How Do I Research My Fulani Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: Advice for picking up the paper trail when DNA tests pinpoint African heritage.

Horse riders at Shehu Kangiwa Square (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Fulani

Traditionally, the Fulani (or Fulbe, Fula people, Peul or Hausa-Fulani) were nomadic herders across West Africa from the Senegal River Valley. Their adventure begins in the Tagant section of Mauritania, more or less in the Sahara desert-Sahel border, according to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton. Originating there explains why so many Fulbe are lighter-skinned, with straighter hair than most Africans in the same region. In the areas further south, they stand out, often having been described as “mulattoes” by visitors from Europe, say the historians. These features also led Colonial-era researchers to think of them as a mixed-race group, giving the Fulbe “a high place” in Europeans’ estimation.

Fulbe communities were divided into two groups: an elite who were strongly Muslim, many of whom were scholars of the Torodbe group; and the non-Muslim commoners, who specialized in raising cattle and fighting.

In the 1460s the rulers of Mali invited the Fulbe to settle within their lands, describe Heywood and Thornton. As they specialized in raising cattle, the Fulbe often cared for the cattle of neighboring people in exchange for payment. The leader, Temala (1464-1512), led these Fulbe on military adventures as the Empire of Mali declined, and the Fulbe made attacks south as far as Sierra Leone and deep into Senegal, as well as into the central bend of the Niger.  Temala was killed in action against the famed military leader Askia Muhammad of Songhay, as Songhay tried to retake former Malian territory beyond Timbuktu. Temala’s son, Coli (1512-1537), continued the military campaigns, out of which emerged the Empire of the Great Fulo, which dominated the Senegal valley at the end of the 16th century and controlled much of the west end of West Africa.

Fulbe communities were established during this time in Futa Jallon, Futa Tooro and Bundu, as well as “fulakundas,” or self-contained and self-governing villages scattered all along the Gambia River. It was tensions between the Fulbe communities and their ruling groups that led to the jihads of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in which Fulbe consolidated their rule, according to Heywood and Thornton.

In the 16th century they began expansion to the west, reaching Hausaland around 1650, where they began adopting Hausa customs and language and were known as Hausa-Fulani. They remained there for a long time, before beginning their own jihad movement under Usuman dan Fodio at the end of the 18th century that would result in the foundation of the empire of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Hausa-Fulani held a dominant position in Northern Nigeria until British colonization around the turn of the 20th century.


Today the Fulbe are dispersed from the Senegambian region, across the Sahel and Northern Savanna of West Africa to Cameroon, with significant concentrations in Nigeria. They also live in Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Guinea. Their language is Fulfude. According Heywood and Thornton, it’s unlikely that your Fulbe ancestry comes from Nigeria, because the Fulbe from Northern Nigeria didn’t really enter the slave trade until the jihad of Usuman dan Fodio, which began in 1804. That trade had a major role in Cuba and Brazil (especially Brazil) in the early 19th century, but by then the slave trade to Virginia “was history,” they explained in an email.

It’s much more likely that your ancestors came from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry or Sierra Leone — what is often called Upper Guinea in the old literature, say the historians. The Fulbe were concentrated in those regions, in areas called Futa Tooro, Bundu, Futa Jallon, in particular, but also scattered in between.

Beginning in the 1720s they became involved in a series of wars and/or jihads that increased the slave trade dramatically. After 1760, Sierra Leone, in particular, was affected by the major jihad in Futa Jallon. The Fulbe did not win all the wars waged during the period, and many ended up being sold as slaves across the Atlantic (while in the years in which they won, they sold many slaves).

As for finding out where your mother’s middle name came from, know that the Fulani have a patriarchal society that greatly values family relationships and ancestry. On every level, names are very important, and the first event in any child’s life is the infant-naming ceremony. The last name comes from the father’s surname, but the child will have a first name chosen by the father and another chosen by the mother. These names most often come from current or ancient family members, so that middle name of Malthida could indeed go back much further than your mother may have thought!