only men can take this type of test. The results don’t include information on women you descended from. On your journey to trace your African ancestry, costs may also factor into your selection process. If so, mtDNA and Y-DNA tests are affordable options. The third type is autosomal DNA testing.
  • Autosomal DNA tests work by tracing autosomal chromosomes, which are chromosomes that both men and women have. This means your results will include both men and women you descended from. Because they are so comprehensive, autosomal DNA tests tend to be more expensive than either mtDNA or Y-DNA tests. But they’re worth the price if you want the best DNA test for African ancestry!

Does the Test Give Information on Health Risks?

If you have African ancestry, you may be at a higher risk of carrying genes for certain genetic diseases like sickle cell disease or Tay-Sachs disease. If you’re planning on having a child or are just curious about recessive genes you might be carrying, look to see if your test includes health risk information.

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What Is the Specificity of Results?

An African American DNA test can help you understand which African regions your ancestors likely came from. Look for tests that will tell you your specific tribal ethnicity as well as your ancestors’ country of origin.

Some very specific tests don’t just tell you where your ancestors came from – they also tell you how they moved over time. The more detailed the test, the better you’ll understand your history.

What Is the Size of the Database?

If you want to connect with relatives all over the world, you’ll want to look for a testing company with an extensive database. The more people who have taken a given test (and are in the company’s database), the more likely you are to find and connect with relatives in Africa and elsewhere.

Is the Company Licensed?

You don’t want to trust just any company with your DNA. You also don’t want to give your hard-earned money to a company that will yield inaccurate or downright false results.

Before you make a purchase, it’s a good idea to make sure a DNA testing company is licensed. You can check the website for a licensing number and verify that number online.

Are Previous Customers Satisfied?

Whether you’re buying a car or purchasing a Black DNA test, customer reviews can tell you a lot. Customer reviews shouldn’t be the only thing guiding your decision, but they can help. Look for reviews from other Black people to see if they received beneficial, detailed results.

Are There Any Privacy Concerns with DNA Tests?

Ancestry DNA tests can be fascinating, giving you results that help you better understand yourself and where you came from. But before you rush out to get one, it’s crucial to understand how these tests might impact your privacy.

You might be surprised to hear about privacy concerns. After all, if you go to the doctor and get a blood test, your results are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

However, HIPAA doesn’t apply to genetic testing companies that send results directly to consumers. As a result, there are privacy concerns to consider before you take a test.

Law Enforcement Can Access Your Samples

You likely know that law enforcement officers can access government DNA databases when they need to identify a suspect. But did you know they can also access genetic information through genetic testing companies?

There may one day be more comprehensive privacy laws protecting direct-to-consumer genetic test company databases from law enforcement access. For now, though, no significant laws are blocking law enforcement from accessing your data.

Health Information Could Possibly Raise Health Insurance Premiums

This isn’t happening now. Still, some experts have warned that insurance companies may use genetic health information to raise insurance premiums without proactive legislation.

Genetic Testing Companies May Overcollect Data

If you’ve ever read the terms and conditions for just about any app, you’re familiar with data overcollection. “Overcollection” in this context just means that a site gathers more data than it actually needs. For instance, some apps require you to give them permission to access your contacts list and your microphone.

Most genetic testing companies work the same way. Their terms of service include very broad permissions that allow them to collect massive amounts of data that go well beyond your genetic information.

Like other websites, most of these sites also use data augmentation. This is a process used to gather data about you from third parties. They combine that with the data they’ve collected directly from you to make an even more comprehensive profile.

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Third-Party Companies Create More Risk

Nearly all genetic testing company websites allow third-party websites to track your behavior while using the genetic test site. Generally, these third-party sites use your data to deliver targeted advertising.

Most well-known DNA testing sites adequately protect your information. However, once a third-party tracking website has your information, it’s up to that site to protect it. Some of these websites may have adequate protection, but since you can’t tell which companies your data is shared with, it’s impossible to know whether your data is safe.

Genetic testing websites don’t just share information with one or two sites, either. A Consumer Reports study found that genetic testing sites make up to 68 connections to third-party websites during a single user session.

The world of data collection is not transparent; even the best ancestry test for African Americans will share at least some of your data. It’s possible that in the future, the collection and sharing of consumer data will be more tightly regulated. For now, it’s impossible to know just how much of your data will get into the hands of other websites.

How to Find Out More about Black Ancestry

Figuring out where your ancestors came from can be fascinating, but the truth is that it’s only one piece of a vast, complex puzzle. If you really want to get a sense of where you came from, you can learn more about your family history.

If you’re looking for ways besides DNA tests to help you learn about your ancestry (or if you’ve already found the best DNA test for African Americans and just want to learn more), here are a few ways to start.

Create a Family Tree

If you want to dive far back into your family history, you need to get organized first! The best way to start is by creating a family tree. You likely at least know the names of your parents, grandparents, and maybe your great-grandparents. You can put these people on your family tree and add more as you discover them.

Creating the family tree itself doesn’t have to be complicated. Many websites let you create and add to one for free. Alternatively, if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can even sketch one on paper.

Talk to Family Members

You can begin to trace your recent ancestral history through surviving family members. Doing so gives you an opportunity to learn about them and their lives. As you trace your history, keep a record of more than just birthdates and descendants. You can ask your distant family members a few questions to get a sense of what their lives have been like:

  • Where were you born?
  • What was it like growing up in your hometown?
  • What did your parents do for a living? What were they like?
  • What did you do for a living?
  • Are there any family stories or legends passed down from one generation to the next?

Storytelling can be a fun way to learn more about your family history, so consider asking each family member you contact to tell you a story about their childhood.

During this phase of your research, make sure you write everything down! It might sound tedious, but documenting stories and facts will help your family history live on, preserving it for future generations.

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Visit Local Institutions

Primary research sources like local newspapers and birth, death, and marriage records can be a great way to trace your family background. Often, these records can’t be found online.

Depending on where you live, several possible institutions might have these records, including:

  • Family history centers
  • Libraries
  • Genealogical societies
  • Historical societies
  • Archives

It’s often a good idea to start at the local level. As you learn more, you may want to visit state and regional institutions. Many of these institutions are staffed by people with a genuine enthusiasm for history. If you need any advice or guidance, they can probably help!

Consult Church Records

When thinking about which places to visit for genealogical research, many people forget about churches. If attending church was an important part of your family’s life, you may find more information about family members in church records than in local archives. Some, but not all, churches will include records of events in members’ lives.

Learn What Life Was Like for Your Ancestors

When you take the time to learn about the context of your ancestors’ lives, you will gain a deeper understanding of where you came from. Learning about what everyday life was like for your ancestors will also help you tie your family tree together into a cohesive story.

For instance, let’s say that you have traced your great-great-grandparents back to a small town nearby. You can visit the town in its present state to help understand what life was like when your ancestors were alive.

Town or state archives will likely have photos and maps of the area from long ago. And if you can find a local newspaper from when your great-great-grandparents were alive, it will give you a sense of the everyday goings-on in the community as it once was.

Want to Explore Your Ancestry?

Is African ancestry legit? In short, yes – but there’s so much more to discover. Finding the best DNA test for Black ancestry can help you learn about yourself, but the test is just one piece of the puzzle. When you learn the names of your ancestors and discover their stories, your history comes to life in ways you never thought possible.

With GenealogyBank, finding those stories is exciting – and easier than you think. Our database lets you trace your history via marriage announcements, birth records, obituaries, and news stories.

Our site grants you access to over 15,000 big-city and small-town newspapers from 1690 to today. A full 95% of those newspaper archives are exclusive to GenealogyBank. If you want your family tree research to include more than just names and dates, explore over 330 years of newspapers and historical records in GenealogyBank. Discover your family story! Start a 7-Day Free Trial

Note on the header image: DNA double helix horizontal. Credit: Jerome Walker; Wikipedia.

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