Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe?

If you’re African American, can you really know what tribe you come from? It’s a question I’ve been fielding via email and through comments on my blog. My posts about Gedmatch’s admix tools seem to have prompted this question, which I’ve been happy to field. So I decided to blog about it.

I look at the question this way. Each of us has sixteen 2x great grandparents. We also have thirty-two 3x great-grandparents. Even if all of these people were 100% of African descent , the chances of all of them being from the same tribe is, well, exceedingly, incredibly, rare. To the point of being impossible.

We are the children of many tribes.

I get the psychological need for the children of former slaves throughout the Americas to identify with a tribe. It’s a pretty basic psychological need for any people without an ancestral identity to reclaim a lost and stolen past.

However, as I recently pointed out to a Mrs C from Chicago, even those from a European background aren’t off the hook either in this regard. I’ll explain using the analogy I used for her.

Say Joe Blogs, whose immediate ancestors were born and raised in Inverness, Scotland, had an Etruscan ancestor (the modern Tuscan region of Italy). That ancestor had descendants who, in turn, became Romans – still in the Tuscan region. Think about all the myriads of peoples and cultures that were a part of the Roman empire and who either moved to Italy or were brought back to Italy as slaves. The chances are, Joe Blogs’s Roman ancestors would have intermingled with any number of people and cultures without ever having to leave the region of their birth. Say, for instance, one of these Roman Tuscan descendants entered the Roman army and was sent off to Gaul (modern France) and stayed and took a wife from the local population there. Over the centuries their descendants would come to be part of the kingdoms of the Franks (proto France) and the Germanic tribes. And let’s not forget the Celts lived there too.

In a few generations, some of these Franco-Germanic-Celtic ancestors moved to Normandy, where they intermingled with the Viking populations who had settled there. And one or two descendants of these Normans hopped across the English Channel with William the Conqueror when he invaded England. They’re still Norman however, chances are, they inter-married with the conquered Anglo-Saxons to keep the local and regional peace. One or two generations down the line and some of their descendants make the move to Scotland and Ireland.

And, that’s not throwing in the added mixtures of Pict and Scandinavian that were floating around Scotland.

So what does that make Joe Bloggs, who self-identifies as Scottish? Technically, it makes him an Etruscan-Roman-Frankish-Germanic-Celtic-Norman-Anglo-Saxon-Irish-Pict-Scandinavian Scotsman. Along the road to become Scots, his ancestors would have had vastly different senses of identity.

Or to use a very simple example, even if you identify as French or German – what kind of French or German are you? Looking at the map below, it’s worth bearing in mind that most countries are relatively modern inventions. Each one of these Franco-Germanic kingdoms in the map below would have been distinctly different from one another. Each would have had its own identity, customs and tribal affiliations.

It all serves the point that Europeans can’t claim a single identity either. In all likelihood, only the most ancient and remote tribes dotted around the globe can make such a claim.

My point? There isn’t a DNA test available that can answer that one question so many African descended people in the Americas so desperately seek an answer to: what tribe do I belong to? With so many of our ancestors contributing to our DNA from all over Africa, it’s a fundamentally impossible question to answer.

America is indeed a melting pot. For those with an African heritage, it is most definitely an African melting pot.

I think the most honest answer that any such test can offer is a percentage breakdown: x% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country A’, Y% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country B’ – and so on and so forth. It may, in all likelihood, connect you to many tribes who share a common language (e.g Bantu speakers).

Which is why I have problems with articles like this one: Pinpointing DNA Ancestry in Africa

My African DNA has travelled from East Africa through Northern Africa (YDNA) and through Central Africa (mtDNA). If I limited myself to the era when Africans were first transported to the Americas, I’m still genetically connected to an area spanning from Angola, up the western coastline, and all the way around to Tunisia. That’s the result of generations of marriages among my African-American ancestors whose ancestors came from so many different parts of Africa. I honestly believe that as more African descended people from the Americas test their DNA, a more reflective picture of the African diaspora will emerge.  Western Africa may have been the main egress point for Africans to the New World. That, however, doesn’t  mean the vast majority of slaves had to come solely from this region.

The various images below show long-established ancient land and sea trade routes within Africa. People, spices, precious metals, minerals, food, etc were all transported throughout the continent.

African trade routes in the early Islamic Era

I’m going to use a simple analogy.  It’s a crass analogy and a bit brutal. Followers of this blog are pretty savvy readers, so I trust that you’ll get why I’ve used it. In it’s heyday, the Mississippi River transported all manner of goods from the northern states to ports in the south. Just because the goods left from a major port like New Orleans, doesn’t mean that all of the goods were produced in Louisiana, Alabama or Arkansas.

I would be highly skeptical of any company making claims it can provide a sole tribal result. Again, DNA just doesn’t work that way.

All I do know is where I would have been born In Africa, had my ancestors not been enslaved, is anybody’s guess. There are some cool places that are contenders. I’m resolved to never knowing a specific country or tribe. I’m just enjoying finding out more about the African countries my DNA is tied to. Understanding this, my sense of identity doesn’t come from a tribe, but through uncovering my family’s American history. It comes from re-connecting lost branches of my parents’ families to the overall family tree. And meeting relations from these lost branches. This, in and of itself, has been a powerful and transformative experience.

Being able to slowly and steadily undo what centuries of American slavery accomplished – the breakdown and destruction of enslaved families – has been largely cathartic. It’s like giving slavery the finger: My enslaved ancestors do have a history. I am connected to something far greater than myself. Try as hard as the American slavery system did to erase their identities, my African descended ancestors did leave footprints. Those footprints may have been hard (sometimes nigh on impossible!) to find…but I found them. And I’ve shared them so they’ll never be forgotten. For me, this is as valuable, more valuable, than having the name of a tribe. It’s what I mean by giving slavery the finger.

The video below has the worst title imaginable. Bear with me and just ignore the poorly thought-through title. The video itself makes a good point. You can visibly see how important reclaiming identity is for African Americans. DNA testing companies need to provide far more transparency about the information they provide in terms of African results.

DNA testing is an invaluable tool. I’ve written often enough about my own experience. The value of the outcome depends on what your objectives are. You could be stitching your family tree together and re-connecting with lost family. Or you might want to have an understanding of the peoples and cultures you’re connected to through your DNA . Testing is a powerful experience for either of these goals.

If, however, you are seeking a tribal identity, it’s best not to spend your money.

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18 thoughts on “Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe?

  1. You are right, there isnt an autosomal test that can trace it back to a specific tribe. However, there is a company that has more than 30,000 samples of DNA from hundreds of tribes within Africa, of which to compare your Y chromosome (your fathers fathers father ect…) and mtdna (your moms moms mom ect…) and pinpoint those most direct, two lines, back to a specific Ethnic Group, or the closest ones that match. So it is possible in some regards. Also that video you posted is OLD, OUTDATED, and misleading.

    The company is called:

    1. Hi Hasani

      Thank you for your comment. With respect, I disagree.

      Africa has a population of billions of people. 30,000 samples, while a great start, is a grain of sand on a beach. It simply can’t provide any accuracy.

      YDNA and mtDNA aren’t passed on unchanged. Bits are added and lost over time. And, as the video explains, solely looking at these two types of DNA ignores everything else in our genetic inheritance.

      Sticking with YDNA and mtDNA, you won’t have just one match with one country or one tribe. Which is why my tests show that I’m connected to a range of people. The further back in time we go, the more cultures we’re connected to at the genetic level.

      Sorry, but I would rather have the right genetic answer than one that only represents a fraction of my genetic identity.

      As I said in my post, I can almost plot the migration of my YDNA and mtDNA out of Africa and across Africa. Of the many diverse African tribes who share parts of my DNA, which one – to the exclusion of all others – am I supposed to claim as my one and only tribe? The Turkana? The Tuareg? The Berber? The Kung!?, The Arab population of Chad? The Somali? The Mende? They’re all there in these two forms of DNA…and then some 🙂

      The video might be old, but it’s far from being outdated or misleading. I wouldn’t have included it if it were.

      I didn’t want to name the company cited in the video because I didn’t think it would be a constructive thing to do. And I thought it would detract from the larger point I made.

  2. Ah, one thing I didn’t mention due to regular readers knowing this bit of info. And I should have mentioned it. I used a scientific DNA testing company for my YDNA and mtDNA test. I had the full sequences tested. So my results go back more than my mind can handle at times. The service provides a chromosomal breakdown, with matches to peoples/tribes/cultures along with scientific journal articles that cover the sizes of the populations used, migration routes, etc.

    I’m actually going to do a post about it.

    I’ve used other services like AncestryDNA solely for autosomal testing to connect with list relations.

    Hopefully, this missing info is an answer.

  3. I currently live in Nigeria — home to 350+ tribes, 650+ languages. You are dead on when you say you can’t get your DNA down to one tribe — there is just no way. Even here in Nigeria TODAY, people inter-marry — so who are you? Are you Igbo? Well if you marry a Yoruba, maybe you’re Igbo-Yoruba . . and on top of it, all our DNA doesn’t perfectly get handed down 50% from each parent — one child may get more Hausa genes, while another gets more Fulani genes. DNA then will show up showing Fulani, when you’re a 50/50 mix of both. I too understand the need to want to be from a “tribe” — but as I said even here in Nigeria, no one person is a perfect 100% of any tribe — if you ask someone they will give you what they are the “most” of — meaning he/she is more of Kanuri than anything else rather than Kanuri/Fulani/Hausa.

    1. Genealogy Adventures Note: The comment below is specifically about identity within Nigeria. Just in case that isn’t clear:

      Lineage in Nigeria is patriarchal. You are whatever your father is. If your father is Igbo, then many consider you Igbo. I believe that these days people are more comfortable identifying themselves as a mix of both but historically people only identified themselves with whatever their father happened to be. That is why it is not uncommon to find someone who looks very much like a Hausa person but is Fulani and vice versa. Some may only have 10% Fulani DNA but if their father identified as a Fulani man then they were Fulani as well. That is why its so hard to pin point exact tribes based on DNA especially in areas that are close to other tribes like the Nigerian Middle Belt because there would likely have been a lot of intermarriages between different tribes.

      1. Both of you are right !
        But to me tribe and identity are a bit different. Let me explain myself, as you said in many African societies and some others your tribe is your father tribe but most of time children know both of their family side and sometimes they are more connected to one over another, especially when they are raise by a single mother.
        Let’s take for example as you did, a guy who’s paternal great grandfather is igbo and the rest of his great grandparents are french, that’ make him 1/8 igbo and 7/8 french. Phisically he is completely white, his hair are completely curly.
        His tribe is igbo but his origins are more french than igbo.
        So I belong to my father tribe but my identity are both sides.

  4. I also feel like when some African American take a dna test, it’s not to really find out their ancestry but rather concreting a hope to belong to a specific tribe. I saw so many testimonies of some AA being disappointed because they find out, they are not enough native american or european or sometimes east african.
    Sometimes when their dna test show some popular tribes like Fulani or Tuareg, they’ll say everywhere they are from these tribes. They didnt understand the functionning of these dna test, I think companies are taking advantage of them, some tv shows contribute to that unfortunately.

    1. I am noticing this today in 2017. I just came across this blog, because I want to not only find the tribe, but also my countries, and relatives living in Africa like I have seen from others. 23andMe has a tool, where you can see your DNA Matches birthplaces. I have seen countless AAs actually reconnect with their African relatives. To me that is exciting, because I want to reconnect with those that have been separated. When I was younger, I became angry that people called me AA. I said just call me black, because I am not from Africa! I blindly never even realized that my genetics are actually of African descent. Like many AAs we normally range from 10-22% European. To me, I became the thought of them taking advantage of my ancestors. I honestly focus on what is the majority. I have tested with several companies, and they all have actually been the same for me and my other 2 relatives. I matched with them both on the sites as well. The same tribe has shown up on all of them. I get sad when I see AAs during their result videos have this stone cold face when they see that yes you are African and you have 70-100%. They boast and become excited seeing anything “other” even if it is 1% like I saw one girl jump with glee. She bragged about that 1% and how she was going to learn that culture and re-do her home. Looking at her, she resembled India Arie/Lauryn H…. I understand skin color has nothing to do with DNA…but it is just one of my many observations to see that there is still the same damage there that Africa is bad.. Africa is only of apes and poverty, that Africans look different and are extremely dark.. nothing wrong with beautiful deeper tones that, but if AAs would take a walk through Lagos, Nigeria…they would blend in. The media and Willie Lynch had truly caused mental damage to not even embrace being African. I think there is confusion between nationality, culture, race (skin color), and actual ethnicity… If Asians will still be Asian..anywhere they go…we must realize we have always been African and not just “black”…yes there are mixed raced people, but I am speaking on the ones whom are predominately African. Africa is a continent, but it is filled with many countries. Of course wherever one lives, they will be of that continent…but there are the 3 main groups.. European, Asian, and African. What will blacks identify with? I I just pray that our community accepts our ancestry. I’d say be proud of your culture wherever, and still have inner peace and an option to embrace being of African descent.

      1. Thanks Sam Richards, I love your comment. Just this past week, I received my results. I was surprised to find out that I was 54% Nigerian. I was very excited and happy too. I just assumed that most AA’s are from Ghana. There was 11% general West African…but I’m unsure about how to pinpoint it. Also there was a connection to Sierra Leone….which made perfect sense to me and lined up with the fact that both of my parents are from South Carolina….and my father often said we were Gullah. ( I still don’t have all the facts) but it’s a nice start! The knowledge is amazing. And yes, I had other connections from Massai and even South India and North & East Europe…but for me…..the Nigerian and Sierra Leone connection were the BEST!!!!!

  5. Thank you so much for your article. It has given me a lot to consider about spending any money on any DNA testing providers who claim that they can help me to find what tribe I’m from. Now I’ll figure that they are all fraudulent.
    I feel sad that I will have to give up my dream of being connected to one tribe, but your analogies make sense in having so many great (and great and great) parents that it doesn’t make any sense for one of them to belong to one tribe.
    Recently I got results from DNA tribes, who told me that my DNA matches 45% of the population of Equatorial Guinea, and 60% of the population from Central Africa (and they mentioned three Pygmy tribes as an example). So I will follow your suggestion that in lieu of trying to find what tribe I belong to, I will learn more about these countries-particularly their histories-and maybe I will understand a little more about my own history. Many thanks.

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