WATCH: Vanessa Williams Traces Her Ancestry

The project that first sequenced a human genome in 2000 took 15 years and cost about $3 billion.

Now it takes six to eight weeks and costs as little as $100. Takers include actress Vanessa Williams, who has a long interest in tracing her family history.
"I've got blue eyes, my brother also has light eyes, and everyone says, 'Well, what are you? You're mixed with something. What is it?'" Williams told The Huffington Post. "My parents are black ... but I was a bit defensive, because I don't know, all of my relatives look like me. And we know as much as we can."

Two years ago, Williams found herself choking back tears as she traced her family history during the second season of NBC's now-defunct series, "Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I knew more about my father's side because we opened the show visiting my family cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York," Williams said, recalling the discoveries she made on the show, including a tintype photograph of her great great-grandfather David Carll, a Civil War veteran.

"I got a chance to go to the National Archives and see a tintype, which he had sent in to get his military benefits," Williams said. "Because he couldn't read or write, because he was a laborer in Oyster Bay on the fishing ships, they got his name wrong. When he was released ... he sent a picture in a tintype to the government to prove who he was. That was an amazing discovery to actually see him in his Union uniform with the American flag draped over his knee. It was phenomenal."

Williams traced her grandfather's roots back to Tennessee, where the family patriarch, born a house slave, eventually worked as a principal and teacher. "Those were my two stories and they were extremely prideful because they were two men whose names I can see written in stone because of their achievements," Williams said.

While the experience helped her fill in gaps in her family's Tennessee and New York family tree, Williams said her travels to Africa inspired her to dig deeper.

"I remember the first time I visited South Africa, I saw different tribes and different features. I've been to Kenya as well and it's one of those unfortunate things as African Americans, knowing that you don't have a clear association with any tribe," she said. "You know that it's the west coast obviously, because of the slave trade, [but] you're envious of other family histories that can say we're 100 percent Polish ... or whatever."

Williams jumped at the opportunity to try out genealogy website Ancestry.com's DNA test -- a mail-order tube-and-swab kit priced from $200 to $350 that the company says offers customers detailed results in six to eight weeks. Dozens of other commercial labs offer similar testing, with prices from $100 to $400.

Genetic testing like this wasn't accessible to most people even two years ago, when Williams appeared on "Who Do You Think You Are?" As more people get tested, the companies' growing databases allow customers to identify common ancestors, or cousins.

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SOURCE: Huffington Post - Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson


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