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June 17, 2005

Oprah proclaims Zulu ancestry after mDNA test

Today's unexpected datum: Nappy40 reports that Oprah Winfrey self-identifies as a member of the Zulu nation on the basis of mitochondrial DNA testing.

The African-American chat-show host announced during a recent visit to South Africa that she had had a DNA test that had shown her to be a Zulu.

She also told South Africans she felt "at home" in the country.

"I went in search of my roots and had my DNA tested, and I am a Zulu," Ms Winfrey said at a seminar in Johannesburg last week.[...]"The conclusion that she had Zulu ancestry would indicate that Oprah's mitochondrial DNA lineage must have had an identical match to someone in the global database who was identified as a Zulu individual," Prof [Hilma] Soodyall said.

"There is not much to distinguish between various linguistic groups, particularly the different language groups spoken in southern Africa, because they have diversified more recently - perhaps within the past 1,000-1,500 years - than genetic differences which have been evolving in our species for about 150,000 years ago," she said.[BBC]
Local historians were disinclined to believe her claim, as there are few records of the Zulus having any connection to the African slave trade. "If there were Zulu people taken as slaves they would have been taken eastwards by Arab traders or Portuguese to their South American colonies," said one. "Those who ended up in North America, say in Mississippi where Miss Winfrey comes from, were mostly of West African origin. [Telegraph]

Some cynics have suggested that Oprah's Zulu announcement is a marketing ploy to boost her audience in South Africa. Regardless, Oprah is doing some very good work for South African children.


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1. Zulu is a gigantic tribe during it's peak, it covers almost the entire sub saharan area. Any schmoo can claim to be an anchestor of zulu nation. no matter what race that person is in.

2. what exactly does Oprah mean when she said 'mithocondrial lineage'? I can claim the same thing too, and I am pale as a wax.

I'm totally down with the mDNA dealie. I always found a lot in my Irish heritage that pushed me towards Leftism: anti-colonialism, marxist revolutionaries, secularism, etc. I contrast my experience of a 'nationhood' (however empirically meaningless and manufactured) with the a-nationality of American blacks. It always struck me that one of the more perfidious effects of the slave trade was to destroy the link to a historical, cultural, and political past. A well of potentially cooling water that has been paved over for millions of people. So mDNA, even if it is not really accurate, could provide the sort of hint that allows the decendents of slavery to make use of this past, which is all to the good. Unfortunately in the US, political respect often is tied to the larger public's recognition of a 'legitimate' ancestry (e.g. Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc.) and as White America's total rejection of pan-Africanism in the 70s and earlier demonstrates.

Of course, nationalism has had a BUNCH of bad effects as well, but anything that provides grist for the cultural mill is alright with me.

The thing about mDNA analysis is that it only covers one strand of a person's ancestry: the mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother, etc. The further back you take it, the less it means because the smaller a fraction of your ancestry it represents. This is especially tricky when we're talking about a diaspora, which by its nature involves mixing populations. Desipte the mDNA, Oprah could easily have mostly West African ancestry (not to mention European and Native American).

Ultimately, of course, we're all of African descent.

Not much of a surprise that Oprah would be taken in by a goofy hoax like mDNA "ancestries." As others have pointed out, sharing mDNA with an individual who happened to be a Zulu and then declaring that you are a Zulu is complete nonsense. Donald Trump is probably a Zulu too, for all we know. Oprah's heritage could just as easily be dominated by virtually any other tribal or racial group.

Donald Trump is probably a Zulu too, for all we know.

I can see it....

The Zulu nation was formed during the eighteenth or nineteenth century. They are not very distant from other black Africans. The black Africans in general (Bantu) only reached South Africa around 600 AD, so they aren't genetically very distinct from the Africans further north either. (Colin MvEvedy, Penguin Atlas of African History).


what exactly does Oprah mean when she said 'mithocondrial lineage'?

The book, The Seven Daughters of Eve popularized the science of mDNA. It is hokey beyond belief (a real disappointment) because it acribes imaginary lives to seven different mitochondrial DNA lineages that have (so far?) been traced.

anyway, mDNA, if your question is sincere, is mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed from the female because the mDNA of the male does not penetrate the's in the tail of the sperm, not the head.

for this reason, it is possible to trace a line of descent from mDNA and make educated guesses about the amount of time that has passed on that line of DNA based upon the number of mutations (which is an average, and therefore not really accurate for a person, but is useful for generalities.)

fwiw, this mDNA issue also strengthens, for some people, the chicken or egg in which came first. The move from asexual to sexual reproduction has been hypothosized (this issue may be accepted now, it's been a bit since I read up on this) to have started when a fast ur-sperm leeched off a fat, well-nourished ur-egg in order survive more readily.

From that, it was only a question of a few gazillion such experiences to elim-i-date.

it's cool that oprah did that. stripping their heritage is yet another sad fact of what our country did to the people it enslaved. more power to her for taking back her roots.

there are absolutely unique genetic patterns that can be used to trace one's ancestry at least as well as any geneaology.

DNA mutates frequently, and anyone with the same set of mutations is likely to be related. the more mutations you have in common, the more likely you are to be related, so the best test would check for a lot of mutations.

it's silly to attack the science without knowing the details of the test oprah took, folks.

Sounds dodgy to someone from Zululand! She does do a lot for us but that does sound very convenient considering her huge connection and attraction to our country.

Jami, this looks pretty fishy to me, partly for the reasons about migration and the slave trade that I and others have already given here, and partly because of what I've seen about the difficulty of interpreting tests of this kind. Oprah isn't the first to junp to conclusions, this happens a lot.

Let's do a Slashdot style comment:

1) Gin up some hokey, crackpot theory
2) Convince Oprah it's real
3) Profit!

I think most of her DNA must be from the $$$$ Tribe. Maybe that is because she is a privileged pretty white girl who owes all her attention and success to the influence of the GOP...(satire alert!!!)

wikipedia">">wikipedia also explains the issue of mitochondrial DNA, and why its rate of mutation is different than nuclear DNA...and also mentions what I was talking about with sperm and egg.

...the mDNA databases come from people who have been sampled who are now or were recently alive. The Zulu woman that Oprah matches may also have immigrated from west Africa to South Africa. Or not. in any case, the science itself is real.

one thing that is interesting, to me, about mDNA is that it is a matrilineal heritage. since females lost their names, were often traded like goods, were not allowed to hold property, as late as the 1960s in the US, btw, if they were married, this is one way to reclaim the other side of one's ancestry, as a female.

The problem with the Oprah results is not the biochemical methods. Likely, her mDNA matched that of an individual who belongs to the Zulu nation.

The question is whether Oprah's matrilineal link to that person dates to before or after the birth of the Zulu nation. If it happened after, Oprah is descended from Zulus on her mother's side. If it happened before, Oprah is like most of us--descended from Africans, but probably not from anyone we'd count as a Zulu.

If Oprah wants to self-identify as Zulu, well, mazel tov. I don't approve of pseudoscientific entrepreneurs capitalizing on specious results. On the other hand, almost any cultural identification beyond living memory is myth and pseudoscience anyway. We're all making this up as we go along.

Considering most black Americans are descended from west Africans, it's just like Oprah to make a comment that she is different from the rest of us. I became suspicious when I first heard her remarks on the subject. She's still black like us, but she is South African. Zulu. I won't be surprised if she's the distant cousin of Nelson Mandela. There is a very real possibility _ of coming off as deranged, ionic air purifier after all. Also - this may jeniffer lopez sort of uncomfortably foreground new york yankee online critical reactions to music. order jenifer aniston If someone walks up to you buy ronaldinho out of the blue and asks to _ listen to your music, aren't dan browne you going to want to know what buy bridgette moynahan online they think, even just briefly? randy johnston online I don't think I'd be especially order jenifer garner bothered by anything anyone buy princes would think about whatever _ they heard playing on my CD zinedine player, but I shouldn't assume buy rivaldo online that all music listeners are dave chapelle online like me. What happens when puppets I get an anti-rap person who buy metalica byondart.comnm

It's not a suprise that some people with pale skin can mock the process oprah went through to find her lineage. and any pale person who thinks they can qualify to be a zulu must be a descendant of an african woman who was raped by a pale person somewhere down the line. Ofcourse most pale people would want to discredit oprahs findings, because this could lead to an historical break, bringing africans together. I dont know if its true or not, but she is from some african tribe, she is an african. You pale people should keep your self hatred to yourself and let oprah be happy that she is an african woman descending from royalty, a royalty which reptilians want to keep secret.

People make the mistake of thinking that because most slaves were picked up from west Africa that they must be west African. Silly logic! Just because a person is shipped from Portugal doesn't mean that they are Portuguese! Get a clue folks! How the heck are you going to dispute DNA?

'Zulu is a gigantic tribe during it's peak, it covers almost the entire sub saharan area'

I'ts always so hartwarming when people rewrite South African history. Go and check your facts. The zulu nation reached its peak in the 1820's under Shaka Zulu. It stretched from the Tugela river in the south to the border of South Africa and Mozambique in the north.

The claim that this area comprises the entire subsaharan africa will come as a surprise to countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania (to name a few).

In fact it only represents a small part of South Africa's east coast since the rest was controlled by European settlers and countless other tribes such as the Xhosa, Sotho, Venda, etc...

Oprahs claim is ridiculous but not because of the reasons posted above!


I just saw Oprah on PBS being told by Henry Louis Gates that, after being tested, she had no Zulu in her but was genetically matched to a West African tribe. So she lied to the SA media.


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