Getting Closer to Our African Origins

Historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton explain why new research is making a difference.

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JT and LH: As far as we're aware, very few African-American families have traditions that point to specific regions of Africa. In fact, in places where such traditions are found, they are usually quite right. We know, for example, of people who have been told their ancestors came from Congo, and sure enough, the DNA established that it was true.

TR: What scientific advances or progress in research enabled you to reach your conclusions? Did you analyze DNA data?

JT and LH: Our research for this article was based on documentary sources, studying the patterns of trading between Africa, Europe and America (especially using the newly expanded Du Bois database), the reconstruction of events in the relevant African regions and notices from the period of the slave trade of the African origins of people who were listed in documents of the time. We also made extensive use of interviews conducted by missionaries with first-generation enslaved Africans.

DNA research has also advanced, largely because of the increase in the number of people being tested. This expanded pool will continue to grow as more research and testing is done. 

We only made use of DNA data for our work with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Root) as consultants for African American Lives, his PBS TV show, and as consultants for We're not geneticists; we're historians, but we have read scientific papers written by geneticists to understand the general problems.

TR: The mapping and quantifying of the slave routes has been an important advance in recent years. How does that tie into your research?

JT and LH: Certainly one crucial step has been the development of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database since 1999, which has combined literally thousands of documents on the movement of shipping across the Atlantic and allowed quantitative estimates of the arrivals in America. Over the years many scholars have slogged through inventories and reported their results, which cumulatively have greatly increased our knowledge of origins of Africans held in slavery.

We have also benefited from the publication of missionary documents that were vital to understanding this. The publication of Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp's German manuscript in 2001 was absolutely vital to this article.

TR: A number of DNA services offer to pinpoint your African origins. How accurate are such results? Is there enough data to justify these results?

JT and LH: Initially the results were uneven. We combined DNA results with other data, such as family history in America and shipping records, to try to get over ambiguities in the results. Many users of the services found that they had potential ancestors in more than one area in Africa, and at times these contradictions could be limited or resolved by these methods. But for only a few could the results be considered really definitive.

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