Were My Ancestors African or European?

Tracing Your Roots: DNA ancestry testing leaves a reader with questions about her heritage.

(The Root) —

“For nearly two decades I’ve grasped for a connection to my family’s African heritage. I grew up in an ethnically diverse, Northern New Jersey suburb where many of the black students were first-generation Americans or recent immigrants with ancestry from countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. Now in my late 20s, I’ve decided to delve into my family’s genetic lineage with genealogy tests and research. My maternal line survived slavery in Southeastern North Carolina, and while there are certainly several white men in the family tree, we’ve never known of any white women.

“Several months ago I received my African Ancestry Matriclan DNA test results with the expectation that my maternal line would trace back to one of the powerful West African nations heavily involved in the slave trade. Instead, my results showed a direct match for haplogroup U6a1 — a European lineage. I was disappointed and thoroughly confused. It felt as though I’d never find the African connection I’d sought since childhood.

“After countless hours combing the Internet for more information about my fellow U6a1 descendants, I found the haplogroup is quite common in North African countries, such as Morocco. The possible North African connection only intensified my confusion and leaves me with more questions than ever.” –Kristin Rodney

Your confusion is not surprising. Discussions over whether the haplogroup U6 (also called “Ulla”) should be considered European or African have actually been going on for some years now. Although the testing service African Ancestry designated U6a1 as European, as you discovered, the haplogroup actually appears throughout a vast geographic area from the Iberian Peninsula in the North to Kenya in the South, and from the Canary Islands in the West to Syria and Ethiopia in the East.

The U6a1 subgroup seems to show the migration of peoples out of Maghreb (Northwest Africa) through East Africa into the Near East and back again. According to its FamilyTreeDNA project, “The U6 haplogroup has a Southwestern Asia origin approximately 40,000 or 45,000 years ago. The early Upper Paleolithic carrying U6 return to Africa from the Mediterranean area.” This return to Africa was about 30,000 years ago during Paleolithic times.

In Europe, the U6 haplogroup only consistently appears on the Iberian Peninsula, which probably indicates that these peoples did not move into North Africa from Europe. Rather, it may indicate the opposite: that North Africans later moved north onto the peninsula. For more on this subject, you may be interested in the article “Mitochondrial DNA Transit Between West Asia and North Africa Inferred From U6 Phylogeography.”

As this all occurred so long ago that choosing whether to consider this line European or African becomes more a matter of perspective. On the one hand, the line originated in Africa, but so did every population. This subgroup has also primarily been found in Africa for many thousands of years. On the other hand, what makes it different from other African-based haplogroups are changes that evolved out of the time spent in the Near East and on the migration back to Northern Africa.

Your female ancestor from whence the U6a1 haplogroup stems lived so long ago that there are any number of possible ways in which your line ended up in North Carolina. It could be that your ancestors were among those who migrated to Europe and/or became explorers traveling even as far as the New World. Or, your ancestors could have been taken directly from Northern Africa as slaves.