Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Africa to Aotearoa Project?

The Africa to Aotearoa project seeks to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species, specifically in addressing the migration history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and answer age-old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity. The project, funded in part by National Geographic’s Genographic project, uses genetics as a tool to address anthropological questions on a global scale. At the core of the Genographic project is a consortium of 11 global regional scientific teams who, following an ethical and scientific framework, are responsible for sample collection and DNA analysis in their respective regions. The Africa to Aotearoa project is being run by Lisa Matisoo-Smith, who is a Principal Investigator for the Oceania/Pacific region for Genographic. The project is open to volunteers throughout New Zealand and sampling will take place in the five main cities of Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Additional community focused sampling will take place across the country.


What makes this project so different?

The islands of Polynesia and, more specifically, New Zealand was the last region in the world to be permanently occupied by humans and thus holds an important place in a study of human migrations and migration histories. Our relatively small population of 4.4 million, the relatively recent migrations, and the biological and cultural diversity of the country make NZ an ideal study in the development of a national identity. In addition to our bi-cultural past of Maori and (predominantly) Anglo/European heritage, New Zealand has many self-identified ethnic communities, many of which have a long history in particular towns or regions – for example the French in Akaroa, the Dalmatians in Northland and West Auckland, the Norwegians in Norsewood, the Chinese community in Central Otago and most recently the Pacific Island communities in South Auckland and Wellington. More recent migrants include the South African, Korean and other Asian populations. While all of these peoples have unique histories and identities, they all have, through their ancestors, made that longest journey – from Africa to Aotearoa.

A genetic survey that sampled the 5 major urban populations of Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, combined with sampling from self identified ethnic groups would provide a very interesting picture of the social history of a multicultural New Zealand. A sample of 1000 individuals should provide a reasonable representation of our relatively small population, and thus provides a unique opportunity to undertake a nation-wide survey of ancestry. An additional 1000 samples obtained from various ethnic community groups can provide information about major historic migration events to Aotearoa but also provides an opportunity to engage with and discuss that history and how it is reflected in our DNA and our identity.


What will the end result be?

The goal of this project is to better understand the genetic history of New Zealanders and to use this information to identify population origins, historical interactions and other aspects of our population history. When we have our final result we will return your result directly to you and share the overall results with the general public through publication in scholarly journals and other forms of media. We hope to publish a book, geared for the general public, about the project and what we found. All information that is presented to the public is done so anonymously – no one can trace your specific sample but you.


Why would I want to participate?

By participating in the Africa to Aotearoa Project, you will be part of a real-time research effort that is yielding important, published scientific findings on population genetics and the migration history of New Zealand. It will provide baseline information on the genetic history and makeup of each region and of New Zealand, which we can compare now and in the future. For example, is the genetic makeup of Auckland significantly different from that of Dunedin? How might the genetic makeup of Christchurch today compare to a similar study conducted in 10 years?In addition, you will have an opportunity to learn about your deep ancestry and the migratory journey that your ancestors followed as over 350,000 people have already done.


What tests do you perform?

We perform two tests for public participants solely related to migration patterns:

  • Males : Y-DNA test. This helps us identify deep ancestral geographic origins on the direct paternal line.
  • Females : Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This tests the mtDNA of females to help identify the ancestral migratory origins of your direct maternal line.


How is the test performed?

Every participant will provide three cheek swabs used to painlessly obtain a sample of cheek cells. The effect of using the scraper is about the same as brushing your cheek with a soft bristle toothbrush. A backup scraper and tube are included so a good sample can be obtained. The samples are placed in a solution and sent to our lab for analysis.

In addition to the collection of a DNA sample and basic personal information (age, sex etc), we would collect information regarding genealogy (location of birth and first language of parents and grandparents), self-identification to ethnicity and similar socio-demographic data as is collected in the NZ census.

Every participant will provide three cheek swabs used to painlessly obtain a sample of cheek cells.The effect of using the scraper is about the same as brushing your cheek with a soft bristle toothbrush.The samples (the cheek cells that are now on the paper swabs) are placed in a solution (in each of the three collection tubes) and taken to our lab for analysis.

What can the test results tell me?

It is important to note that the Africa to Aotearoa is not a genealogy study. You will not learn about your recent relatives, and your DNA trail will not necessarily lead to your present-day location. Rather, your results will reveal the ancient anthropological story of your direct maternal or paternal ancestors — where they lived and how they migrated around the world many thousands of years ago. When interpreting the results, it is important to realize that these kits test for ancestral lineages and their associated migrations on an anthropological timescale, meaning they provide a window back thousands, and in fact tens-of-thousands of years before present. In effect, we are placed on the greater human family tree, rather than the smaller family tree we are often familiar with.


Should everyone in my family take the test?

No. It would not be necessary for more than one blood related male and one blood related female member of any one family to provide a sample to determine the deep ancestry of both the paternal and maternal lines of descent. For example, only one of two brothers should take the test. They share the same story and therefore it would be unnecessary to test both. Similarly, it would not be necessary for both mother and daughter to have their mitochondrial DNA analyzed.


Are there any risks or benefits associated with the test?

We do not know of any risk to you from taking the cheek brush sample or having your DNA sample analyzed to determine the migratory history of your deep ancestors. The benefits to you from participating in this project will be to learn more about your family origins and your relationships to other people around the world while participating in a real-time research project.


Will my test results be shared with others?

No. You will be the only one who gets your specific result. We may contact you later (if you agree) to see if you would be willing to share your story as part of a book we hope to write about the project.


Will the Africa to Aotearoa Project conduct health-related analysis on my DNA sample or can the results be used to confirm paternity or be added to other databases (ie. criminal)?

No. The Africa to Aotearoa Project will not conduct any health-related tests on the DNA samples provided by public participants. The DNA analysis conducted is intended to determine what migratory routes your deep ancestors followed and to which branch of the human family tree you belong. The project in no way analyzes your health, health status, or any inherited health conditions. The DNA analysis conducted cannot confirm paternity, and we are committed to the privacy of our participants, so this information is not shared with any outside group or government agency.


How do you protect participants' data and ensure security, privacy, and confidentiality?

We have taken all reasonable steps to implement multiple security layers in the project. All sample data and analytical results are located in one central and secure location at the University of Otago. Samples are only identified by their sample number. Only the Principal Investigator, Lisa Matisoo-Smith, can identify who provided a sample and can link that information with the results. Overall, the project's infrastructure, policies, and procedures provide secure transmission, storage, and management of all DNA data and records.


What if my results show an entirely different location, country, or place than what I know to be true about my early ancestors?

Your results reveal your deep ancestry along a single line of direct descent (paternal or maternal) and show the migration paths your ancestors followed thousands of years ago. The migratory route is one part of your history and does not preclude what you already know to be true about your more recent genealogical past. It has no bearing on your cultural identity, ethnic heritage, or nationality of the more recent historical past. Your individual results may confirm your expectations of what you believe your deep ancestry to be, or you may be surprised to learn a new story about your genetic background. You will not receive a percentage breakdown of your genetic background by ethnicity, race, or geographic origin. Nor will you receive confirmation of an association with a particular tribe or indigenous group. This is not a genealogy study. You will not learn about your great-grandparents or other recent relatives, and your DNA trail will not necessarily lead to your present-day location. Rather, your results will reveal the anthropological story of your direct maternal or paternal ancestors — where they lived and how they migrated around the world many thousands of years ago.


Who is involved in the Africa to Aotearoa Project?

The labwork is funded by the Genographic Project, a partnership of National Geographic and IBM. The field science is supported by a James Cook Fellowship, awarded to Lisa Matisoo-Smith, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence.


Will National Geographic or any of the sponsors make a profit from the Africa to Aotearoa Project?

No. Africa to Aotearoa is a non-profit scientific research project.