If you're seeking to determine your ethnic origins, you might have to wait awhile to get a scientifically complete picture. Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have published a trailblazing study--summarized in the January 2010 issue of "Nature Methods" journal--that suggests science can produce detailed proof of an individual's complex ethnographic makeup from a single DNA sample. But most people turn to standard indicators like race, language and culture to do the job. Be prepared to learn plenty about your heritage in the process.
Explore the roots of your racial makeup by using family documents, birth, death and marriage certificates to trace your family tree. Expect to find fascinating connections if you go back far enough, as evidenced by genealogical research that shows that President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney are distant relatives.
Trace the lineage of your family's language to place your ethnic origins. Review family records and journals, diaries, ship manifests and other archival data to track your ancestor's roots. Consider boundary changes throughout history, such as the portion of Austria and Poland that changed hands many times; in this case, you might have to explore both Polish and Austrian records to reach conclusions about the languages making up your heritage.
Hone in on the cultural makeup of your family lineage to determine your ethnic origins. Look into your kin's religion, customs, dress styles, laws and other unique characteristics that a society adopts to make itself culturally distinct. Account for variables like assimilation, a common situation in which your ancestors might have assumed the trappings of another culture. For example, when Jewish refugees migrated to China, they adopted that nation's customs in a few generations.
Turn to Internet sites, high-profile institutions like the Ellis Island Project, and the vast wealth of records archived in Salt Lake City by the Church of the Latter Day Saints to track your ethnic origins. Expect your search to be arduous and time-consuming, particularly if you are African-American. But if you have the stamina and resources to pursue answers, you probably will be surprised at what you can find.
Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.