With over 10K downloads under it’s belt to-date, it’s safe to say that the We’re Related app is gaining traction amongst the modern genealogy set. Now that it’s fixed a glitch which prevented people with big trees from using the app, I can now join in the fun.
The app has the potential for being a provider of new genealogy leads. I’ve already discovered new lines of research through it already. I only have one big caveat. The matches We’re Related provides are generated by family trees hosted by Ancestry. The lines of descent the app displays in order to illustrate how two people are related come from Ancestry.com family trees created by other people. These trees are only as accurate and reliable as the information put into them. That’s a nice way to say you still need to vet each and every generational link in the genealogy chain.
I can say that of the 50 or so individuals the app claims I’m related to, 90% have been 100% correct. That’s not bad going. I’d also say that another 5% were close – close enough for me to quickly work out where the correct ancestral connections lays.
Here’s an overview of some of my favourite new cousin matches:
Senator John McCain
My match with Senator John McCain was bang on the money. I already knew I was related to Sen. McCain already, so this came as no surprise. However, I was impressed to see it pop u in my app matches. This is yet another match in a staggering myriad of matches from my colonial Pennsylvania Quaker ancestors.
As a decades-long veteran of the music industry, I was ALL kinds of excited when Jimi showed up as a match. He is amongst my all time favourite guitarists and recording artists. Sadly, once I looked the line of descent, as shown above, it all quickly fell to pieces. Isaac Winston is my 10x great grandfather. Mary Ann, his daughter, is my 9x great aunt. However, while she did marry, I cannot find any record which shows she married a Chiles. Not for love nor money. Which means I’ve discounted this match. I do have Chiles relations, so I may return back to Jimi to see if there is indeed a connection…or not.
Again, this one came as no surprise. I’ve had President George Washington in my family tree for a long time. Still, it was nice to see him appear…with a correct line of descent.
As with George Washington, I’ve long known about my connection to President Zachary Taylor via the Lee family of Virginia. Again, it was great to see his line of descent matched with those provided by antiquarian genealogy books I’d consulted when I researched when building this branch of my family tree.
Henry David Thoreau
This match simply blew me away. With a dual degree in Philosophy and Comparative Western Literature, I read plenty of Thoreau while at university. Discovering I was related to one of America’s towering 19th Century writers was quite a thing to behold. And it didn’t hurt that Thoreau opened up an entirely new line of inquiry for my Cary ancestry…one that has taken me deep into 16th Century England.
Sir Winston Churchill, the venerated British Prime Minister – better remembered for his term in office during WWII rather than his second run at Prime Minister in the early days of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign – was also a known connection to me. However, that our supposed link came via a Jane Patrick came as a thunderbolt. I have no idea who she is.
Looking at my side of the shared equation, the problem with this match quickly became apparent:
Charity Young is my 9x great grandmother via my Fugate ancestry. Which makes her mother, Mary Ann Montgomery, my 10x great grandmother. However, the wrong Thomas Montgomery is showing. This isn’t the Thomas Montgomery that’s in my own tree (see the image below, which shows the correct Thomas). The one shown in the image above is some other unknown Thomas Montgomery.
Here’s the Thomas Montgomery in my tree. He is the father of Mary Ann:
Somehow, this other person’s Thomas has taken priority over my 10x great grandfather, Thomas Montgomery. That’s where this particular error lays – which is why I couldn’t figure out where this Jane Patrick fits into the story. She doesn’t, and shouldn’t be there.
The ancestor I share in common with Winston Churchill is actually Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (1350- 1403). This connection makes Winston my 15th Cousin, 3x removed. Yep, that is one VERY distant connection 😉
I can thank Google Books and the British antiquarian Visitations of series (via https://www.google.com/search?tbm=bks&q=vistitations+of#tbm=bks&q=visitations+of ) for the correct Montgomery family lineage. This ancestry resources is invaluable. It’s old. The pedigrees and lineages contained within this series of books have been vetted, argued over, and researched for centuries. It’s my ‘go to’ resource when picking up ancestral trails for my English, Welsh, Scottish and northern Irish family lines.
A quick peek at the family line that connected me to Kanye was 100% correct. The gem of this discovery has been a new line of Wests in Delaware and Maryland who were free people of colour. Looking at the names of his earliest known West ancestors is even more exciting. Old Quaker names, with Quaker spellings, like Rebeckah, Susanna, Ezekiel, and Hezekiah among his colonial West ancestors suggests a connection between his fpoc West ancestors and my Quaker West ancestors, some of whom left southern Pennsylvania for Maryland and Delaware early in the 1700s. It’s something I will be researching in 2017.
My Scotts-Irish Roanes and Henry family seem to have produced a staggering number of performers for descendants. Christina is one among many. Other performers from the Roane-Henry family include: Willie Nelson, Ron Howard, and Dakota Fanning.
Overall, the app is just plain good fun. However, it can open up new doors of discovery too. Take my advice though and do some digging and research before getting too excited.
The paternity of my 2x great grandfather, Cornelius White, has been a mystery ever since I began my ancestral journey in 2010. All I had was the usual information that could be gleaned from online record sources. He was born about 1829 in Virginia, either in Wythe, Smyth or Augusta County. He married Ann St Clair, who was born in Tennessee. Together, they raised a small family in Wytheville, Wythe County, Virginia.
The only census return I could positively associate with him was the 1880 Census, where he, Ann, and their small family is listed. I had hoped to find him in the 1865 Cohabitation Records for Wythe County. Neither he nor anyone else from his immediate family were listed in this invaluable African American genealogy resource. Nor could I find them in Smyth County, another central location for my extensive extended family. Frustratingly, similar records for Pulaski and Augusta, additional counties that feature largely in my southwest Virginia family’s history, have either been lost, destroyed or undiscovered. So I put Cornelius on the back burner. I’d return to him from time to time – only to put him back on the back burner. I just couldn’t make any headway with him.
I continued my overall genealogy research, on a county-wide level, adding more extended families into my tree. At this point, I have most of late 18th Century to late 19th Century Wythe, Smyth, Pulaski and Augusta county family groups in my tree.
Thanks to endogamy (where groups of people marry amongst themselves, creating one large extended family group over time), I’m related to most of the people in these counties – black, white and Native American – with pre-1900 roots in these counties through a succession of cousin marriages from the early 1700s onwards.
This beautiful region of Virginia is nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s sparsely populated even to this day. Before the automobile, it would take a day or more to walk from town to town in this region. So you tended to marry who you knew, which was going to be someone in the same community. Which meant you either married a cousin of some description. Or you didn’t marry at all. I’d imagine that newcomers, who mixed the gene pool up a bit, were feted. I went through something very similar when I moved to a fairly isolated part of Cornwall in southwest England. I was single at the time and invited to every manner of dinner party, church gathering, local dances, parties and saint festival days you could imagine…with single daughters, grand-daughters and nieces being introduced to me left, right, and centre for the first two years I lived there.
Around 18 months ago, an interesting picture was beginning to emerge where Cornelius was concerned.
Both Cornelius and his wife Ann had something to do with Colonel James Lowry White (1770 – 1838) of Staunton, Virginia. Ann, I believe, was owned by James White. James was the Rockerfeller or Vanderbilt of his day. He was one of the richest men in America with vast business enterprises, land holdings and slaves in Tennessee (Knox County, Ann’s place of birth), Alabama (Huntsville, Madison County), West Virginia and Virginia. For now, Ann’s trail has gone cold. A trip to Tennessee will hopefully reveal more information about her and her immediate family in Tennessee.
Cornelius was a different prospect. I just kept returning to the notion that Cornelius and James were blood relations. James White fathered one known child by my enslaved 3x grandmother, Elsey George (wife of Jacob Sheffey). Could he also be the father of Cornelius? I wouldn’t have been surprised. I kept looking at the year Cornelius was born (1829) and the year James was born (1770)…and a father-son relationship just didn’t seem likely. I shouldn’t assume that, I know. I have distant relations who were still fathering children in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And looking at his family tree below, he was clearly still having children by his wife at the time Cornelius was born.
Could these two men be a grandfather and a grandson? That seemed the most likely prospect. I can’t explain it. It felt right.
It was time to delve in to the DNA matches I had on Ancesty, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.
Endogamy, endogamy, you will be the end of me!
The first hurdle I was face with was this: a descendant of the old Quaker White family who had originally settled in Cumberland, Pennsylvania, James Lowry White was already my blood relation 3 different ways:
My mother was a descendant of the same family via her Quaker Harlan lineage;
My father’s maternal Roane ancestors shared common Parke, Dandridge, Henry and Carter ancestors with the James’s maternal Lowry ancestors; and
A marriage between James’s half-sister Margaret and my 5x great uncle, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey, meant an entire Sheffey line were also shared blood relations between us.
So, in his own right, James was already a cousin twice over – as well as my great uncle. He was also a relation through marriage. Let that one sink in for a minute. That is the joy of endogamy. So, no matter how I looked at it, all of his descendants were going to be my cousins. So how was I going to crack finding Cornelius’s father if James and all of his son were already my cousins?
All of their lines were going to be genetic matches to me.
DNA triangulation was going to be the key
DNA triangulation. So what’s that? In autosomal DNA testing, triangulation is the term used to describe the process of reviewing the pedigree charts of people who match on the same autosomal DNA segment(s) to see if a common ancestor can be found. The technique is best used in conjunction with chromosome mapping. It is a long, long process requiring meticulous attention to detail, care and copious notes.
Triangulation has helped me identify a number of white men who had children – and indeed whole second families- with enslaved as well as free women of colour in my family.
This time around, I knew I couldn’t look at any of the men in James’s tree because they were all already related to me. I had to look at the women who married them and research their families.
First generation descendants of Colonel James Lowry White. Click for a larger image.
Looking at the abridged family tree above…there were quite a few sons with wives who required researching. Triangulation was going to take some time. In this instance…18 months!
The reason why it has taken so long is I had to go back anywhere from 5 to 8 generations for each woman who married into the family in order to be certain that I wasn’t genetically connected to any of them. If I was related to any of these women, triangulation wouldn’t produce the result I needed. In other words, I’d get a false positive as a result.
So let’s start with James Lowry White II’s mother, Ann Marie Lowry.
I wanted to start with Ann Lowry to see if I had any matches on her maternal line. I couldn’t look at her paternal Lowrys. I already knew I shared their DNA. I had to look at her maternal Boggs line. As far as I am aware, I only have 1 line of Bloggs. Sure enough, there they were in my DNA matches: Boggs from her mother’s side of the family. This put all of Ann Lowry’s sons, including James Lowry White, in the frame. The only way I could have a combination of White, Lowry and Boggs matches would be via a son, who would have passed DNA from both parents down to Cornelius, who passed enough of this DNA down to me for me to have strong autosomal DNA matches.
However, just to be certain that I should only be looking at the sons of James, I researched the families of Colonel James White’s sisters in law (James II’s aunts) and came up empty handed. I didn’t share any matches with the names in their trees. Now, that could be because none of their descendants have taken DNA tests – or at least not with AncestryDNA. That’s always an option. Or they haven’t uploaded their results to Gedmatch or FamilyTree DNA. Or not enough of this DNA has been inherited for a positive result.
However, thanks to being active on numerous Virginia genealogy-based Facebook groups, I know of descendants from these allied families who have taken DNA tests. Armed with Gedmatch kit numbers to compare, we quickly confirmed that we didn’t share any DNA. I feel safe to say that while I would be a distant relation to these people via marriage, we are not blood relations. Not through their maternal lines, at any rate.
At this stage, I was confident that I had eliminated Colonel James White’s nephews from the list of paternal candidates for Cornelius.
Next, I began looking at Colonel James White’s sons. One of them would be the strongest candidate to be the father of Cornelius.
I eliminated half of them almost immediately. William Young Conn White I died in infancy, so it wasn’t going to be him.
James Lowry White II was a strong candidate, as were his brothers William Young Conn White II, and Francis Smith White. All of the remaining brothers would have been too young to father a child in 1828/29. Out of 9 brothers, I had whittled the list of candidates down to 3.
As soon as I began researching James Lowry White II, my heart sank. It was my worst nightmare. His wife, Margaret Rhea Preston, wasn’t just a cousin to me…she was a double cousin. I’m related to her on both her Rhea and her Preston lines.
Undaunted, I continued.
I began working on William Young Conn White II’s wife’s family. It wasn’t long before I hit shared families with her paternal and maternal lines in Pennsylvania, Ireland and Scotland. She was another double cousin. I remember looking out my window and muttering “Are you kidding me?” I was seriously ready to walk away from the whole thing at this point.
I turned to Francis Smith White. He presented another kind of difficulty. I found very little information about him in the official records or the Virginia genealogy books that form the core of my trusted genealogy research resources. I wasn’t overly dismayed about a lack of results for Francis. Born in 1814, I felt that he to would have been quite young to have fathered a child in 1829. Not unheard of, but quite young nonetheless.
With two White family wives turning out to be my double cousins, I was going to have to tackle this from a different direction. I was going to have to compare degrees of genetic separation between me and the descendants of James White II and his brothers.
I began comparing degrees of estimated relatedness and the amounts and lengths of DNA segments that I shared between the descendants of James II and the descendants of his brothers. My matches are between 1 to 2 generations closer when it comes to James II’s descendants when compared to my matches with his brothers’ descendants. I share more, and longer, DNA segments with James II’s descendants.
The long and short of it is that James Lowry White II is my prime candidate. However, I have to acknowledge that his brothers William and Francis could also be Cornelius’s father.
I know, it seems an awful amount of work to do to not arrive at a definitive answer. Sometimes in genealogy – and especially genetic genealogy – there isn’t a clear cut answer. Not when you have endogamy in just about every corner of your family tree. All you can do is eliminate the impossible and/or improbable and keep chipping away at the probable until you arrive at what will be the most likely result.
That’s all I can do until a death certificate surfaces for Cornelius. That is, if one exists. If he died before the turn of the 20th Century, there most likely won’t be one. The other possibility is that if a death certificate does exist for him, it won’t necessarily follow that the names of his parents were provided. I could be facing my even older nemesis: ‘parents name unknown’. It’s always worth remembering that such records are only as insightful as the information an informant provided at the time.
At least AncestryDNA offered a kind of consolation prize: 2 shaky leaf hints related to Cornelius. These appeared 48 hours after I placed James White II as his father. One hint shows that James II is a common ancestor between me and another of his descendants. The second showing James II’s father, Colonel James Lowry White, is the shared ancestor between me and one of his daughter’s descendants.
That’s about as good as it’s going to get for now!
This exercise is adding more information about the names freed slaves took after Emancipation. So far, the majority of my formerly enslaved ancestors took the name of their blood relations. They didn’t just adopt a name they liked. Or pull one from the galactic ether. Which, of course, makes we wonder about the handed down notion that freed slaves chose family names of owners they liked or felt had been kind to them. Or merely because they liked a name. If only a handful of my ancestors had randomly chosen names like that, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. My DNA results are suggesting something fundamentally different.
Interesting too are the minority of my ancestors who could have taken a surname based on a blood connection to a family who owned them – and didn’t. A small percentage of those we’re aware of didn’t simply because they either didn’t like, or didn’t want to be associated with, the paternal European-descended side of their family. Instead, they opted for another kinship-based surname.
Ok, so I’m known for having picked apart quite a few online DNA analysis tools and services. This is especially true when it comes to my African-related results. So it seems only fair that I share some kudos.
I don’t know what’s been happening over at the Columbia University DNA analysis project, DNA.land…but it looks like the team behind this project have been very busy bees indeed. I, for one, am very, very pleased with the increased accuracy this free service now provides. By and large, it is beginning to reflect the results I received via the paid testing service, Genebase. It’s also substantially more accurate than the results provided by AncestryDNA as far as my African genetic ancestry is concerned.
In its first incarnation, my African genetics were the standard West African and Bantu-speaking. I’m proud of my 8% West African and Bantu speaking genetic heritage (via Genebase). There is a huge difference between being 8% of something and 60% of something.
Now my DNA.land results look like:
The West African results can be more accurate. I know that some of what is being classed as West African here is actually Tuareg and Berber. I’m pretty confident that if DNA.land continues to tweak its datasets, that these parts of my African genome will begin to emerge. At the moment, my guess is that my Berber results are hidden under the Lower Niger Valley category. I suspect that some of my Tuareg results are lost under this heading as well.
However, keeping things positive, ‘East Africa’ finally makes an overdue appearance.
As for that 1.2% ‘Ambiguous’? That’s where some of my Sephardic Jewish and Middle Eastern results are.
And for my family, let’s not get too excited about the Native American heading. Native American results on any of the DNA analysis services I’ve used remain at 0%. The 1.3% shown here actually represents Amer-Indian genetic matches from Central and South America. In other words, this has more to do with the pre-historic Eastern nomadic migration into the Americas thousands of years ago.Sorry guys! No Cherokee or Powhatan to be found. This may be due to genetic wash outs…or all those tales amount to myth (Finding Your American Indian tribe Using DNA: https://dna-explained.com/2015/03/31/finding-your-american-indian-tribe-using-dna)
There are a few things to remember when using DNA analysis services and free analytical tools:
Your results will depend on the amount of DNA that the service or tool you’re using has sequenced. Don’t think that your entire YDNA, mtDNA or autosomal DNA has been sequenced…unless the service you use guarantees this. If you’re paying anything less than thousands of dollars, trust me, only a portion of your genome has been sequenced.
Few DNA testing services are transparent about how much of your genome has been sequenced and analyzed. The more that’s sequenced the better the analysis. It’s a pretty simple equation.
Free DNA analysis tools tend to use free DNA datasets produced by 3rd paties. The quality and accuracy of the data sets used are beyond their control. These data sets are produced by 3rd parties who are not answerable to the services who use them. If this particular topic interests you, you should surf on over to Berkeley’s Drosophilia Genome Project via http://www.fruitfly.org/sequence/human-datasets.html )
DNA anlysis is an evolving science. As more global populations undergo DNA studies (and their results are added to data sets), and as science continues to finesse its understanding of the development and evolution of admixtures, dataset accuracy will continue to improve.
Take early results as an indication of the global cultures you might be connected to. These results will not be definitive. See Point #4.
I’ve spent the past week and a bit looking more closely at the YDNA I inherited from my father’s male line. It’s like returning to the original genealogical records you use in your research.You come back to them with more knowledge, a more seasoned eye and a better understanding of what you are looking at…and can usually pick up something new.
So, as I learn more about genetic inheritance and develop more finessed genetic genealogy working practices, I keep returning to my Genebase YDNA and mtDNA results. What I have learn along the way has enabled me to make better sense of my test results. It has also enabled me to make better informed, educated, theories (yes, that is a rather nice way of saying I’m guessing…even if it is an educated guess). And, of course, I’m deeply appreciative of the patience instruction and advice I’ve been given by my genetic genealogy mates.
I’ve made no secret of my love for the Genebase testing service. It was the right DNA tool choice for what I wanted to accomplish. It has been worth every bit of the 4-figure sum I have spent sequencing and analysing 90% of my YDNA and mtDNA sequence.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This isn’t a DNA testing service for everyone. There are no quick and easy pie charts that provide ethnic breakdown percentages. You have to work these out for yourself. Sometimes, with this service, you have to work hard in order to interpret the results this service provides. It’s part of what I really like about the service. When you’re forced to work with data of any kind, you have to understand what the data is, how it’s compiled, what it relates to…and ultimately what it means.
The image below gives you an idea of some of the information provided.
Image 1. Click for larger image
I’ll break the information contained in the image above:
This is a small fraction of the data returned by Genebase for my YDNA. The image shows results for a sliver of my YDA: Y-STR markers DYS19a, DYS389i, DYS389ii, DYS390, DYS391, DYS393. By themselves, Y-chromosomal DNA (Y-DNA) short tandem repeat (STR) markers from a Y-DNA test do not have any particular meaning. The value of testing YDNA STR markers comes from creating a YDNA signature (haplotype) with them and comparing that YDNA signature to others in a database. They are useful for genetic genealogy because your YDNA signature distinguishes your paternal lineage from others.
Like any other similar DNA testing service, Genebase compares markers to specific global populations. It groups these results by generational difference (the number of generations you’re likely to be distant from a genetic match). That’s a very over-simplified explanation. Hopefully, you get the picture.
In the image above, you can see the populations associated with the YDNA STR markers I’ve cited. The report lists matches from a Generational Distance (GD) of 1 to 5.
For transparency, I’m providing a longer abridged list of matches. Trust me, there is a long, long list for these particular markers spread of 6 degrees of genetic distance. That’s a whole lot of cousin action going on:
Image 2. A partial list of African genetic tribal matches with a Genetic Distance of 1, 2 and 3. Click for a larger image.
So back to Image 1 and what it represents:
I’ll get the most obvious one out of the way first – the Rappanui of Easter Island. No, I am not a direct descendant of these people. They are my genetic cousins. Some unknown male ancestor carried my father’s paternal YDNA from Africa (most probably eastern Africa) to Eastern Island. No one knows where the Easter Islander’s ancestors arrived from within the Pacific Region. That is still hotly debated. However, scientists estimate that humans arrived in Eastern Island around 400CE (Pioneers of Eastern Island http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/pioneers-of-easter-island.html). Basically, these YDNA markers that I carry left Africa en route to Easter Island an inconceivably long time ago.
“The middle of nowhere” pretty much sums up Easter Island’s location in the Pacific, marked by the “A” on this map. This beats my paternal grandmother’s mtDNA, which travelled from East Africa to the Aborigines of the Central Australian Desert.
What is pretty cool is the additional information that puts this result into context – something too few DNA testing services do. Genebase lets me know that there were 30 Rappanui tested. I match 2 of those 30 people at a GD of 1. These are my closet matches among the Rappanui. Scoot down to a GD of 2 and the number of Rappanui that share a genetic match with me for these Y-DNA markers jumps to 11 people from the 30 people tested.
Added to this information are research papers, scientific papers that cover the sample pool of DNA testers per region/county, etc. Sometimes, there is additional profile information about the the DNA tester – like which part of a country they resided in at the time they took the test.
For instance, here’s a study that came as part of my Rappanui results:
Ghiani ME1, Moral P, Mitchell RJ, Hernández M, García-Moro C, Vona G. 2006. Y-chromosome-Specific STR haplotype data on the Rapanui population (Easter Island). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17506287
I’d provide a link to one of the African tribes in my match list. There isn’t one.Not in the match results for these markers at any rate.
So…back to Africa.
You can see the African tribes that share the same YDNA markers with me. Like the Rappanui, the greater the GD, the more people I match. When you begin to understand the large scale movements of people across the globe over eons of time, you begin to build a picture of how your YDNA or mtDNA has also travelled around the globe.
Looking at my GD1 results for this set of markers, the information about my African results are the same as my Rappnui results. I have more dataset matches with every increase in Generation Distance. At a GD of 1, I only have a handful of matches. A GD of 2 trebled the number of matching tribes and ethnicities.
Not all of these matches will be direct ancestors. Most, like the Rappanui, will be genetic cousins. Others will be direct ancestors. Given the number of times the Akele, the Puni and the Omani appear in a number of my YDNA markers, my team and I are very confident that I’m directly descended from all 3.
The next step was to build a map to indicate how my YDNA spread through Africa. Again, I’ve only been looking at the African part of my YDNA in this exercise. It’s the part of my identity I know the least about. So it make sense. I have an excellent understanding on the European parts of my YDA. My Near Asian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Southern Asian and Chinese results simply defy understanding. They are anybody’s guess at this point. From a personal as well as time and productivity standpoint, it makes sense to focus on the African parts of my YDNA at this point.
A working hypothesis on how my YDNA travelled through Africa
Let’s start with the blue region on the right hand side of the map. This is the origins of, well, me, in terms of my YDA. It all begins in the Horn of Africa. Like every other human being. At some point in the dim past, my YDNA left Africa and arrived in Yemen and Oman. Now you’d think that it would be found in the Arab populations in both places. Nope. Not a bit of it. In modern day Yemen, it’s only found in the Yemini Jewish population (so far). It’s found within the Arab population of Oman.
At a further point in time, that YDNA returned to Africa. The team is presuming it returned to the eastern part of Africa before heading north to Egypt and then across northern Africa (the pink region on the map). This journey is represented by the arrow marked “1”.
We think my YDNA travelled southeast – shown by arrow 2 – around the time as the same YDNA began making its journey northwards (arrow 1). This southern journey seems to have stopped in Zambia. At the moment, I have no DNA matches with any of the data sets associated with countries to the south of Zambia on Genebase. Again, this is at the moment of writing this post.
My markers are indicating that something pretty interesting happened after the journeys shown by arrows 1 and 2.My YDNA flowed from northern Africa southwards into the African interior, terminating in Gabon and Zambia (the green and yellow arrows marked by ‘3’). The tribes I match indicate the route this journey took. These tribal cousins can be found in modern day Guinea-Bissau, Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The 4th arrow shows a small journey from Gabon to Angola, home to more genetic cousins (at a GD of 3).
This seems to be as far south as my YDA has travelled within Africa. As science tests and studies the DNA from more African tribes, perhaps a fuller picture will emerge.
For now? I’m getting a pretty good grounding of the overall picture of my African DNA…and the tribes and cultures it connects me to on that continent.
This is the value of this genetic testing service for me, personally. I know how much of my DNA sequences have been tested. I have crucial additional and contextual information about the data sets this service uses and population pool information. I know how many of these testers I match – and the degree of genetic difference between our matches – for all of the markers in the 90% of my genome that I’ve had tested. In some instances, I have general information about their geo-locations. For what I aim to do, this is all invaluable information. And worth every penny.
The more commercial DNA testing services I’ve used don’t provide this level of information. I have no idea how much of my genome any of the big 3 testers have sequenced. Nor do I know the size of the dataset pools they have used to provide information about indigenous people tested (this is what gives you your ethnicity percentages). Nor do I have any idea how many people I match within those different indigenous data set pools to contextualize the percentages they give.
To be 100% fair, the big 3 commercial DNA testing companies are very upfront about what they do and do not provide when it comes to this level of information. I also don’t mind because I didn’t test with these services to receive this level of information. I used them to do deep work on my family tree via DNA matches on these services. I also use these testing services to meet and work with newly discovered cousins. So they have more than fulfilled their purpose. They too have been worth every penny…just for a very different reason.
It’s worth remembering that DNA testing services are tools. No one tool can do everything. Some are more suitable for certain jobs than others. I’m just grateful that each of them – each in its own way – has given me more than my money’s worth.
It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a conceptual thinker. And few things aid my understanding of concepts better than visuals. Especially when I create visual materials. As I create things I begin to see inter-relationships in a tangible way. It’s the way my mind rolls, and I’ve learned to embrace it.
It’s like baking a cake. Ok, I get what a cake is. However, when I combine the different ingredients, and know their individual properties and how they interact with each another, I get how a cake is actually made. You don’t see the egg or the butter or the milk in the final product, but you know they’re there and how they contributed to the overall cake.
With this in mind, I’ve been making maps of the African tribes my father and I are descended from.
I’ve made 3 maps that cover:
My Y-DNA (haplogroup subclade E1b1a1a1f1a1) – the DNA that is passed down from fathers to sons
My mtDNA (haplogroup subclade L2a1c4a) – the DNA that is passed down from mothers to daughters. Mothers also pass this on to their sons. Sons, however, do not pass this on to their children.
My father’s mtDNA (Haplogroup L3). I am so grateful that he took this test. He is the only living link I directly had to his mother’s mtDNA.
This project helped me to better understand:
How each of these 3 sets of African DNA travelled within the African Continent; and
Which tribes I’m directly descended from, and which tribes are genetic cousins.
The second point will have a role to play when the time comes to start pinpointing specific African ancestors who were captured and sent to the American colonies as slaves. In other words, it saves me from trying to look for a needle in a haystack. Instead, I can look for that needed in a specific part of the haystack.
Some interesting possibilities revealed
MY Y-DNA and the 2 mtDNA tests were done via Genebase and form the basis of this mapping project.
My Y-DNA and mtDNA tests connect me to a staggering number of African tribes. Thinking logically, I knew I couldn’t be a direct descendant of all of them. As I mentioned above, only a handful were going to be the tribes of my direct ancestors. All of the others would be like second or third cousins, etc.
It turns out that once I made a map, some interesting possibilities presented themselves. I’m going to do an individual post for each of the 3 maps. It makes it easier to convey the story each map is beginning to reveal.
My father’ maternal mtDNA mapping results
I’m going to start with my father’s maternal mtDNA, the mtDNA he inherited from his mother, Susan Julia Roane (remember, I didn’t inherit any of this mtDNA):
Plotting the direct female mtDNA African lineage of my grandmother, Susan Roane. This map illustrates how her mtDNA was carried from east to west within Africa (Organe-brown arrow). The blue and green arrows show how this mtDNA was carried into southern Africa through her female DNA cousins. Click for larger image.
A few things to keep in mind before I delve into how I’ve interpreted this map:
The number of African tribes that have been tested is relatively small compared to non-African populations; and
For the tribes that have had their DNA tested and sequenced, the number of people tested can be quite small (like the 27 Somalians who were tested and whose results from part of Genebase’s research and indigenous peoples’ results).
So what does this map tell me?
Well, like every human being on the plant, the journey begins in the Horn of Africa. So no surprises there.
Susan Roane’s direct maternal ancestor’s DNA travelled into the heart of the African continent. I’ve illustrated this with the big orange-brown arrow. Her ancient female cousins (e.g. not her direct ancestral line), carried the same mtDNA into southern Africa – both along the east and west coasts.
Her direct, African female ancestors appear to have settled in and around the Greater Lake Chad region, including northern Cameroon. You can see this in the cluster of tribes formed by the Fali, Fulbe, Kanuri, Kotoko, Mafa and Masa.
I’m thinking that the Fulbe in Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal are genetic Fulbe cousin lines. Too much of her mtDNA is clustered in northwest Cameroon and southwestern Chad. It’s here that I think the woman who was the mother of Susan Roane’s American female line came from. My father shares only a small number of mtDNA markers with the Fulbe outside of this Lake Chad zone. His strongest Fulbe mtDNA results specifically point to Lake Chad and its environs.
So what’s the story with the Fulbe?
I’m doing quite a bit of research on these tribes. However, an interesting picture has begun to emerge.
While they are rarely discussed, Africa had ancient kingdoms. The central African kingdom that encompassed my grandmother’s mtDNA was the Fulani Empire. You can see this empire in the picture below:
Fulani Empire in western Africa
There’s quite a bit of Fulbe in my grandmother’s mtDNA. The Fulbe were part of the Fulani tribe.It turns out that the Fulani have quite the history.
The Fulani are an ancient tribe. By ‘ancient’ I mean the ancient Greeks (Herodotus, to be specific), Egyptians and Assyrians wrote about them. I’m finding it difficult to get a handle about the origins of the Fulani.There’s quite a bit of positive and negative propaganda about them. Depending on the author, there’s a vested interest in saying that the Fulani either came from this place, or that place or some other place. So I’m taking what I’ve read so far with a pinch of salt. I’m still searching for a respected, credible source with verifiable information.
Some sources say they came from India. Others claim they came from northern Africa. Yet others claim the Fulani came from eastern Africa. There is one point pretty much all the authors I’ve read so far agree on: the Fulani were not indigenous to the Lake Chad and western African region. Anthropology has shown that this region had been previously settled by tribes with a far older history in the region.
The other tribes I’ve pinpointed in the Fulani-controlled area in map above were also largely Muslim. Like other Fulani-related tribes, they were active traders and I can easily imagine marriages between them. Which would explain their genetic markers in my paternal grandmother’s mtDNA.
The Fulani were also slavers. Large scale slavers – selling Africans into slavery within Africa and to Europeans. This is covered in the Wikipedia article below.
The Fulbe were also largely Muslim. They had the designation of being free men within the Fulani. I need to do a lot more reading about this to understand what that term actually meant. I’m wondering if the Fulani had a caste system with various designations between free men and slaves. I’m definitely curious. I’m curious because I’m willing to bet, based on the map I’ve created, that my paternal grandmother’s enslaved mtDNA ancestor was Fulbe. And, if she was Fulbe, she would have been a free woman within this society. In all likelihood she would have also been Muslim. So how did her story end as a slave in the American colonies (presumably colonial Virginia)?
Looking at my father’s mtDNA connections in America, 85% are at an 8th generation level. That means the common female ancestor he shares with them lived centuries ago. Generational computation is a tricky thing. Lifespans vary from century to century and from region to region. Nor do I have any idea what the average lifespan of an African slave in America was. It’s always worth remembering this.
This being said, at an 8th generation level, I’m going to take an educated guess that the female Fulbe ancestor he shares with this 85% would have arrived in America sometime between the 1680s and the 1710s.
Genealogy – you get some definitive and probable answers…and a bunch of new questions.
The answer that’s emerging from this map project is that one of the ancestors who made that voyage from Africa to the American colonies was a woman from the Fulbe people. While this doesn’t tell me her name, or exactly when she was abducted and sold, it narrows my search. For instance, I can narrow down the number of African ports from which Fulbes were shipped to America between 1680 and 1720. From there, I can gather a list of slave ships that left western African slave ports for Virginia. And from there, I can see if any have Fulbe women were listed.
I’ve spent the past week and a bit in talks with a broadcasting company about a new DNA docu-reality adventure series I’ve been developing. This series, unlike the first one, will primarily be based in the US and Europe. Later series will focus more on other parts of the globe.
The head of programming who was part of the conversation asked a great question: what were some of the top experience I wanted to share via this series. It’s such a seemingly simple question. However, there’s a real depth to it. The show’s natural high and low points – the drama, in other words – hinges on these experiences.
It didn’t take me long to answer the question. Smashing long-standing brick walls. The answers to questions I’ve had for years will provide plenty of laughs, dad dancing, high fives – and probably a few tears – along the way.
So what were the top family history and genealogy brick walls I chose to share during the meeting?
On my father’s side of the family tree
Born in Virginia around 1770, I am one to two generations away from finding the African ancestors for my 4x great grandmother. Just old enough to remember the American Revolution, Jemimah lived long enough to experience the freedom American Revolutionaries fought for a few short years after her birth. Born into slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and three generations of her family.
She adopted the name of the man who fathered her children: Sheffey. But what would her maiden name of have been had she not been enslaved? What surname did her siblings (whoever they were) and their descendants take? Did they identify as Sanders/Saunders? As Whites? As Georges? I have absolutely no idea. I’d love to find out. It’s a gaping void in my father’s side of the family tree.
The early origins of her story is linked to Captain James Lowry White of Staunton, Augusta, Virginia. James was the father of Jemimah’s first child. I suspect James, and his father before him, owned not only Jemimah, but her enslaved ancestors as well.
This naturally brings me to…
James Lowry White
James is interesting to me for a number of reasons. He is a cousin on my mother’s side of the family. He also happened to own a number of my father’s ancestors and kin. It’s one of the many Quaker connections that link my father’s and mother’s families.
James White was one of the richest men in America in his day. Yet, he died intestate (without a will). On the one hand, I find it amazing that such a phenomenally successful business man didn’t leave his house in order before he died. On the other hand, it’s lucky for me that he died without a will. The legal battle over his estate lasted for decades. Where there is a probate legal battle, there is a detailed accounting of an estate. Since slaves were property, there will be plenty of documentation about the slaves he owned and where they were resident (James had farms and plantations in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. All of them had slaves.)
Thankfully, the Library of Virginia houses an extensive collection of his family papers, including the probate case.
James holds the key to the origins of Jemimah and her extended family. He also holds the key to my George and White family ancestors.
He is the link that will unite around 25 individual family lines in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.
Finding the common ancestors for these lone family lines will be huge.
Cornelius White & Ann St. Clair
Cornelius has been as stubborn a brick wall as any I’ve encountered. I simply cannot find any information for him prior to 1870. I have used every tip and trick I can think of to unlock his ancestry. I have zip. Nada. Nothing.
I suspect that Cornelius was my great grandfather’s middle name. If this is correct, the priority will be in discovering what his first name was in order to pick up his life story.
My gut tells me that he and his immediate ancestors were owned by James Lowry White, and later on by James’s children who remained in the Wythe, Smyth and Augusta areas of Virginia. I’m also fairly certain that Cornelius, a mulatto, had a blood connection to the white White family. Top of my to-do list to determine the blood connection is having one of Cornelius’s direct male descendants taking a YDNA test and comparing the results to a direct male descendant of James White.
I also believe that James White, or his father, owned the ancestors of Ann St Clair, Cornelius’s wife. Born into slavery in Tennessee, I have no idea of when Ann arrived in Wythe County, Virginia. My working hypothesis is that she was part of a White family estate dispersal that made Wythe County her new home before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Peter Scheffe, my 9x great grandfather, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by mystery. My storyteller’s heart is shouting ‘bigtime story!’ where he’s concerned.
He just appears in Germany out of nowhere. His arrival coincides with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the outcome of which sent many French Protestants fleeing into the religious safety of the German dukedoms, principalities and kingdoms. This man went from being a shoemaker to a mill owner and then mayor within a few decades. Germans tell me that this was an amazing and incredibly rare feat in 17th Century Germany.
Then there’s the question of his coat of arms. Coat of arms aren’t produced for just anybody. And they definitely weren’t given to just anybody in 17th Century Europe. How, when and why did he come by his?
My working hypothesis is that he was a Huguenot with a Franco-Germanic ancestry. He and his descendants married into prominent Huguenot (French Protestant) families who fled to the same Südwestpfalz district, in Rhineland-Palatinate (western Germany), where Peter came to reside.
One spark of a clue has come via Genebase’s fun royal DNA comparison tool. Yep, Genebase has a series of DNA results for famous European royals. I compared the YDNA I Inherited from Peter with YDNA from the English king Richard III and French prince, Louis Joseph of France (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette). According to the Genebase results, I share a common direct male ancestor with both – an unknown man who lived approximately in 10th Century Europe.
Is this hidden lineage the reasons for Peter’s rise and success in Germany?
Peter’s origins are unknown. Nothing is known of his parents. He has been a mystery since the American Sheffey family began documenting its lineage in the mid 1800’s. Smashing this brick wall is long overdue. And I’m sure his story will be nothing short of pure gold dust.
Scots-Irish Roanes vs English Roanes
The question of whether or not these two Roane family groups are related has plagued family historians and genealogists in the US, Ireland, Scotland and England for over a century. This is a brick wall that’s begging to be smashed.
On my mother’s side of the family tree
Now this list will appear to be very short compared to the number of brick walls on my father’s side of the family tree. Many of my mother’s white ancestors were Quakers…or the descendants of Quakers. Quakers kept exceptional records most of which have been digitized. It’s been relatively straightforward to trace her ancestry back through her various Quaker ancestral lines.
However, her line does have its brick walls.
A Jewish great grandfather
I know quite a bit about this gentleman, the father of my maternal grandfather. I roughly know when he was born. I know where he lived as an adult. I know his genetic make-up. I know that he was an Ashkenazi Jewish man either from Galicia (an area of Poland and the Ukraine) or with roots in Galicia.
I don’t know his name.
Uncovering his identity and his story will fill in a major missing piece of my identity. He is, hands down, the biggest mystery on my mother’s side of the family tree.
Finding more of my mother’s white ancestors
I’ve made great strides in identifying the white slave owning men who sired a handful of my mother’s enslaved mulatto ancestors in North and South Carolina. There remains a substantial amount of work to do in identifying the white progenitors of a number of her enslaved mulatto ancestors. I know the families involved. The vast majority are descendants of the Quaker families I’ve spent some time writing about.
The key to unlocking this set of secrets will be in the form of DNA testing. Extensive DNA testing. The end result will be finding the rightful place for around 30 distinct family lines into my overall family tree. These individual family lines run from Virginia and the Carolinas to every slave owning state. This won’t just answer my questions. It will answer the question of how thousands of living descendants are related to one another, both black and white.
Her enslaved ancestors
The brick walls here will be solved through researching probate and tax records as well as family papers. The series would follow the paper trail from the Carolinas back to Virginia – and further back in time to 17th Century Pennsylvania Quaker slave owners.
Research will restore a family tree broken by centuries of enslaved families split apart in two ways: either through being deeded to slave owners’ descendants, who then moved to different parts of the southern states as territory became available, and through being sold.
The executive producer’s interest was certainly piqued (I love hearing that one simple word: “Powerful”). I certainly look forward to an opportunity of rolling my sleeves up and getting stuck in when it comes to busting these walls!
In this post, I’m going to outline how the term ‘Bantu’ really tripped me up when it came to understanding and interpreting parts of my DNA testing results.
I remember the first time I saw ‘Bantu’ as a genetic description. I was pretty excited to see it alongside some of the other African tribes I matched. I’d never heard of the Bantu before, so I duly added it to the list of tribes I wanted to research. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What followed was a week of utter confusion.
The problem was straightforward. I was looking for a Bantu tribe. It never occurred to me that Bantu was a language, or more actually, a family grouping of similar languages found in central and southern regions of the African continent. Now, you would think it would be easy to feet out the difference between a tribal name and the name of a language. And you would be 100% correct to think that. However, the reality of educating yourself online via a myriad of sources is bound to confuse.
At first, I kept coming up with articles and blog posts about ‘Bantus’ as though this was a tribe. And I couldn’t work it out because that would mean the Bantus would be one truly enormous tribe. By tribe, I mean of group of people – a society – with shared customs, traditions, beliefs, history, etc. I also kept seeing sub-groups of this apparent tribe of people. These were tribes I was already familiar with. I knew they were distinctly different from one another. Indeed, they were in polar opposite parts of Africa. So how the heck could they be the same overall tribe? That’s the question I kept asking myself.
What was missing was a simple word…”speaking”. “Bantu-speaking”. That’s when the penny dropped. Bantus weren’t one people. This wasn’t a single tribe. This was a language. The confusion didn’t stop here. Of course it wouldn’t!
The Bantu family of languages are spoken in a very large area of the African continent.
Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.
This area includes most of Africa from southern Cameroon, eastward to Kenya, and southward to the southernmost tip of the continent. Twelve Bantu languages are spoken by more than five million people, including Rundi, Rwanda, Shona, Xhosa, and Zulu. Nor is there is a single Bantu language. There are about 250 Bantu languages (Derek Nurse, 2006, Bantu Languages, in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics).
The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now Cameroon in West Africa an estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (1000 BC to 500 BC).
The spread of the Bantu language family in Africa: 1 = 2000–1500 BC origin, 2 = ca.1500 BC first migrations, 2.a = Eastern Bantu, 2.b = Western Bantu, 3 = 1000–500 BC Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu, 4–7 = southward advance, 9 = 500 BC–0 Congo nucleus, 10 = 0–1000 AD last phase. You can read more about this via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples
Other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC. The speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu-speaking expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu speaking peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.
The technical term Bantu, meaning “human beings” or simply “people”, was first used by Wilhelm Bleek (1827–1875), to reflect many of the languages of this group.
Defining cultures and people by language would be like defining a large group of Europeans by one language – Latin (otherwise referred to as Romance Languages). These Latin-based languages are referred to as “romance languages” because they originate from a language spoken by Romans. It’s a language family grouping, just like Bantu-speaking. Romance languages evolved from Latin. To give you an idea, the biggest Romance languages are: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian.
Could you imagine a DNA test returning the classification “Romantic or Romance-Language”? I’m smiling at this thought. And the answer is absolutely not. Europeans would be in an uproar.
The more deeply I read about Bantu-speaking peoples, the more additional pennies began to drop.
There are Bantu-speaking tribes who are genetically closer to non-Bantu speaking tribes than they are to tribes who speak a form of Bantu.
Let’s take the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda, for example. Both are bantu-speaking. The Hutu are generally recognized as the ethnic majority of Rwanda. The Hutu are a Bantu group that had arrived in the region earlier, during the Bantu expansion. The Tutsi, however were identified by the Hutu as originally being a foreign group that settled amongst and intermarried with the Hutu. The relationship between the two modern populations is, in many ways, derived from the perceived origins and claim to “Rwandan-ness”. A shared language didn’t stop the bloody conflicts and genocide in Rwanda. Clearly, while the Hutu and Tutsi speak the same Bantu language, they do not see themselves as a single people.
In comparison to the Hutu, the Tutsi have three times as much genetic influence from Nilo-Saharan populations (14.9% ) as the Hutu (4.3% ) perhaps demonstrating a Nilo-Saharan (language classification) speaking origin that supports their nomadic herding past, as opposed to the Hutu who were primarily Bantu farmers. A more recent study (Trombetta et al. 2015) found 22.2% E1b1b in a Tutsi sample from Burundi, but 0% in the Hutu and Twa of Burundi. Particularly with genetic markers associated with Southern Cushitic people and East African nomadic herding tribes. To put it simply, while they share the same language, the Hutu and the Tutsi have a different genetic mix.
This makes sense. Imagine you’re from one of the Frankish (early French) Celtic tribes conquered by the Roman army. You’re taken prison, made a slave and sent to Rome. You learn Latin. Learning to speak Latin doesn’t stop you from ethnically being a Frankish Celt. You’re now just a Celt who speaks a different language than the one you did before your tribe was conquered. You might now be Roman, or at least Romanized…however, you are still ethnically a Frankish Celt.
This is an important aspect to keep in mind when trying to understand your African American DNA test results. I hope it saves you the week or so of confusion that I had to overcome in order to make sense of the whole ‘Bantu’ thing.
My best rule of thumb is this: when you see the word ‘Bantu’ on its own, automatically add the qualifier, -speaking’.
Bantu is a language, not a people. It really has no place as a genetic classification.
If this topic interests you, here are some excellent articles:
I’ve had fun playing around with some free autosomal DNA analysis tools via Gedmatch and DNA Land. While it’s all well and good to experiment with these tools and play around with them to see what information can be gleaned…ultimately, you’re going to want these tools to provide meaningful answers. This is where my frustration with some of these DNA analytical tools kicks in.
Both of your parents contribute to your autosomal DNA. I think of it like it’s a genetic stew – you get bits and pieces of this type of DNA from your parents’ collective ancestors. It’s a very hit or miss affair how much of this DNA you or your siblings inherit from any given ancestor. No set of siblings inherit the same amount either. This DNA is different from YDNA, which fathers pass to sons, and mtDNA which mothers pass to their daughters. YDNA and mtDNA change very slowly over time. Autosomal DNA mixtures differ from person to person within the same immediate family – and from generation to generation. This is a very simplified overview of how each of these types of DNA differ from each other.
When I first started to investigate some of these free autosomal DNA analytical tools, I didn’t really think anything when I saw the classification of ‘West African’. It’s only when I started to research what ‘West African’ actually meant that I began to have quite a few questions about the validity of this genetic classification. I’m now of the mind that it’s a pretty meaningless genetic qualifier.
Below you’ll see two different maps which illustrate the West African region. The first is from the United Nations. The second is a fairly common map, although I haven’t a clue about its origins.
UN map of West Africa:
Map showing how the UN classifies the geo-political West African region, which includes north African Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria.
There are maps that commonly depict West Africa, like the one shown below:
Since size seems to be a political meme for the moment – at least for Trump and Rubio – let’s start there! The UN-defined, geopolitical region classified as West Africa is huge. We’re talking some 5,112,903 km2.This makes this one region of Africa larger than Western, Northern, Central and Southern Europe combined. It’s also a heavily populated region of Africa with hundreds of different ethnic groups, cultures, languages, etc – all of the things that make one population of people quite distinct from others.
I’ll use an example. Imagine you’re a European descended person. You use a DNA analysis tool to explore your genetic admixtures. And all you see is ‘Eastern European’. Your first response would be along the lines of ‘duh, tell me something that I didn’t know already. What kind of Eastern European am I, exactly?’ And you’d be right to think that. Are you mostly Romanian? Ukrainian? Slovak? Polish? These are distinctly different peoples; with different customs, traditions, cultures, history and experiences. Each one has its own unique subset of ethnicities.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the many, many ethnic groups who call this part of Africa home:
Map showing the main ethnicities in Africa, grouped by language. click for larger image
The various regions of Africa are just as complex, as the map above illustrates. You’d never guess just how diverse and complex the ethnic landscape of western Africa is when you simply see the genetic classification ‘West African’.
Take a look at the West African region. The major ethnic groups in West Africa are the Mandeng, Fulah, Yoruba, Haoussa, Ashanti and Cameron. These major ethnic groups (and that putting all of the smaller ethnic groups to one side) have produced several separate groups with cultural differences and minor linguistic variations. The Yoruba for example, encompasses twenty-five separate groups. Each one of these twenty-five groups is different from the next. Then there are the Berber and the Taureg, two groups that are found in the Sahara desert. Their language and culture has a strong Arabic influence. All of these cultures are lumped together under the classification of ‘West African’.
That’s just for starters. When you begin to drill down into the myriad of cultures in this one African region, it becomes more complex. The Yoruba example I gave in the paragraph above hints at just how complex a region this is.
So we’ve taken a quick look at just how ethnically complex ‘West Africa’, as a genetic classification, truly is. Now imagine you get an autosomal DNA result that says you’re 28% West African. Now you have a real sense of my frustration.
So what do I propose? Two approaches. The gold standard would be a country-level analysis result. That’s the most meaningful and the most relevant to people. If my autosomal DNA is found in Ghana, or Cameroon or Burkina Faso, then that’s what a DNA analysis tool should say. Not simply ‘West African’.
Alternatively, there could be a complete re-working of how African cultures are defined and grouped together in terms of genetic classification. It needn’t be overly onerous. Northwest African, West African, West Central African and Southwest African. While not as precise as my first suggested option, at least this one would narrow the western African region people are actually genetically linked to.
‘West Africa’ is fine as a geopolitical definition. As a genetic description, it is truly meaningless.