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National Geographic gives Astorians peek at ancestors

Astoria residents caught a glimpse of a new National Geographic documentary this week that traces their lineage back hundreds of thousands of years following their participation in a project last summer that studied their DNA.

More than 100 residents from the neighborhood gathered on the lawn of Astoria Park Monday night to watch a preview of the film “The Human Family Tree,” which will air 8 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. The Genographic Project, which tracks the ancient migration patterns of the human race, has tested 350,000 people from 130 countries.

National Geographic set up a booth at a street fair near 31st Street in July 2008, during which 200 Astoria residents had their cheeks swabbed for DNA. Within several months, the residents were notified about the migratory patterns of their ancestors.

“We always knew this, but now we have genetic proof that this is the most diverse borough in the world,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who took part in the study.

Vallone said his ancestors started out in northeastern Africa and, in 40,000 B.C., moved through the Middle East, went to the Balkans and ended up in Europe.

George Delis, former district manager of Community Board 1, said his ancestors traveled from Africa to Uzbekistan, Ireland, France and Spain.

“The study shows that we are all part of one family,” he said. “They traced my family back 70,000 years. It’s amazing.”

Geneticist Spencer Wells, who is leading the project, said his team of researchers has traced some families as far back as 200,000 years and that Astoria residents have discovered that their families originated from a variety of places, including Ethiopia, Tibet, Bolivia, Bangladesh, Russia and Thailand.

“Astoria is so incredibly diverse,” he said. “There are 150 languages spoken here and more than half of its residents were born in other countries. Some people in the project found out things they did not know about themselves.”

Jorge Gonzalez, an insurance broker from Columbus, Ohio, said he returned to Astoria for the screening after having his cheek swabbed at the street fair last year. His family line includes both native Americans and Argentinians.

Dave Reed, an aspiring actor from Astoria, said he was surprised at the results of his test. His grandmother had told him she believed his ancestors came from Ghana.

“There’s no way to really know [my] history past that point — that’s what makes this really important for me being African American,” he said. “My paternal line was traced back to Europe. I would have never known.”

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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