On a former occasion I wrote to you at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them.
—Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus, letter to Lorenzo Pietro Francesco de Medici, 1503
In the “Age of Discovery” many explorers and ship pilots were commissioned by the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns to set sail in search of goods, opportunities for trade, plunder, and expansion of powers. Amerigo Vespucci made his way into the circles of these men and eventually onto their ships. Born in the city state of Florence, he became a mercantilist who worked for the Medici family’s business interests in Spain. There he met prominent explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Alonzo de Hojeda, and Juan de la Cosa.
It was during a voyage in 1501 that Vespucci realized that they had not reached “the Indies,” or Asia, but were in fact limning the shores of what is now Brazil. The diverse people, languages, plants, and animals that Vespucci saw convinced him that they had breached a new continent. Printers in Florence seized on the story and published his 1503 letter to Medici under the title Mundus Novus, which became a best seller. A few years later, a group working in Saint-Dié, France, under the name Gymnasium Vosagense set out to produce a cartography of the world based on the most recent accounts of explorers. This was the first time the “new” continental landmass would be included on a global map. The cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was the primary mapmaker among a small group of printers and humanists, including the Alsatian scholar and poet Matthias Ringmann who produced Cosmographiae Introductio (a book to accompany the map). In The Fourth Part of the World, historian Toby Lester makes a compelling case that it was Ringmann who called the landmass “America” in recognition of Vespucci, coupled with his own poetic fascination with wordplay in different languages and “investing his writing with hidden meanings.” According to Lester,
The key to the passage, almost always ignored or overlooked, is the curious name Amerigen—a coinage that involves just the kind of multifaceted, multilingual punning that Ringmann frequently indulged in. The word combines Amerigo with gen, a form of the Greek word for “earth,” creating the meaning that the author goes on to propose—“the land of Amerigo.” [. . .] But the word yields other meanings, too. [It] may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word sometimes translated as “place.” Here Amerigen becomes A-meri-gen, or “No-place-land. . .” (2009, 357).
This layered credit to Vespucci, designating America as a “no-place” territory, would prove useful for those set on effacing the lives and cultures of people inhabiting the land, and also of those brought from Africa to economically develop the territories for profit. This cultural extermination would leave legacy effects on many people who, 500 years later, would be compelled to submit their DNA for “ancestry” tests in an effort to chart the bodies lost to history that live on in their present-day identities.
Intrigue fueled the escalation of the map’s value when Waldseemüller’s original depiction of the planisphere disappeared for over 300 years. Cartographers and researchers embarked on audacious quests to locate this first printed record of a continent in the western hemisphere. By pure chance, it was recovered by a researcher in 1901, among a sixteenth century portfolio of maps acquired by the family of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg in Germany. Once the news reached the United States, the government expressed interest in buying it throughout the twentieth century. In 1992, the German prince publicized the possibility of a sale, triggering an 11-year negotiation between Waldburg-Wolfegg and the Library of Congress. The first down payment was made in 2001, while the final purchase, completed in 2003, amounted to $10 million. This was the largest sum the United States has ever publicly paid for a historical document, almost $2 million more than the previous record holder, The Declaration of Independence. Hailed as the crown jewel of the Library of Congress’s collection, Waldseemüller’s 1507 map is now celebrated as “America’s birth certificate.”
In technical terms, however, this birth certificate was for what is now South America. North America remained unknown to these explorers and the cartographers at Saint-Dié. Nonetheless, for Europeans of the time, its emergence on the globe ushered in a conceptual reorientation of the world. It was one that deepened Europe’s aggrandizement, set on wealth accumulation and territorial expansion that would catechize the violent colonization and extermination of incalculable numbers of Indigenous people and the death and enslavement of millions of Africans. The “discoveries” of the era were cast as political exploits, economic entitlement, and divine mission, as well as feats of knowledge production for the sciences. As key sources that expanded the fields of geography, cartography, and natural history, these expeditions were in no way impartial, unbiased, or neutral achievements. They were rapacious, grotesque, and often genocidal.
Divisions and conquest written into ancestry algorithms
In 2007, 500 years after the printing of the Waldseemüller map, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe launched its Personal Genome Service®.
Businesses like 23andMe have marshalled in a reckonable culture shift. Over 12 million people worldwide have given the company DNA to analyze their ancestry and health. Ancestry.com—the other big player in this market—boasts 16 million testers. Both entities have brought the notion of genetic ancestry into a tight conceptual frame that renders many of the world’s present-day people as older populations who may have contributed to “new world” humans’ genetic makeup. In the broader field, the original “admixture” models were designed using what are called “ancestry informative markers” (AIMs). These are single nucleotide polymorphisms selected for their relative higher or lower frequency in groups that often resemble outmoded racial categories. In these models, Africa, Asia, and Europe are cast as “old world,” while the Americas are “new” in most instances but could also be old for those deemed “pre-Columbian” (meaning present-day Indigenous groups, mostly from South America). For such models to work, a few things have to pertain. Contemporary people in the old world are situated as proxies to stand in for new world humans’ ancestors. For this to be possible, there is a suspension of time at the year 1492 (when Columbus landed in the Bahamas), which becomes a signifier of mobility and mixture for people conceived in the new world. In the same fell swoop, those in the said old world are conceptually rendered less mobile and mixed.
23andMe’s reference populations impressively include more groups than early admixture models. Yet the crucible of the 500-year time frame for mixing as well as the logic of admixture itself—old world stasis versus new world mobility—remains intact. In short, algorithmic ancestors are made possible by splitting the world in much the same way that early explorers did. Furthermore, the violent conquest of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade are implicit features of the technology. Yet the language the company publicly uses to refer to this time period is much more anodyne.
The Ancestry Composition algorithm calculates your ancestry by comparing your genome to the genomes of people whose ancestries we already know. To make this work, we need a lot of reference data! Our reference datasets include genotypes from 14,437 people who were chosen generally to reflect populations that existed before transcontinental travel and migration were common (at least 500 years ago). (23andMe 2021, emphasis added)
The dating is key: the ancestry algorithm holds if people can be slotted into those who came before and those who came after the vaguely named “transcontinental travel” and “migration” that began in the late fifteenth century. To explicitly mark that historical period, while omitting any detail about it, silently tucks away racial colonization and enslavement into the algorithmic shadows.
This sanitized language may be a safer bet to appeal to Europeans and white Americans who remain the largest consumers of these tests. This is amid a simultaneous desire and several initiatives to attract more clients of color, including a giveaway of 10,000 “free” DNA tests for African Americans if they participate in research. In one of the company’s first studies on diverse DNA, a communiqué from one of its scientists reads, “Our results can inform the design of medical genetic studies. For example, the presence of Native American and African ancestry in European Americans may have implications for genetic studies of complex diseases.” The scientific paper explicitly acknowledges both colonization and the slave trade, however, which prefaces the pragmatic question of how the progeny of the actual colonized and enslaved forebears might provide clues to mapping genetic disease risks for all. The convergence of such ancestry models for medical genetics and heritage testing sales has now resulted in drug development plans and diagnostic tools made possible by the vast research platform that clients seeking ancestry helped to build.
The door to this platform is consent. Consumers are on one side, and their ancestry results await them on the other. As online clickwrap contracts are now increasingly familiar, one has to wonder about the degree to which people assess the details of such agreements. In keeping with the general upbeat mood of the company’s website, testers are asked to give consent for studies “to understand the basic causes of disease, develop drugs or other treatments and/or preventive measures, or predict a person’s risk of disease,” which the company frames as “enabling its customers to participate directly in research.” Eighty percent of people in 23andMe’s database have clicked to agreements to reuse their biodata. On average, each individual contributes to 200 different research studies, much of this supported and exclusively used by pharmaceutical giants, such as Pfizer and GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithKline). Earlier this month, on February 4, 2021, 23andMe announced that they were going public. In the press release, the CEO emphasized that the next phase of the business will indeed “create new opportunities to revolutionize personalized healthcare and medicine.” The genomic labor performed by people with “diverse” Latino and African ancestry will be critical to these developments.
Embodied expressions of the new and old world
For two decades, I have been concerned with ancestry genetics and its uses in basic science labs for medical research in several university settings in the United States. The use of racializing ancestry informative marker panels has consistently raised flags for scholars in the social, medical, and biological sciences who study race and ethnicity—prompting the question, Is this science or business?
In practice, the admixture idea offers testers possible results of not just mixed genes, but also of mixed emotions. These arise around their heritage being linked to Europeans who brutally seized the Americas while summarily violating Indigenous and African people in the process. When I was conducting fieldwork in US labs, it was scientists who relayed such unsettling feelings to me, sentiments they had when they underwent similar kinds of tests.
In a lab where geneticists used AIMs to detail portions of African and European genetic ancestry in prostate cancer patients, one of the principal researchers from Central America shared her experience of testing herself for the markers.
I was really happy that at least my mitochondrial DNA turned out to be Native American because my AIMs said that I was about 50 percent European, and only some 30 or so percent Native American. The African was around 12 percent, or something like that. I can’t recall the Asian exactly. Honestly, I thought I would have much more Native American. I was really surprised to have so much European—and this was not a good surprise. The fact that my mtDNA is Native reflects what happened to Native women. It brings all that up, which we know. But I’m glad I at least have some Native, and that my maternal line is Indigenous.
Here the scientist also used a lineage test that analyzes clonally inherited haplogroups to trace mutations in mitochondrial DNA and on Y chromosomes. These give information about less than one percent of a person’s genetic makeup and consist of mutations inherited through a single line of descent (one’s mother, and her mother, etc. for women, and one’s mother and father, and his father, etc. for men). This researcher was troubled by the amount of European ancestry the autosomal genetic markers indicated. She also points out the distress of feeling that a Native American woman in her line could not fend off the Europeans who forcefully took over Native bodies, lands, and now, much of her genome. She allows this recognition to surface, and then quickly safeguards her Indigenous line.
Another scientist in the lab did away with the old versus new world distinctions altogether. She had not submitted her DNA for an AIMs analysis, but always felt a close affinity to Africa and Africans.
I don’t know what it is, I love Africa, I’ve never been there. I don’t know what it is. There is this silent rivalry with Africans. Even [a black collaborator] said, ‘I’m not no African.’ This is brainwashing. This is part of the hate and separation that was brought upon us. I very much feel that I am from Africa. . . My mom went to Senegal after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she brought back these photos. People were running their own business—that kind of stuff you never hear from the media. I would want to know where I come from so maybe I could learn the language. I know I wasn’t speaking English [back] then.
This scientist effortlessly transported us back to West Africa in the immediacy of placing herself in the past while speaking—or rather not speaking—English. She collapses the time frames of pre and post new world in the recognition that enslavers cut Africans off from their mother tongues and cultures. The wish to speak an African language—as she abruptly juts her English anachronistically into the past for a moment—is a temporal reflex, an attempt to reunite with her ancestors in some form.
Family members and friends have also brought their experiences with DNA tests to my attention. One of my Nigerian friends was excited to tell me that his brother, who spends half of his time in Lagos and half in New Jersey, had recently done a 23andMe test. When we spoke, he told me he had been intrigued by the trend for a while, but wasn’t sure he wanted “to blow 200 bucks on a test.” But then, as he recounted, “Around Black Friday it was half price. It was $99 for health and ancestry. . .So, I was like, ‘Eh, I might as well.’” He had expected to match to Black Americans or other Nigerians in the diaspora, but he was surprised by some of the people the algorithm matched him with as relatives, such as an Indigenous Guatemalan woman and others in South and Central America. They all seemed to be on his maternal side, which led him to conclude “that maybe someone on that side of the family was captured as a slave.” We went into more detail about his familial ancestors, his paternal and maternal grandparents’ lines, the villages they hailed from, the languages they spoke, and the fact that even with Yoruba there were many dialects and speakers also have slightly different customs, especially around food. He then smiled, and offered, “I think it’s unlikely that someone like me would take an ancestry test. Because I know my ancestry. You’re more likely to have people who don’t know, and who want to know. . .” He followed up by telling me, “The company really should be giving people like me the test for free because they want more of my stuff—my data points—in there.”
My friend’s brother also found some of the test’s health and trait data insightful, such as a propensity to smell unappealing to female mosquitos. 23andMe developed this test in collaboration with Pfizer to understand how genes that express immunological function prevent some people from getting bitten as much as those around them. But the real surprise he had hoped to uncover was whether or not he had any unknown siblings—and also whether or not he had an unknown child. No data came up for either. Culturally, his curiosity about the test is forward-looking rather than back. As a Nigerian with a foot in the United States he is not questing for ancestors. Rather, he was interested in progeny.
What do these stories illustrate and why do they matter? They make clear that, like individuals, economies derive from human relationships—from aggregates of people who make up populations that bear life but can also be used to generate development, new enterprise, and marketable labor. In this way, economies also have ancestors. The propulsion of men onto ships and into the Americas for wealth, commerce, and exploits of raw resources did not, of course, stop at inert matter. Bodies were seen as material and made into tools for gain, or discarded. Today’s global capital was born of sixteenth century expeditions for lands, gold, spices, birds, plants, pearls, and people. Today, genetic technologies are designed to recover some aspect of the heritage many people lost in these pursuits. Clients and scientists alike engage ancestry tests to search the past while looking forward in ways that affirm some aspects of their identities. The appeal resides in the ways technologies that purport to reveal ancestry embed within them promises of recovery. Along the way, they also create new possibilities for profit that embody assurances of newfound wealth and health—alongside a risk of mining bodies for gold—in units of genes.