Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits
DNA portraits are genetic ancestry paintings showing an individual’s face with their ancestors’ migration paths across continents and deep time.
Genetic Ancestry Portrait by Lynn Fellman

The University of Minnesota (UMN) commissioned this portrait and the genetic ancestry DNA portraits (below) for a community research center. It shows my signature style — a person’s face on a map with their ancestors’ migration paths from deep time.

The 3 x 4-foot artwork was printed on cotton rag, archival paper with pigment inks on my large format printer. This group of portraits commissioned by UMN is the culmination of a body of work created over a six-year period (2005-2011) that included dozens of DNA portraits.

If you’re curious about the artistic vision, the making process, and explanation of the scientific data, scroll down this page for my article, “Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits: the backstory.”

Crossing Beringia

“Crossing Beringia,” shown above, is a portrait of Ron, a Native American man from the Ojibwe tribe from the Northern Midwest. It includes haplogroup data from his mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome.

Follow the paths of his maternal (yellow) and paternal (blue) ancestors as they leave Africa and head north to Siberia. And then cross the submerged continent Beringia to the Americas — a journey of thousands of miles made over ten thousand-plus years.

Ron’s paternal haplogroup, M3, is the most widespread male lineage in the Americas. Nearly all Native American men are descended from this line. His female line, haplogroup A, is a deep and diverse lineage and may have arrived in the Americas 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Genetic Ancestry Portrait by Lynn Fellman

First Wave

Khao is an American originally from Laos. His portrait, “First Wave,” shows his maternal migration path, haplogroup M. They may have been the first modern humans to make a successful exodus from Africa. Members of his group headed east across the narrow span of water that separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

It was the start of a long migration eastward, across the Middle East to Southern Eurasia — close to Khao’s birth home in Laos. You can see that the lineage branches with some of his ancestors continuing to settle Australia and Polynesia.

Genetic Ancestry Portrait by Lynn Fellman

Spiral Journey

“Spiral Journey” is a portrait of Judy, an African American woman. It traces the paths of the L3 group, a lineage that arose in Africa about 80,000 years ago. They were a group of modern humans leading the out-of-Africa migrations.

Judy’s ancestors were members of a group that decided to remain in Africa — traveling west and north, spiraling around the continent’s top half. Descendants in Western Africa formed the lineage found today in many African Americans — often due to the transatlantic slave trade. Judy’s “L3e” haplogroup is also common among Afro-Brazilians and Caribbeans.

Genetic Ancestry Portrait by Lynn Fellman

Deep Waters

Wayne, an African American man, chose to have his DNA sequenced from his Y chromosome. His paternal Haplogroup, E1B1a (M2), is shared with most sub-Saharan Africans and many African American men.

The first genetic marker in Wayne’s lineage is “M168”. The marker locates the beginning of the migration route close to present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania in the Rift Valley region. Scientists give an approximate date of the emergence of this marker at 31,000 to 79,000 years ago.

Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits: the backstory

— Written by Lynn Fellman, 10-minute read

It was the pairing of science and art in the National Geographic magazine on the table in my childhood home that sparked my lifelong interest in paleoanthropology.

Fossils from the Great Rift Valley hinted at our ancient origins. The marvelous paintings depicted our ancestors from the fossil bits. Dark and mysterious, a shadowy fire-lit cave, a family huddled around, talking, maybe singing — I was mesmerized. 

That was the 1970s, and fossil discoveries of early hominids captured my imagination. Yet, there were gaps in the stories the magazine so artfully told. Where did we come from? How did we evolve? What makes us human? The answers, like the fossil bits, were fragmented.

The magazine’s paintings were beautiful but speculative interpretations. Thanks to present-day forensic genomics, artists create scientifically accurate visualizations of our ancient ancestors. Take a look at one who has mastered the art of depicting archaic hominids — paleo artist John Gurche.

The Genomic Era. Then, on June 26, 2000, the announcement of a scientific and technological milestone kicked off the 21st Century. Popular media caught the history-making excitement in 72-point bold headlines, “Scientists sequence the human genome!”

The success of DNA sequencing picked up the pace of discovery. The goal was to build a reference genome of human genetic variation and bioinformatics scientists and geneticists worked furiously.

Sequencing the human genome is one of the most significant scientific accomplishments. It was bold and audacious, and when the Reference Genome was completed in 2003, it launched genomics as the premier science of the Twenty-first Century.

The work is ongoing because current versions don’t include the entire, end-to-end sequence of all 24 chromosomes — 22 autosomes + X and Y. Work by dedicated scientists like Dr. Karen Miga.

Listen to her 20-min video talk about the genomics era and her research to assemble the first, complete sequence of the human X chromosome. Check out Dr. Miga’s paper in Nature about the research.

Paleogenomics is cool. While some were building the reference genome, other scientists — molecular anthropologists — got busy scrutinizing the genomes from living people. Other investigators were extracting ancient DNA from fossil bones. The two approaches, comparing data from modern and archaic genomes, began to bring the fragmented pieces of human history together.

Voila! The field of Paleogenomics was born, a mighty combo of genomics and anthropology. Studying the morphology of ancient bones and the molecular world inside and then comparing the results to modern DNA reveals details of human history we thought unknowable.

Scientists also look for variants in ancient DNA that could impact present-day human health. For example, the Neanderthal genome had mutations they passed along to early humans, allowing our ancestors to adapt to new environments. People alive today with the same variants enjoy the genetic gift from our extinct cousins. How cool is that?

Now you know… Information from the Reference Genome was adding knowledge of present-day human biology. Ancient DNA was expanding the story of human evolution. Together they were writing new chapters in the history of our species.

If you want to know more about our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, learn from one of the founders of the field of Paleogenomics, evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo. He developed best-practice methods to extract and analyze ancient DNA and understand our evolutionary history.

DNA tests for the rest of us? Exciting stuff, but some of us asked, “will scientists sequence everyone’s DNA?” I wondered, “how could I get my DNA sequenced?” An opportunity appeared in 2005 from the Genographic Project.

Hello, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing. It was an innovative collaboration between science and commerce. Geneticist-anthropologist, Dr. Spencer Wells, led the scientific team. They collected DNA samples from indigenous people around the world.

The commercial partner, IBM, offered sequencing to the rest of us — the Y chromosome (paternal) and mitochondria (maternal) — to determine genetic lineages. Not only would we get insights into our “deep” ancestry, but we could opt-in to scientific research as well.

The Genographic Project was one of the first direct-to-consumer DNA companies. Unlike its competitors, it was a global, interdisciplinary project. Part genomic, part anthropological research, the DNA collected from people around the world revealed never-seen-before patterns of human migration.

And with DNA from the participation of random, healthy people, the project contributed new scientific knowledge. It’s an approach that’s essential for biomedical science to advance and proved that individual genomes hold valuable information. Launched in 2005, the public involvement in the project ended in 2019.

Yahoo, I’m in! Who wouldn’t want to be part of scientific discovery? I bought a kit in September of 2005, swabbed away, and eight weeks later, my results came back. My mitochondrial DNA placed me in Haplogroup H — typical for my Swedish-German-Northern European background.

No surprise, but I was elated. My results included a graphical display of my Haplogroup as a path on the world map. It traced my lineage back through time and across continents to the common female ancestor in Africa.

For the first time, my biology revealed something that had been invisible to the previous members of my family tree. It was a striking visualization with an aesthetic of haunting beauty.

What’s a Haplogroup? Changes (mutations) in our DNA accumulate over generations. Not all mutations are bad; some carry ancestry information. They can also mark the duration of time like a “molecular clock.”

As people moved from place to place, the markers in their DNA map out their migrations, forming a path called a haplogroup. We share paths with thousands of people. My haplogroup H is part of an extensive, Northern-Western European lineage with many branches.

Artistic inspiration. OMG, this was information we thought was lost forever. It’s a story everyone should know; to understand how we’re all connected; get the sense of wonder I was feeling. How could I communicate the experience?

I dove into drawing and writing about what I was learning — looking for a way to visualize our connections through deep time and across continents. The outcome from hundreds of sketches and hours of study evolved into a new body of work — genetic ancestry DNA portraits (some shown above).

First, my friends agreed to a portrait. Later, others knocked on my door as art-buying patrons. All early and brave genome explorers — excited to get their DNA tested and have their portrait made.

Are my mutations harmful? Do the migration paths show my recent ancestry? Is everyone really from Africa? (Yes!) These were some questions my patrons asked, and I didn’t have answers. I needed to get smart (and fast) to make intelligent art.

Subscribing to scientific journals and reading the latest books was a start. Meeting people on the frontline of genomics research was better. So, I attended scientific conferences in the U.S. and abroad, listening and learning from the best.

Showing my work at scientific conferences also keeps me informed. If you attend Cold Spring Harbor Lab meetings, look for my work at the next in-person Biology of Genomes. As an artist-in-residence during the sessions, I show my current artwork and explain materials and methods.

Artistic vision. My intrepid participants found their DNA report and Haplogroup paths intriguing but mystifying. So when they got their test results, we talked about what they meant. When delivering the finished art, we looked at their portrait and data together, reviewing what the science said about their ancestry. 

It became clear that the artwork needed a story, a companion that could explain it. So with each new portrait, I included a one-page letter summarizing the scientific research. Eventually, the letter evolved into a storyboard — a graphical display that deciphered the science in the art.

As I began to show the genetic ancestry DNA portraits and storyboards, many reacted with, “ah-ha — I get it!” Listening closely to the comments, it seemed that a person’s face on a map of ancient migration paths based on their DNA made science personal. The storyboards made complicated science understandable.

And maybe, the pairing of art and science in this way could elicit a sense of wonder for the natural beauty of science? If so, it was the emotional response I was hoping to get from my fellow Genome Explorers.

Making digital art during the 1990s was discouraging because they couldn’t live in the real world. No printer could duplicate the vibrant colors in my images. No print media had the archival qualities that traditional media offered. Alas, you could only view my work on a screen.

Then in 2005, a new printer offered stunning, museum-quality output with true-color fidelity. It required specially formatted pigment inks and fine art papers treated to pair with the inks. And a lot of technical expertise to put it all together.

I took a course to get the know-how and bought one of the pricey, large-format printers. After testing many archival substrates with the pigment inks, I found the right mix. What I saw on my display printed true and with deep, vibrant color. Now I could print, frame, and show my work anywhere. Yay!

The University of Minnesota commission. A biological anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Irma McClaurin, had the same “ah-ha!” response when she saw my work. As director of a new urban research and outreach center (UROC), she was looking to celebrate the diversity of the people in the neighborhoods around the Center.

Dr. McClaurin encouraged me to write a proposal to create artwork about the UROC mission, “a gathering place… in an educational and cultural setting where the community and University researchers work together to improve the lives of those in urban areas.”

Proposal for genetic ancestry DNA portraits. It was 2009, and the media was broadcasting that our DNA was about 99.9% the same. Dr. McClaurin and I wanted to celebrate the news to show how we’re all connected, in our communities and worldwide, via deep lineages back to our original home in Africa.

I proposed a SciArt exhibit — a display of science, art, and story. We would invite people from the neighborhood to participate, and their portraits unveiled at the opening of the new UROC Center. The artwork would have a companion storyboard showing the source of the scientific data, explaining what it means, and a biographical sketch about the participant’s family and professional work. 

The project significantly expanded the scope of my previous work. Dr. McClaurin championed my “Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits” proposal, and we got it funded!

Invitation to a SciArt adventure. Civic leaders from the neighborhood were selected to represent the community’s diverse demographics; African American, European, Asian, and Native American backgrounds. We sent invitations to the people shown above; Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva.

We sent invitations to the people shown above; Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva. I met with each one and explained the portrait-making process. Everyone agreed and was eager to get started.

Speaking of diversity, the Human Reference Genome isn’t. The DNA used to build the variant library for the Reference Genome came from people with European ancestry. Not having DNA from diverse populations skews science and limits medical and health benefits. It’s a big problem.

Scientists such as Adam Phillippy at the National Human Genome Research Institute are working to change that. Dr. Phillippy and colleagues are building the “Human Pan Genome” to expand diversity in the reference library. Listen as Adam explains in “Toward the Human Pan Genome.”

The process. The first step was to order DNA kits from Genographic. When they arrived, I invited the participants to my studio for individual sessions. We opened the kits, and I helped them take their sample.

We talked about their work and leadership in the community. I made notes and sketches. And they sat in my big red chair for the photos I needed to use as a reference. After meeting with everyone, I double-checked their samples, forms, and sent all items to the lab.

It was 2009, and consumer DNA testing kits were persnickety. They had a detailed procedure, and I followed it precisely with each participant. After all, swabbing to get enough cells for a good sample was a new experience for all of us.

I expressed mailed the samples to make sure they arrived at the lab in Tucson, Arizona fast and all together. Getting the results back could take eight to twelve weeks, and I had no time to lose to finish the exhibit for the Center’s opening.

Art making. Now I could get going on the artwork. It was a lot to tackle; first, sorting through photos for the best, three-quarter version of each person. I printed the photos, and with pencil and tracing paper, started drawing to get familiar with each person’s face.

A face on a map is too clinical, so with paint and brush on paper, I made textured marks, chromosome shapes, and double helix patterns. After scanning the sketches and brush paintings, I used my digital tools to work on the composition.

The July 2010 opening celebration. Full-size portraits (4 x 5 feet) were printed, framed, and hung with companion storyboards on time for UROC’s opening celebration. Before the doors opened, I gave Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva small versions of their portrait and storyboard.

Everyone invited friends and family. Ron asked his students to attend. Standing in front of his portrait, “Crossing Beringia,” Ron interpreted his genetic ancestry that included the Ojibwa creation story. We were captivated! 

As more guests arrived, they recognized people in the portraits. “Tell me your story; what was it like to get your DNA tested?” they asked. Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva were celebrities! 

Art and story for the wonder of science. I stayed in the background to watch and listen. Some guests quietly read the storyboards; then studied the art and turned back to the story. Spontaneous and animated conversations popped up around each portrait. It seemed that my SciArt approach could make genomics personal, relevant, and sometimes evoke a feeling of wonder for the beauty of science.

The Genetic Ancestry DNA Portrait exhibit was on display for six months. Well received by scholars and people in the community, the exhibit remains at UROC. Another version has traveled to universities, libraries, and clinics around the U.S.

The portraits are historical documents. Decades into the Genomic Revolution, the deluge of data tells us much more about our individual DNA. If I added what we know today, the haplogroup paths would be a mess of branches, stretching across every continent.

Even though the artwork’s data is out-of-date, the core message hasn’t changed; Africa is our original home and we’re all connected. We can view the portraits as a celebration of scientific discovery. One person’s genetic ancestry layered with our species’ meta-story. It’s an evolutionary history we thought lost in time forever. 

I’ve moved on from making Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits to new ways to show the beauty and value of science. You can see some of my recent SciArt and the Genome Stories digital book on my other website, LynnFellman.com.

DNA Portraits about our genetic ancestry

Shown above are the people involved in the Genetic Ancestry DNA Portrait exhibit. We gathered in June 2010 for this group photo. Dr. McClaurin and me (Lynn Fellman), portrait participants; Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, Reva, and some of their family members, plus gallery assistants at UROC.

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