Pinpointing DNA Ancestry in Africa

Most African Americans hail from just 46 ethnic groups, research shows.

Source: David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

For African Americans seeking to learn about their African ancestry, there is also the issue of ethnic associations. Since the inception of colonialism, Africans have come more and more often to cast their identity in terms of ethnicity, or by “tribal” identity. While most certainly do recognize themselves as citizens of Senegal, Ghana or Angola, they are also quite likely to recognize identity as Wolof, Akan or Mbundu.

Neither the political units nor, as often as not, the linguistic units are directly comparable to designations of nations or states given for the era of the slave trade. In fact, less than one-third of Oldendorp’s language names are the current names for the language. Ethnic maps, like the famous map published by George Peter Murdock in 1959, are the basis for most understandings of today’s ethnicity, and researchers collecting DNA samples are likely to ask for these names when collecting the sample and report their results using the same names.

African Americans seeking their roots must understand that there was no Senegal or Ghana in the era of the slave trade, and that while Angola and Congo were commonly used as ethnic names, these places did not have anything like their modern borders. The names of some of the ethnic groups of today have changed, and anyone attempting to find the links to African ancestors must know something about the history of the group.

According to Murdock’s ethnic map, Africa has more than 1,000 ethnic groups and as many languages. By Oldendorp’s definition, barely 30 of the ethnic groups on Murdock’s map contributed to the population of the Americas. Africa appears to be somewhat less diverse in the era of the slave trade.

But using the geographic information that Oldendorp supplied, and plotting the borders and ethnicity according to the Murdock map, it becomes clear that Oldendorp’s 30 ethnic groups encompassed 46 of today’s ethnic groups. (This is because some modern ethnic groups make up two or three of Oldendorp’s.) For a list of ethnic groups and their location in modern Africa, go to The Root article African Ethnicities and Their Origins.

For people seeking their roots, it is probably not as important to link to a long-lost political group or try to locate the 18th-century name of genetic ancestors. The real contribution of the results provided by DNA is that they connect an African American living in, say, Boston or New Orleans with an African who identifies himself by a name — say, Asante or Wolof — and who lives in Ghana or Senegal. The African American who shares genetic sequences with that person can link himself to that modern ethnic group. By matching genetic anomalies in an African American and an African, one can establish that these two individuals had common ancestors two centuries ago.

Slavery and Jim Crow were meant to wrench African Americans from their African past, but with research and advances in science, the search for ties to a vast continent has narrowed considerably.

Linda Heywood is a professor of history and the director of African-American studies at Boston University. John Thornton is a professor of history and African-American studies at Boston University.

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