George Murdock’s map of the Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa

This post about ethnic diversity in Africa is a companion piece to my previous post.

The renowned American anthropologist, George Murdock (, published Africa: Its peoples and their culture history in 1959 (  Despite having little experience in Africa, Murdock used resources available at the time to create a comprehensive picture of how ethnic groups were distribution throughout Africa.

Ethnicity is fluid process. This makes the study of ethnicity difficult. Various factors come into play in defining, and re-defining, ethnicity. Personal, economic and cultural factors influences how members of ethnic groups define and redefine themselves. Marriages too can alter ethnic definitions.  In short, ethnicity is a human construct. It’s worth bearing this in mind when viewing ethnic-centric maps.

The map below, like the map in my previous post, is based on linguistic categorizations:

George Murdock's Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa map, 1996
Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa, 1996 publication by the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Principal source: Africa, its peoples and their cultural history, G.P. Murdock, 1959. Tribal or ethnic names may vary, depending on source. Only large ethnolinguistic areas of intrusiveness are shown. Ethnolinguistic boundaries are generalized. Sparsely populated or uninhabited areas are shown by the absence of color.

Part of my fascination with maps like this one, and the one in my previous post, is allowing me to see my genetic connections visually.

I’m fortunate. My Genebase DNA test answered the question about how my father’s paternal DNA travelled across the African continent – from the Horn of Africa, up through Egypt, and then across the north African Mediterranean coast until it reached Morocco and then dropped down to the Western Sahara region. I can trace how this DNA later travelled into parts of Western Africa and entered into a handful of Bantu speaking populations. And, from here, how it was carried further still into the Caribbean, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – places where I have living genetic cousins.

I can see how my mother’s maternal DNA travelled from the Horn of Africa right through the heart of central Africa, and then on to western and southern Africa. Like my father’s paternal DNA, my mother’s maternal DNA travelled from western and central Africa to the Caribbean and eastern Latin America.

Scientists are testing and sequencing more African tribal DNA. This is helping me build a picture of how my ancient African ancestors’  DNA travelled across Africa. It looks like my ancient African ancestors passed through some places quickly. These places act as small blips in my overall genetic makeup (which could also be a case that not enough people from that area just haven’t been tested yet). For instance, where my mother’s maternal DNA is concerned, I only have trace amounts of genetic links to modern Sudan.  In this scenario, Sudan looks like it was a quick pit-stop for her maternal genetic line.

Other places seem to have been long-term staging posts. Places where my parents’ ancestors settled for a considerable period of time before moving on. I have more genetic connections with modern African tribes in these places.  Staying with my mother’ s maternal DNA, I have a very significant genetic connection to the Arab population around Lake Chad and within Chad itself.  It’s only an educated guess, but this seems to indicate that her ancient ancestors remained in the Lake Chad area for generations. The Central African Republic and Nigeria also appear to have been other long-term staging posts for her maternal DNA. Cameroon looks like it was a quick pit-stop.

It’s relatively easy for me to see and understand how my Asian and European DNA moved from east to west in the Eurasian region. I have a whole family tree and documented family history that illustrates how this happened. Not so for my African ancestors. DNA is my sole resource for comprehending and understanding my African genetics. And, like other descendants of the African diaspora, I am reliant on genetics and anthropology to interpret my ancient African legacy – to catch a glimpse of the series of ancient peoples who carried that DNA from eastern Africa throughout the continent.

Who were the ancient African equivalents of my Euro-Asian Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Lombardian and Vandal ancestors? Who were the ancient African forbearers of the Fulani, the Taureg, the Berber, the Dinka, the Hausa and the Songhai?

Maps like the on above can’t answer that. However, this map pinpoints the modern descendants of these ancient tribes. Which, for the moment, provides some glimpses into that unrecorded ancient past…and the monumental journey of African DNA across that continent.

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