Author, Scientist Assist in Tracing Lineage

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Edward Ball is deeply interested in genetic testing to determine family history. Ball discusses his new book The Genetic Strand. Also joining the conversation is Rick Kittles, who helps African-Americans use technology to trace their roots through DNA samples.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We've been talking about stories from around the world. It's kind of a cliche, but kind of true. But in America, just about everybody comes from somewhere else. Now we want to talk about how you can figure out where you come from and if you really want to know.

We start with Edward Ball. He first drew national attention about 10 years ago when he wrote "Slaves in the Family," which recounts the history of slavery on his ancestors' rice plantation in South Carolina and how one of them fathered a child with a slave. Ball is now out with a new book called "The Genetic Strand," which delves even further into his family history, this time through DNA testing of strands of hair he discovered from long-deceased relatives. Edward Ball joins us now to share what he learned about his family, DNA testing and the science behind it all.

Mr. Ball, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. EDWARD BALL (Author, "Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA"): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Now you started with hair that you believe is from your great, great grandfather. But, at first, would you just tell us how you found this treasure trove of DNA?

Mr. BALL: Well, a few years ago, I inherited an antique desk, a 200-year-old secretary it was called. It's an eight-foot tall desk, four-feet wide with a writing surface that flips down and cubby holes for letters. And in the midst of this thing, there was a secret compartment that contained a collection of human hair, and I - it was creepy because the hair was labeled and dated with the dates that it had been cut from the heads of family members 1825, 1830, 1835. And, of course, all of these people were dust in the ground, and it was a bit like finding archaeological remains.

MARTIN: I'm just surprised by it, though, forgive me, maybe it's me. But you almost had like a physical reaction to this. I was just so wondering why you - it's almost like you went ewe! I was just wondering why you think you had such a strong reaction.

Mr. BALL: Well, some of the hair was like the hair of a child the day that you cut it. And I also knew who all of these people were because they were family members, and I had studied their papers and written about their life stories in this book that you mentioned, "Slaves in the Family." And so I had a certain intimacy with their situation. And it was a bit like the door of the past had been thrown open and a group of people had walked in to the room.

MARTIN: How did you decide to pursue the idea of DNA testing?

Mr. BALL: I thought for some time that I would just keep this stuff, you know, in a shoebox. But every week I would read about an archaeologist who had extracted DNA from the remains of a mummy in Peru or someone who had extracted DNA from Neanderthal bones. And it occurred to me, this is extraordinary new science, maybe there's DNA in this hair. And maybe this is the way I can teach myself about DNA - testing - because I know very little about it. And so this was the way it started.

MARTIN: And the book - alternates between chapters where you tell the stories of these folks whose hair you discovered and it alternates with your sort of unraveling of the science of DNA - how it works, how genetic testing actually works. I love it if you would - which is fascinating in itself - but I'd love it if you tell us more about the stories you uncover about some of the folks whose hair you've discovered and what you found out about them. And there are so many in the book I just like you to pick maybe one or two.

Mr. BALL: Right. Well, they were nine locks of hair, and they ranged from hair cut from a 3-year-old child to an 82-year-old woman from the year 1824 until 1855. And one of them was labeled Aunt Betsy, and I didn't know who this was. I looked at my family records, and I determined that it was the woman named Elizabeth N. Pious(ph), who was a great, great, great aunt - who was an author and the only author in the family in the 1800s in South Carolina. And at a time when women is, they wrote anything other than letters were considered a little odd. And she styled herself as a sort of gossip columnist for South Carolina society. And she signed her columns, the Octogenarian Lady. So she was a sort of dotty old bag who published a few books at a time when very few people were publishing books, and especially not women. And she was one of the nine. There was a guy named William James Ball, great, great grandfather of mine, whose hair was the first cut in 1824 when he was three years old.

And the reason was that his parents had had three children. He had two siblings. And in a period of six months, his two siblings died of fever and malaria, and um - yellow fever and malaria. And so the parents, I think in their grief decided, well, if we lose our third and only child, what will we have of him. And so they cut a lock of his hair, and they stored it for safekeeping...

MARTIN: And so...

Mr. BALL: ...and this was how...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALL: Yeah. This was how the hair collection got started.

MARTIN: It's fascinating to think - it's what that they think keeping that hair. Although, I must tell you that when my little boy went his first haircut and I don't remember how old was he - maybe, two or three, I was a holdout - that I saved a lock of his hair. And I don't even really know why I did it.

Mr. BALL: You see, you see. You're part of this whole fascination, too.

MARTIN: I must be. I must be.

Mr. BALL: In those days, it was a real obsession of people with their children's hair because photography had not been invented. And, in fact, the hair collection stops in the mid-1850s when a photographer moved to the town of Charleston, South Carolina, and this family who had collected all his hair commissioned photographs of themselves and they stopped cutting off hair because they have now had the things that they could look at to remember their kin with an image.

MARTIN: You know what, the other thing I was fascinated by are some of the health conditions you discovered...

Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...among your ancestors.

Mr. BALL: Very strange, yes. I found that the hair contains extraordinary content of lead and arsenic that are way off the charts and far above what the EPA would tolerate, and I wondered why. And I read in the scholarly literature on the subject and I found that - and this family, by the way, were slave holders. They were plantation owners, and they controlled hundreds and hundreds of lives, of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. And some of the scholarly literature had actually extracted the remains of slaves who lived in Virginia plantations and determined that their lead content in their bones was far lower than the lead content in the bones of the slave owners.

And so I thought, why would the slave-owning family have so much lead in their body, and it turned out that they were using China imported from England that had a glaze on it that was made of lead. And so every time they scraped their plate to get the last piece of egg, they ingested another bit of lead. And so this child, Isaac Ball, four years old, had an almost lethal concentration of lead in his body even at that age.

MARTIN: Isn't that amazing?

Mr. BALL: It is very strange. Yeah. But these are some of the things that one finds out when you start to look at history through a laboratory.

MARTIN: Is there anything you...

Mr. BALL: This is what I wanted to do.

MARTIN: Is there anything - forgive me, I know I'm sort of focusing less on the science and...

Mr. BALL: No. That's fine.

MARTIN: ...you and these family stories, and I know the book does both which is - but I wonder if you found anything out that you rather you had not known?

Mr. BALL: Well, I found this child William James Ball. I had DNA extracted from his hair. And the first lab that was able to sequence the DNA - that is to align the nucleotide bases and determined what they might signify - told me that this boy had Native American genes.

In other words, this family of mine who were proudly whites, and I don't mean that ironically. I mean, this group of Southerners belong to a time and place when their purity of their whiteness was something very important to them, possibly had Native American ancestry. And I didn't know how this would have happened. So I went on sort of journey to discovery and tried to figure it out.

And in the end, it seems that his mother - I tried to find plausible cases that would have explained the DNA from Native American tribe in the person of his mother. His mother was the one carrying the DNA that would have been conveyed to this child in this particular form called mitochondrial DNA.

His mother had come from a family that had immigrated to Colonial South Carolina and lived way out in the foothills among Native American tribes and far from other white families. And I thought I had to speculate. I had to - in other words, I had to rewrite some of what I had believed about the family and speculate that perhaps there was a mixed race, a Native American child who had been raised white, who had married back into white society et cetera, et cetera.

MARTIN: But you were never able to pin it down exactly.

Mr. BALL: I was never able to pin it down. No. And, in fact, later on at the discovery of the Native American genes was contradicted by another lab that said no. In fact, there were no markers. No DNA markers from Native American ancestry in this particular sample of hair. So there was an ambiguity there that I wasn't able to resolve.

MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice in just a minute. It's Dr. Rick Kittles. He is scientific director of African Ancestry, and he helps people to trace their ancestry. But the other thing, as I've said, fascinating about your book, is you talked about the science of a DNA research, how it actually works. Is there anything that you find interesting about that as if that there was less certainty than you really thought was possible?

Mr. BALL: That's right. Yes. Well, it was a journey of education for me. And I was able to meet a number of interesting people who do this kind of science, largely behind the curtain of privacy because the scientists who produce DNA knowledge, which is probably the most glamorous knowledge in contemporary science, they work sort of privately and quietly except when they step in front of a microphone to make those sort of notorious announcements.

Well, we have found the gene that determines several policies or something like that. And I was curious about who these people were and what kind of lives they led and how they actually did what they did. And they all - what's unusual is that they are all fascinating personalities, but they all worked with essentially the same equipment in the same ways. They have the same machines. You travel from lab to lab and they have identical machines and they have the same...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALL: ...sort of protocol, and it's very interesting to see how the thing actually goes on. It's a whole industry out of view(ph).

MARTIN: It is. Mr. Ball, if I can ask you to stand by. I'd like to bring in another voice in, maybe you want to talk to Rick Kittles too.

Rick Kittles is scientific director of African Ancestry. He's also associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

And, Dr. Kittles, we've talked before about the fascination that Americans have with their ancestry. Ed Ball has written about his ability to kind of search through some hair samples he found at his relatives. You focused on tracing people with African ancestry. Do you find that there are some special challenges there?

Dr. RICK KITTLES (Scientific Director, African Ancestry Incorporated): Yes, yes. There are special challenges. Of course, there are many different types of tests for ancestry and so what we specialize in is the testing these lineages to see where in Africa they're found. And so, of course, the accuracy of those types of tests rely on how a comprehensive, extensive the database is.

There are many different companies that offer these tests, and to some extent the products are different and the databases are different. And so - and then we'd know when you go from different labs with the same sample, you can get quite different results because databases are different. The actual context in which you place those DNA lineages could be quite different.

MARTIN: And - how fascinating, I mean, how should people feel about it? I mean, is it - on the way people are tracing their ancestry for - except maybe perhaps for different reasons, perhaps for reasons of health. They need their medical history and it's not available, but then to a lot of people, it's just a question of identity.

Dr. KITTLES: Right.

MARTIN: And if the findings are that ambiguous, is this really worth doing if identity is your question.

Dr. KITTLES: Right, well I think - number one, for anybody doing this, whether they're black or white, you have to do your homework and really try to find the best product in which, you know, that answers the question that you have. So for the most part, people are trying to, you know, for many of these companies, what they offer is what we call as surname testing or lineage of identification to see if your maternal lineage or your paternal lineage is the same as some other lineage in a database of, let's say, individuals from Michigan or Illinois. And to see if you have any sort of lost cousins or somebody that you share ancestry with, but you didn't know. And those types of tests are pretty simple. I mean, there are many of these - those surname databases is all over the place.

MARTIN: And I asked Mr. Ball this, and I wanted to ask you this, very briefly, Dr. Kittles, I asked him if he found something out in tracing his roots that he maybe wasn't sure he wanted to know. Did that happen to you?

Dr. KITTLES: Oh yes, of course. I mean - it's not that I didn't want to know, in fact, it sort of confirmed a lot of oral history in the family. But it was rather striking because, you know, you look at myself and I'm an African-American - very dark complexion and - but yet, I have this Y chromosome that's from Europe. It's not from Africa. And so there is a part of my genetic makeup that is not of African ancestry. And so, we find that for me, African-Americans and for some, of course, that it is striking and troubling and surprised.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Ball? I know that in your first book, you talked about how everybody in the family isn't necessarily on board with that program of figuring out, you know, the truth about the family relationships. I mean, you delved further into the DNA. Was there a - did the family react? Were people interested or were they hesitant to find out?

Mr. BALL: Well, my family - 10 years ago when I published "Slaves in the Family" - were in fact divided over the idea that I might actually tell the stories of the people whom we had enslaved including the people to whom we were related by blood. Things are somewhat better now.

So when I began to work on this project, there was a bit of, well, that's interesting. And there he goes exploring the taboos again. And nevertheless, there's still a certain amount of unease about what one might find out that contradicts the legends of family lore and that's what actually entrants me about it - expanding my mind about who we might be.

And the ambiguity doesn't frighten me as much as it might someone else because I think that in America - America is this vast experiment that for 500 years, people have been sending--either compulsorily from West Africa or voluntarily from Europe and Asia and elsewhere--their people to this continent where we've all mingled, and we do have an ambiguous identity, although we can be clinging in some ways to these notions - false notions that we're a number of separate strands woven together. We are a genetic pool. We've all come together, our genes have all mingled.

MARTIN: And well, that is certainly something that Rick Kittles has found. Rick Kittles, very, very briefly, do you - well, why are you fascinated with this? Why do you want to know, very briefly if you would?

Dr. KITTLES: Well, well, that - I'm an African-American. I don't think they're not any different than the other African-Americans. You know, the unique experience, the history of the - of Africans in Americas is one in which there was this loss of our cultural tradition, language, family history. And so in my obsession about science and technology, I wanted to develop tools, which could help answer those questions...

MARTIN: All right, I'm going to have to cut you off now.

Dr. KITTLES: ...but for...

MARTIN: Now thank you...

Dr. KITTLES: ...my community.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Rick Kittles is scientific director of African Ancestry. Edward Ball is author of "The Genetic Strand." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Books Featured In This Story

The Genetic Strand
The Genetic Strand

Exploring a Family History Through DNA

by Edward Ball

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