Were My Ancestors African or European?

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

The Barbary/Berber Coast (including Morocco, Algiers, Libya and Tunisia) held a thriving slave trade throughout the peak centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. This was partly due to the raiding by the Barbary pirates but stemmed from the tradition of the Arab slave trade already in place since about 650 A.D. Those sold in this area were not just black Africans but also white Europeans from as far north as the United Kingdom. Eventually, in the early part of the 19th century, this practice was stopped through military action on the part of the young United States of America and European nations like Great Britain and the Netherlands.

To escape the Inquisition, Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula (who usually identified as Portuguese) returned to North Africa and sailed off to explore new lands. They were also captured as slaves and sent to Spanish colonies. These ancestors could then have mixed with the native populations and moved around the New World. At some point in time, it is possible that the union of an African man and a European woman introduced the U6a1 haplogroup into your lineage.

I spoke with the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, who offered some alternate theories of how you might have come by the U6a1 haplogroup.

“During the 10th and 11th centuries, a good number of North African nomads speaking Berber languages moved back and forth across the Sahara. Early Arab geographers like al-Bakri (1068) give some details about this movement, and then, about a century later, a number of Arabs from the Arabian peninsula invaded North Africa, and many Berbers fled south into the desert as refugees. These groups were often active in the Saharan trade, again as documented by medieval Arab geographers. It is possible that one of these groups or families of them took up residence in West Africa and intermarried with local people.

“Another possibility would be via the Moroccans who invaded Songhay in 1591 with Judar Pasha. These troops operated around Timbuktu and the bend of the Niger River, and their activities in the 17th and 18th centuries are extensively documented in a local chronicle called ‘Tedzkirat en-Nisian.’ But Morocco’s invasion of Songhay was only one well-documented wing of Moroccan expansion; another was directly south in the region north of the Senegal Valley, where contemporary sources often called the participants ‘Ormans.’ They are associated with raids on the countries to the south, and some of the groups occupied areas on the border between the desert and the thoroughly cultivated regions on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.

“While these Moroccans are represented as raiders, they did not always win every battle; in fact they often lost, and counterattacks from districts like Futa Tooro, the Wolof kingdoms and the Bambara kingdoms of Kaarta and Segu often engaged Moroccans. In the course of these wars and engagements, Moroccans, including women, are quite likely to have been enslaved.” Perhaps your female ancestor with the U6a1 haplogroup was one of these women.

So as you see, there are a number of ways in which you might have ended up with the U6a1 haplogroup. What you should also keep in mind is that this haplogroup forms only one of the many branches of your ancestry. There are numerous ways in which you and your future children can continue to learn about all aspects of your family history.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.