Zahlé, at the southern end of the Mount Lebanon Range, eastern Lebanon
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I have done an autosomal DNA test for most of my relatives and ancestors, including my father. He is of Lebanese origin (born in 1959 in a village near Kartaba, also spelled Qartaba), but I discovered that his ancestry contains 4 percent Central-East African.

Both my brothers inherited 2 percent African DNA. However, I inherited none, taking mostly Southern European and Middle Eastern ancestry from my mother, who is also Lebanese. I did the test for my paternal grandfather, but no African ancestry came up. I did not test my paternal grandmother, since she had unfortunately passed away by this time. She was born in 1930 in a town higher up the Byblos mountains, called Akoura (also spelled Aqoura), and both sides of her family were originally from the Bekaa Valley region. Specifically, my paternal grandmother’s mother was from a town called Zahlé in the Bekaa region, though we are unsure if she was born there.

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I decided to get as close to figuring out some set of my paternal grandmother’s ancestry as possible, so I had my father test for his mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and found out that he comes from the haplogroup L5, which originates in sub-Saharan Africa! I was so excited to find out more! I am sending you the test results from FamilyTreeDNA.

And so I’m interested in how this may have come about, to be in my father’s mtDNA and his autosomal DNA results, especially when the presence of Africans in Lebanon is absolutely scarce. I always noticed something different about my grandmother compared with the typical Lebanese person, and I think I just found out why. And if my father has 4 percent African ancestry, approximately how long ago did it enter our family tree? —Rudy

Given that the Middle East and Africa are next-door neighbors, your DNA test results aren’t altogether shocking. To answer your questions, first we turned to genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who sent the following reply for you by email:

If 4 percent of your father’s DNA traces back to Central-East Africa, that would most likely be inherited from a 3rd-great-grandparent of full African ancestry; but technically, could be from as close as a 2nd-great-grandparent of full African ancestry.

Since your results imply that you carry none of this African DNA and [people] inherit autosomal DNA from all of our ancestors going back at least six generations, I would conclude that it is coming from the more distant of the two. (I suspect if you tested at a company that reports percentages under 1 percent, you would have a small African result as well.)

It is terrific that you were able to identify the probable source of the African DNA by adding mtDNA testing to your results. I always encourage a research strategy that utilizes different types of DNA testing whenever possible.

Based on the birth dates you provided, we are likely looking at the mid-19th century for a second or third great-grandparent of full sub-Saharan African ancestry for your father.

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People of Lebanese descent have been migrating to West Africa—particularly the countries that were colonized by the French—in sizable numbers since the 19th century, seeking economic opportunities and better lives. Certainly, this phenomenon provides opportunity for interaction between Lebanese and sub-Saharan Africans and could theoretically figure into your family’s history.

However, you have provided no such evidence of an ancestor who migrated to West Africa, so we turn to the possibility of sub-Saharan contact within your known ancestral region during the 19th century.          

Muhammad Ali, pasha and viceroy of Egypt (aka Mehmed Ali), conquered “Greater Syria,” or the Bilad al-Sham (a region in which modern-day Lebanon is located), between 1831 and 1840. Because the Egyptian peasants had resisted conscription into his army (as did the Syrians), he conquered the Sudan in 1822 to conscript troops, as well as amass the gold and other resources necessary to wage war. According to Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in 19th-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Mediterranean, co-edited by Terence Walz and Kenneth Cuno, his invading forces in Syria included enslaved Sudanese soldiers (also known as jihadiya).

Could one of these jihadiya have been an ancestor? We cannot determine this based on what’s been provided, but we do encourage you to learn more about this period in the history of your ancestral homeland, one in which—at least in the region—there was interaction between people of Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African descent. The book by Walz and Cuno is a good place to start.

FamilySearch also has a wiki for researching Lebanese genealogy, in case you would like to see where the paper trail can lead.

Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Leila Fawaz, Ph.D., the Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese & Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University.