This blog post will feature a summary of my Upper Guinean AncestryDNA survey findings. A fitting conclusion of my African AncestryDNA research as I am myself of Cape Verdean descent. And therefore this particular section was of paramount significance to understand my own African Roots! These results were obtained during 2013-2018 but I had not fully processed all the data up till now. Relatively few African customers of Ancestry are hailing from this particular area. Which is why it was difficult to gather a sufficient sample size. But eventually I did succeed. Also through the valuable help of several friends!1 Follow the link below for detailed analysis & screenshots:
Table 1 (click to enlarge)
Table 2 (click to enlarge)
My final survey group now consists of 122 AncestryDNA results from Senegal, Gambia, Guiné Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mauritania. Although still limited this data-set already provides a rather robust basis. All the more given that my combined survey group (n=122) contains a number of people which is almost three times greater than Ancestry’s Upper Guinean Reference Panel at that time (n=44; 28 samples being used for “Senegal” + 16 samples for “Mali”).
And also crucially I have managed to gather plausible ethnic details for many of my survey participants. Enabling me to compile a separate Fula survey group (n=46) which is quite extra-ordinary as it includes Fula people from a wide range of countries (see Table 2). While usually in published studies only Fula samples from one particular area are being covered (often from the central/eastern Sahel and not from Upper Guinea).
To a lesser extent I also uncovered more specific ethnic backgrounds among my Sierra Leonean and Senegambian survey groups. Allowing for a finer detailed ethnic analysis of Upper Guinean genetics. Which is why I think these “old” results may still be useful and are not obsolete yet. Even when I did discontinue this survey after Ancestry’s update in September 2018. Because in my opinion Ancestry’s new version of their ethnicity estimates regrettably has been a downgrade in regards to their African breakdown, overall speaking (see also this blogseries).
Five main implications for Afro-Diasporans can be singled out. These are discussed in greater detail on the main page. In this blog post I will mostly elaborate on the question if it is possible to distinguish Upper Guinean DNA. Furthermore I will briefly touch upon 23andme’s new “Senegambian & Guinean” category and also how Ancestry might improve things in the near future. Especially in light of their upcoming update.
- “Senegal” + “Mali” combined is a solid indication of lineage across Upper Guinea (Senegambia, Guinea Bissau/Conakry, Sierra Leone, western Mali).
- “Mali” can also be predictive of DNA found in Burkina Faso, northern parts of Ivory Coast & Ghana.
- “Ivory Coast/Ghana” can also be predictive of Sierra Leonean DNA
- “Africa North” might also be inherited by way of Fula ancestors
- “South-Central Hunter-Gathers” can also be predictive of West African ancestors
In summary: Regional admixture DOES matter! Judge each case on its own merits. Combine insights from different fields to achieve complementarity!
Figure 1 (click to enlarge)
Is it possible to distinguish a genetic Upper Guinean component?
Table 3 (click to enlarge)
When I talk about an “Upper Guinean genetic component” this is strictly speaking from a macro-regional perspective. Relating to generic DNA to be found in higher frequency within the wider Upper Guinea area. And therefore not unique to any given ethnic group or country! However this approach will allow for a distinction to be made with the remaining part of West Africa (Ghana-Nigeria etc.), Central & Southeast Africa as well as North & East Africa. Such a perspective can be very valuable even when it lacks finer resolution (it is still sub-continental though!). Especially when combined with other insights.
To get straight to the point: my answer to the question posed above would be a qualified yes for Africans themselves. And also for Afro-descendants actually! Provided that unrealistic expectations about “100%” accuracy make way for a pragmatic approach. I discuss this in greater detail on the main page if you scroll down to section 5. Where I also include references which show that a distinctive Upper Guinean genetic component has been identified by major scientific papers as well.
- West African results (Upper Guinea) (scroll down to section 5)
According to many pundits only continental admixture is to be taken seriously in DNA testing. Sub-continental, a.k.a. ethnicity estimates, a.k.a. regional admixture only being fit for entertainment purposes.2 I myself have never taken this stance. Preferring to judge each case on its own merits. Attempting to maximize informational value despite imperfections and avoiding source snobbery. Which is why I have conducted my AncestryDNA surveys among both Africans and Afro-descendants in the past. Applying an additional macro-regional framework for extra insight (Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea, Central/Southeast Africa).
Basically combining interrelated & neighbouring genetic regions in order to allow certain regional patterns to show up more clearly. This turned out to be particularly helpful when wanting to explore any rough correlation between aggregated AncestryDNA results for Afro-Diasporans and slave trade patterns. Which I indeed established for the most part. For more detailed discussion see also:
Also for Africans themselves such an approach can be useful. As illustrated by table 3 my West African survey has demonstrated that:
- when combining scores for “Senegal” & “Mali” a prevalent “Upper Guinean” genetic component can indeed be observed. As expected it is (nearly) predominant for all my survey groups from the wider Upper Guinea area. Additional double-digit scores for “Ivory Coast/Ghana” and “Africa North” to be explained by geography and/or distinctive ethnogenesis.
- Because of a higher predictive accuracy and greater consistency the “Senegal” region has proven to be the most useful indicator of Upper Guinean lineage in Ancestry’s 2013-2018 version. Actually “Senegal” turned out to be one of the most reliable regions. When judged by its group average of 75% among 34 actual Senegambians. Within my African survey only “Cameroon/Congo” reached a higher predictive accuracy of >80% among my Cameroonian & Congolese survey participants (see this blog post).
- Given geographical proximity some (inevitable) genetic overlap with especially “Ivory Coast/Ghana” did occur as well. So this Upper Guinean genetic component is obviously only intended as an approximation! Then again to a great extent Central African DNA & Upper Guinean DNA were mutually exclusive, during my survey. As measured especially by “Senegal” scores being either absent or at minimal trace level for my Central African survey participants (see this table). And also vice versa for “Cameroon/Congo” scores among my Upper Guinean survey participants (see table 2.1). Which only occurred in significant amounts for Krio Sierra Leoneans because of plausible historical reasons.
Map 1 (click to enlarge)
Just to clarify I am not advocating that a reliable distinction can be made between any random set of ethnic groups within Upper Guinea. This is a much more complex research question than many people may realize or (unrealistically) hope for.3 At least generally speaking. Then again within my survey a clear ethnic distinction did occur for the Fula and also the Sierra Leonean Krio (see table 1). Also the Gambian findings by Jallow et al. (2009) described on the main page (section 5) do seem promising! Indicative of a certain degree of differentiation between Jola, Wolof, Fula and Mandenka samples (see this chart).
But all in all I do not think it is currently possible to obtain a “100% accurate” ethnic specification of one’s Upper Guinean ancestry. At least not by relying solely on admixture analysis, such as performed by AncestryDNA and other commercial DNA testing companies. And actually also not by testing your direct maternal or paternal line (see this article). However by conducting careful follow-up research (DNA matches, historical plausibility, genetic genealogy etc.) I do think you can increase the chances of learning more about the likely ethnic backgrounds of your Upper Guinean ancestors. A generic Upper Guinean genetic component as reported by Ancestry can provide a valuable stepping stone in these efforts. With some perseverance and good luck you might then also actually identify lineage with a high probability of being either Fula, Wolof or Temne!
23andme better equipped now to distinguish Upper Guinean lineage?
Map 2 (click to enlarge)
Ancestry’s West African regional framework (2013-2018) was pioneering and could be very useful. Given correct interpretation. However sadly after Ancestry’s update in 2018 it lost most of its informational value. Currently you are more likely to get a realistic estimate of your West African lineage on 23andme. Even if of course not 100% accurate 😉 Still going by actual West African 23andme results the predictive accuracy of their 3 new West African regions (“Senegambian & Guinean”, “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean” and “Nigerian”) is quite impressive.4
I have started a new survey based on the newly updated African breakdown on 23andme among not only Africans but also various parts of the Afro-Diaspora. It is ongoing but you can see a preliminary overview by following the links below:
- African breakdown for Africans according to 23andme
- African breakdown for Afro-descendants according to 23&me (scaled to 100%)
- 23andme results from West Africa (part 1) (after 2018/2019 update)
- 23andme results from West Africa (part 2) (after 2018/2019 update)
The number of my West African survey participants on 23andme is still minimal. However it is already quite telling how generally speaking a greater predictive accuracy can be observed. In fact an even more solid case of a distinctive Upper Guinean component can be made. Judging from the group average of “Senegambian & Guinean” among my currently 15 Senegambian survey participants being around 80%. And for my 6 Guinean survey participants it is even around 88%! While for my nearly 100 Cape Verdean survey participants it is around 72%.
Even when actually the difference is not always that big when compared with Ancestry’s 2013-2018 version (see table 3). But especially for Guineans (Bissau & Conakry) it has been a great improvement. The “Mali” region on Ancestry however does not (yet) have an equivalent on 23andme. Which seems to complicate the predictions for Malians themselves but also actually for a few Gambian & Hausa-Fulani 23andme results I have seen. Although ambivalent “Mali” (2013-2018) could still be of added value when interpreted correctly. Then again through its “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean” region 23andme can now provide a much better coverage of Sierra Leonean DNA.
It should be noted also that ancestral categories on different DNA tests will not be perfect equivalents or measuring the exact same thing. Even when similarly labeled. The additional Sierra Leonean samples on 23andme for example are clearly causing a shift westwards in the “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean” category. At the expense of full coverage of Ghanaian DNA it seems. While there may also be some algorithm differences. Furthermore the current lack of similar categories on 23andme for “Benin/Togo” and “Mali” does impact its ability to attain the same level of often meaningful resolution on Ancestry’s 2013-2018 version. But regrettably Ancestry’s last update has only made things worse. The generally inflated “Mali” and sharply decreased “Senegal” and “Ivory Coast/Ghana” scores epitomizing the loss of focus in AncestryDNA’s updated African breakdown (2018/2019).
Focus on historical plausibility
Table 4 (click to enlarge)
In order to find out more details about your broader Upper Guinean lineage (as indicated especially by “Senegal” and “Mali”) I firmly believe that it is necessary to perform careful follow-up research and resist the temptation to jump to conclusions! One of the first things to take into consideration is historical plausibility. Ask your self the following questions:
- What is the relevant historical context?
- Are your earliest ancestral locations within the Americas associated with high levels of slave trade with either the Senegambian coastline (incl. Guiné Bissau & Cape Verde) or the Sierra Leone coastline (which also covers Guinea Conakry!)? (see also this map)
- What do the records say about most frequent ethnic groups being brought over from those locations?
As an approximate starting point (not meant to be conclusive in any way!) I have included above in table 4 an overview taken from the Slave Voyages Database. It is showing the relative importance of slave voyages originating from either Senegambia or Sierra Leone. And also the Windward Coast actually (Liberia/Ivory Coast) as this area is often also included in the widest definitions of Upper Guinea.5
From historical sources we know that there was actually quite some overlap in the ethnic origins of the captives being exported by either one of these coastlines. Especially Fula people and Mandé speakers may have been shipped by way of both Senegambian or Sierra Leonean slave ports. However other ethnic groups were much more likely to hail from the hinterland of just one specific coastline. For example the Wolof mainly being shipped from (northern) Senegambian slave ports and the Temne from within modernday Sierra Leone.
As can be seen the proportional shares vary a lot for each particular destination within the Americas. But for most destinations Upper Guinean slave trade by way of Senegambia would have been prevalent. And amazingly for some Latin American destinations this is even the biggest provenance zone out of their entire African slave trade (going by documented slave voyages). There are however some notable exceptions. Jamaica and South Carolina clearly show a higher proportion of slave trade with Sierra Leone and also the Windward Coast.
As usual several complicating factors do need to be taken into account. Especially inter-colonial slave trade and domestic slave trade. For example early slave trade to Latin America (1500’s) was often routed by way of Cape Verde. However the Upper Guinean captives which were transferred on Cape Verde actually hailed from various parts of Upper Guinea, incl. also Sierra Leone (see this map). Therefore Sierra Leonean captives transferred by way of Cape Verde may have been quite numerous. Especially in the late 1500’s when they were often referred to as “Sape” or “Zape”. An umbrella term but often assumed to include mostly Temne people!
For a full overview of disclaimers and more discussion follow the links below. In order to zoom into more historical plausibility clues aligning with your particular background choose the relevant subsection (African Americans, Anglo Caribbeans, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Hispanic Americans, etc.)
- Historically documented Ethnic/Regional Origins for the Afro-Diaspora
- How to make sense of “Senegal” & “Mali” scores (scroll all the way down)
Table 5 (click to enlarge)
From my AncestryDNA survey findings (2013-2018) it can be established that the predictive accuracy of “Senegal” was quite solid. And it was being reinforced by somewhat weaker defined “Mali” to describe a genetic Upper Guinean component. The existence of which has been corroborated by both published scientific studies as well as the most recent update on 23andme (see previous section). In short: “Senegal” + “Mali” scores DID correlate quite strongly with actual Upper Guinean lineage. As shown also by my Afro-Diasporan findings (table 5) which correspond more or less with historically documented slave trade patterns shown in table 4.
From table 5 it can be seen that “Senegal” + “Mali” is clearly culminating for Senegambians, Guineans, Malians and Cape Verdeans, as it should! But also otherwise the ranking is in line with expectations. At least when going by the latest insights and not relying on a perhaps overly USA-centric perspective.6 In regards to the (Trans-Atlantic) Afro-Diaspora we can observe how “Senegal” + “Mali” is most prevalent among Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Seemingly reflecting a major Upper Guinean founding effect among Hispanic Americans. I have blogged about this topic many times already (starting in 2014). And I intend to do so again eventually as my updated 23andme surveyfindings are also in support of this remarkable phenomenon! See also:
- Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640 (D. Wheat, 2016)
In respect to my African American findings it seems that additional “Ivory Coast/Ghana” scores are needed to do justice to the complete Upper Guinean inheritance for African Americans. As this region was after all very prevalent among Liberians as well as Sierra Leoneans. And to a minor degree even to be found in double digit amounts among Guineans and Malians (see part 1 and table 1). Obviously the actual correlation between genetic inheritance and known slave trade patterns is far more complex and might also involve other variables! Therefore tables 4 & 5 do not need to correspond per se. Then again exploring the discrepancies may lead to more insight.
As I have already speculated in 2015 & 2016 it seems that strictly Senegambian origins for African Americans might have been overestimated by many people. Naturally genuine Senegambian lineage (from either Senegal or Gambia) does exist among African Americans. However not to the expected higher degree when going by perhaps somewhat misguided historians. The group average of “Senegal” being around 8% among my 350 African American survey participants. And “Mali” attaining a slightly higher group average of 9%.
A striking outcome of my African American survey in 2015 was a greater frequency of primary “Mali” scores when compared with primary “Senegal” scores (20/350 versus 5/350, see this chart). Possibly implying that the Upper Guinean roots of African Americans are more so to be found to the east and south of Senegambia proper.7 That is Guinea Conakry, western Mali and Sierra Leone. In line with principal slave trade ports for the USA being located in Gambia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Conakry. Mostly receiving captives from their hinterland which of course was not bounded by modernday borders.
On the one hand it seems likely that “Senegal” and “Mali” scores might also have been partially inherited by way of (northern) Sierra Leonean and Guinean (Conakry) ancestors. But we can also be practically sure that the genetic contributions by way of Sierra Leone will be more differentiated. And similar to the Windward Coast it will also reflect in so-called “Ivory Coast/Ghana” scores for African Americans. Especially for those with strong South Carolina connections. See also:
- When the evidence changes Scholarship, Memory, and Public Culture at the Maison des Esclaves, Gorée Island (D.L. Mack, 2011)
When reviewing table 4 & 5 again many questions may still remain. How can we find out for example if the striking 32% combined “Senegal + “Mali” component for 161 Dominicans is suggestive of either Fula, Wolof or Temne lineage? Let alone any other ethnic lineage from the wider Upper Guinean area? And in which approximate proportions? Would any of these lineages be predominant? Can we perhaps rule out any less likely lineage? These are all very pertinent questions. But alas no easy answers! From my experience you do attain more insight though if you take into account that:
- “Senegal” nor “Mali” are exclusive markers for any given ethnic group or (colonially derived) nationality!
- Your “Senegal” and “Mali” amounts are likely to be traced back to numerous family lines and not a single one (unless you happen to have relatively recent West African ancestry). Just as an example: a 25% “Senegal” score for a typical Cape Verdean might be due to the genetic contributions of at least 250 different ancestors born throughout Upper Guinea! On average the DNA contribution of an ancestor living in the mid 1600’s could be a mere 0.1%. (leaving aside pedigree collapse). And in fact for Cape Verdeans and also many Latin Americans it might even be that much of their Upper Guinean ancestry traces back further even. Into the 1500’s! See also:
- Realize that therefore your “Senegal” and “Mali” amounts could include Upper Guinean ancestors from various ethnic groups, all at the same time. For example a 25% “Mali” score for a typical African American might be traced back to 10 ancestors from Guinea Conakry, 5 ancestors from Mali, 5 ancestors from Sierra Leone, 3 ancestors from eastern Senegambia and 2 ancestors from northern Ghana. Just to mention one possible combination out of many others depending on your individual family history.
Find your Upper Guinean matches
Table 6 (click to enlarge)
African DNA matches (autosomal) provide one of the most reliable avenues to Trace African Roots. Even more so when combined with well-interpreted admixture analysis. Fortunately an ever increasing number of West Africans, or better yet West African migrants and their children, are taking DNA tests. All of them potential DNA matches for Afro-descendants to get in touch with and learn more about your specific Upper Guinean lineage by finding your Upper Guinean DNA cousins! See also my tutorial below as well as my recently started service which will provide you with a African DNA Matches Report.
Despite the great potential to learn more I would still advocate a cautious approach though! Make a careful assessment of your Upper Guinean DNA matches, if you happen to have them. Taking into account shared segment size and the possibility of population matches (IBP) and false positives, so that only genuine IBD matches are left over. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have any Upper Guinean matches?
- How many of them are likely to be Fula, Wolof or Temne etc.?
- Is any ethnic background predominant among them?
- Is the shared amount of DNA big (>10cM) or small (<7cM)?
- Are these matches also shared with your close family members?
- How do these matches fit in your overall African DNA matching patterns?
- How do your Upper Guinean matches correspond with your admixture results indicating Upper Guinean lineage?
Read the blog post below for much more details on how I performed such an analysis for 50 Cape Verdeans and their 437 African matches. I intend to do similar blog posts for other parts of the Afro-Diaspora eventually. And also among Upper Guineans themselves to establish which parts of the Afro-Diaspora appear to be most genetically linked to them, going by DNA matches.
Do keep in mind that Fula matches might be over-represented due to a skewed customer database. From my Cape Verdean survey findings it turned out that DNA testing has become especially popular among Fula people, compared to other West Africans. Stacking the odds of being matched with them. However this may not per se be in line with their overall proportional contribution to your DNA. Also remember that the Fula people did not only intermingle with Hausa people in Nigeria.
Also throughout Upper Guinea they have mixed with other ethnic groups. Such as the Wolof, Sereer, Mandinga, Bambara etc.. Usually by way of their maternal line. Despite some degree of endogamy among more traditional and still nomadic subgroups this is especially true for sedentary subgroups such as the Halpulaar or Toucouleur from Senegal and the Fulakunda or Fula Preto from Guiné Bissau. In this way receiving a Fula match does not automatically imply that your common ancestor was also Fula! Also Mandinga, Wolof or Sereer etc. MRCA’s can very well be possible. Which may also account for how “matchy” Fula people tend to be with the Afro-Diapora. Then again plentiful documented evidence does exist of Fula captives being present across the Diaspora. See also:
- Overview of documented Fula presence across the Diaspora
- DNA matches reported by 23andme for 75 Africans (incl. 1 Fula from Guinea)
Also when receiving a Sierra Leonean match you will still have to be very careful and check whether they do not have any partial Krio ancestry. Because in that case the ancestral connection might actually be reversed! And your MRCA could even be African American! Both Liberia, Sierra Leone having received freed ex-slaves from the US and the West Indies as settlers. Some of whom later on also migrated to other countries such as Gambia and Nigeria! In fact as testified by my own African survey group inter-ethnic unions are quite frequent across West Africa and not only among the Fula or in Sierra Leone!
Connecting Upper Guinea with the Afro-Diaspora and vice versa
I have a broad interest generally speaking. But as I am myself of Cape Verdean descent I am naturally always extra intrigued by Upper Guinean genetics 😉 . Based on geography, history as well as my own DNA results I am pretty sure that I have ancestral connections to Senegambia, Guiné Bissau and most likely also Sierra Leone. I have one Gambian DNA match (most likely Mandinga); “Senegal” + “Mali” are predominant in my African breakdown on Ancestry (as is “Senegambian & Guinean” on 23andme) and my maternal haplogroup L3e4 is widely spread in Upper Guinea.
My AncestryDNA survey among Upper Guineans, Cape Verdeans and Afro-Diasporans has however definitely provided a deeper understanding of my own personal African origins as a Cape Verdean descendant. And in addition it has also clarified many of the questions which came up during my research. Helping me to see the origins of not only the Afro-Diaspora but also Africans themselves in much sharper focus.
Below is just a small overview of hopefully useful or inspiring resources to increase the odds of connecting with your Upper Guinean heritage.
- The Upper Guinea Coast in Global Perspective (Knörr & Kohl, 2016)
- Top 20 Ethnic African Roots for Cape Verdeans (Cabo Verde Raizes Na Africa)
- Bibliography Upper Guinean Roots for Cape Verde (Cabo Verde Raizes Na Africa)
- Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640 (D. Wheat, 2016)
- Shared Upper Guinean roots between Cape Verdeans and Latin Americans (Tracing African Roots)
- Confirming African Matches: Abuelo’s Peul (Fula) Relatives (Dominican Roots)
- Cubans trace roots to remote Sierra Leone village (BBC, 2014)
- Ethnic Origins of South Carolina Runaway Slaves (Tracing African Roots)
- Continuing British Interest in Coastal Guinea-Conakry and Fuuta Jaloo Highlands (1750 to 1850) (Mouser, 2003)
- The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection (Opala, 1987)
- The Language You Cry In (documentary 1998)
- Family Across the Sea (documentary, 1990)
- The Book of Negroes (TV miniseries)
- Ethnic Origin of Recaptives in Sierra Leone, 1848 (Sierra Leone Web)
- How Do I Research My Fulani Roots? (The Root)
- Muslims in Early America (Gomez, 1994)
- Al Roker goes to Senegal to trace his ancestral roots (Today, 2018)
- From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1830 (Hawthorne, 2010)
- Eu quero conhecer Cabo Verde (sou da Amazonia) (Youtube)
- Ze Manel – Nha Guine (Youtube)
- Amadou & Mariam – Dyana (Mali) (Youtube)
- Nigerian Fulani singer: Hauwa Yar Fulani (Youtube)
- Senegambian Origin of Jollof Rice (a.k.a. Thieboudienne, a.k.a. Benachin) (Abiké)
Suggestions for improvement
“Create new regions centered around these historically relevant samples. Whenever possible and provided that the current coherency of the African regional framework as a whole is not compromised.
- Atlantic samples from either Senegambia (Wolof, Sereer etc.) or Guiné Bissau (Balanta, Papel etc.) may be used to solidify the current “Senegal” region (hundreds of Gambian samples from various ethnic groups are possibly to be obtained via the MalariaGEN database!). Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also creating a sharper delineation for the “Senegal” region. Given sufficient genetic differentiation and appropriate sampling I suppose a very helpful distinction between northern Senegambian versus southern Senegambian/Guinean origins may also be enabled.
- Mande samples from either Guinea or Mali may be used to solidify the current “Mali” region. Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also hopefully enabling a sharper delineation with the “Senegal” region.
- Southwestern Mande samples from either Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast or Guinea might be used to create a separate region. Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also hopefully contributing to a sharper delineation of both the “Mali” and “Ivory Coast/Ghana” regions.“
“Gur samples from Burkina Faso might be used to create a greatly needed intermediate region to cover the genetic legacy of people nowadays found in northern areas of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Togo as well as Burkina Faso itself. It may also result in a sharper delineation of especially the “Mali” region which will become more strictly suggestive of Upper Guinean roots”.
The quotes above are taken from my previous blog post from June 2018:
Unfortunately hardly any of these suggestions were taken up by Ancestry when they did their last update in September 2018… However it seems that a new update may be upcoming already (see this link). And from what I have seen in preview this will also affect the African breakdown. Either way Ancestry has announced they aim to expand their African Reference Panel (see this blog post). So I might as well give it another shot 😉 I still stand by my statements quoted above.
In particular I believe that the addition of Malian samples after the 2018 update needs to be reevaluated for internal coherency. As described in this blog post Ancestry most likely added 153 new Malian samples from its Sorenson database. In itself this is of course a great improvement! It certainly helped to increase the predictive accuracy of “Mali” for actual Malians. However otherwise it sadly lead to a great inflation of “Mali” scores for people across West Africa (see this overview). Perhaps due to a faulty sampling strategy (possibly Fula samples were included as well?) or perhaps also in combination with Ancestry’s changed algorithm. Either way it resulted in a dramatic decrease of “Senegal” scores and overall informational value.
Obviously AncestryDNA’s regional breakdown (2013-2018) was rather basic and had several flaws. Caused by misleading labeling and inadequate sampling among other things. Still through comparison with other results, bench marking if you like, you were able to determine your relative position. Which combined with additional context can potentially be highly informational and in accordance with documented history and/or genealogy. Even when ancestral categories/clusters and their labeling will usually tend to be fuzzy indeed.
I like to underline though that my West African AncestryDNA survey (2013-2018) did produce several potentially insightful findings. Not only for improving the interpretation of the results of Afro-Diasporans. But also for West Africans themselves it may lead to better understanding of the understudied migration history within the African continent. Both relatively recent (last 500 years or so) and more ancient. I have had many stimulating discussions with West Africans who did a DNA test over the years. Unlike what some people might assume many Africans themselves also take a great interest in these matters. I personally consider the following findings to have been most evocative:
- Confirmation of predominant Upper Guinean lineage among Cape Verdeans.
- Identification of Upper Guinean genetic component among both western Fula and Hausa-Fulani from further east.
- Genetic differentiation among Sierra Leonean groups. Most convincingly for the Krio. But possibly also to a more subtle degree between Temne and Mende.
- Revealing Upper Guinean founding effect among Hispanic Americans.
- Suggesting the need for reevaluation of Upper Guinean/Senegambian lineage among African Americans.
Then again my intention is not only to look backwards but also forwards! In particular I believe that my survey findings (see table 1) may provide a helpful baseline to compare with 23andme’s newly updated African breakdown (see this overview). As well as functioning as a benchmark for Ancestry’s upcoming update, which hopefully this time will lead to improvement!
Over all I would say that my West African survey findings are pretty much reinforcing the main message I have been trying to get across from day 1: the labeling of ancestral categories in DNA testing is often not be taken too literally. However this does not mean you cannot derive a great deal of informational value from your socalled ethnicity estimates! Proper interpretation is a precondition. And it has been my experience that being aware of the DNA results of native West Africans certainly helps in this regard. If only to know what to expect more or less. And also in order to make a proper inference of how you yourself fit in the scheme given any other ancestral clues you might have. Even more so when also taking into account your African DNA matches, relevant historical context, (advanced) genetic genealogy and other means of follow-up research.
I am aware that ethnicity can be a sensitive topic for West Africans. Aside from wanting to learn more about my own West African roots my motivation to research these so-called Ethnicity Estimates is purely scholarly. It stems from a deep fascination with West Africa’s ancient population migrations, its many connections with the Afro-Diaspora as well as a profound love for its vibrant & diverse culture. I do not condone the misuse of my research for identity politics! I am in full support of democratizing knowledge. However when parts of my work are being copied I do expect that a proper referral to my blog and the additional context it provides will be made.
Please also keep in mind that DNA testing can be very educational and may have many positive effects. However in some cases it may also be abused by people with bad intentions.
- Can DNA Ancestry Testing Make You More Racist/Tribalistic? (Scientific American)
1) I like to express my sincere gratitude to all the persons who made my research possible! Many results used in my survey were shared with me directly by invitation by the DNA testers themselves. Furthermore I received tremendous help of several friends who shared the results of their Upper Guinean DNA matches with me. Also my survey of African DNA matches being reported for Cape Verdeans provided me with many Upper Guinean results (by way of Ancestry’s Compare Ethnicity tool, see this link for an overview).
In particular the greater part of my Fula results was obtained by the very gracious help of a friend of mine who happens to be Fula himself. Analyzing his closest DNA matches by way of surname and other relevant profile details we were able to single out persons with a very high plausibility of being of Fula descent. Ancestry’s Compare Ethnicity tool (available since 2018) enabled me to have access to the complete ethnicity estimates of these matches.
2) The belief that especially subcontinental predictions in admixture analysis are bound to be very inaccurate has been repeated almost like a mantra by some people. Even when from my AncestryDNA findings it may be deduced that great informational value can be obtained (given correct interpretation). For an overview of blog articles discussing the usefulness of admixture analysis, see heading “Blog Posts” in this ISOGG entry: Admixture Analysis. To be sure each particular DNA testing company (and also any update of their results) will indeed have its own flaws and strengths. Also the perceived accuracy of ethnicity results may vary according to a person’s own main background. As well as their expectations of what admixture analysis should deliver.
Without wanting to be divisive I do find it noteworthy how the ethnic backgrounds of bloggers within the genetic genealogy “world” seem to often determine their outlook on admixture analysis. Perhaps not that surprising given that their evaluation will be based mostly on how their own DNA is being described. Nothing wrong with personal reviews. But I do think that people of African descent should realize that Afro-Diasporan predicaments are not the same as those of bloggers of fully European descent. Still because these bloggers tend to have a great following their stance is often also copied by African Americans or other Afro-descendants.
White Americans/Canadians and Europeans who take DNA tests tend to have well researched family trees and detailed knowledge of their recent ethnic origins. This allows them to be “picky” about their ethnicity estimates. As after all they will have the luxury to verify their results. Which often tends to make them obsess on details such as the labeling of ancestral categories rather than trying to grasp the overall added value it may have for other people.
For example they might insist on seeing their Irish ancestry clearly distinguished from their Scottish one. And will get upset when this is not accomplished. Even when naturally Irish & Scottish DNA will be very tricky to separate due to a great degree of genetic overlap. But with an overly dismissive stance you risk loosing out on valuable insights to be obtained! For example when taking a macro-regional approach you might still want to appreciate the ability of DNA testing companies such as Ancestry & 23andme to distinguish quite reliably between Northwest European DNA and East European DNA. Or to quite reliably indicate Jewish lineage.
I find it interesting to contrast this with the more constructive attitude among bloggers of mixed or non-European descent. Often seeking ways to already use admixture analysis pragmatically despite obvious shortcomings. See for example:
- Ancestry Inference Is Precise And Accurate(Ish) (Gene Expression)
- Africa in 12 ADMIXTURE chunks (Gene Expression)
- Part I: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Manhattan (Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches)
- A Puerto Rican Look at : A Generational Exploration of African Ancestry (Boricua Genes)
- We don’t have African Ancestry from One Place – Example of Dominicans (Dominican Roots)
- Admixture Centrifuge: Cherokee DNA (Roots & Recombinant DNA)
- What Do I Think About These DNA Results? (Roots Revealed)
Generally speaking I suspect some degree of ethno-centric bias is quite likely to influence how people will judge the usefulness of admixture analysis. Again not trying to be accusatory or anything. Because I believe I could very well be guilty of such bias myself as well! I am of both Cape Verdean and Dutch descent. My blogging interests are more wideranging. After all I am focused on covering the entire Afro-Diaspora and also regularly discuss African topics. Still my own specific background may (consciously or unconsciously) direct me in certain ways. I guess what I’m trying to say is when deciding on the usefulness of admixture analysis don’t let other people, social media, genetic genealogists or even bloggers (myself included 😉 ) dictate your choices! Do inform yourself properly but make up your own mind based on facts relevant to your own situation rather than on sometimes subjective opinions.
3) Understandably many people desire to have the most specific degree of resolution when searching for their African roots. They want to be able to pinpoint their exact ethnic origins and preferably also know the exact location of their ancestral village. In a way following in the footsteps of the still very influential ROOTS author Alex Haley. Unfortunately these are rather unrealistic expectations to have in regards to DNA testing (at least in regards to admixture analysis.). Not only given current scientific possibilities. But also because such expectations rest on widely spread misconceptions about ethnicity, genetics, genealogy as well as Afro-Diasporan history.
Too often people ignore how the melting pot concept is really nothing new but has always existed! Also in Africa where inter-ethnic mixing has usually been frequent! Throughout (pre) history and maybe even more so in the last 50 years or so. Generally speaking ethnicity is a fluid concept which is constantly being redefined across time and place.
Too often people fail to take into consideration how due to genetic recombination our DNA will never be a perfect reflection of our family tree but might actually also at times suggest very ancient migrations.
- Everyone Has Two Family Trees – A Genealogical Tree and a Genetic Tree (Genetic Genealogist, 2009)
Too often people underestimate the actual number of relocated African-born ancestors they might have (dozens or even hundreds!). As well as the inevitable ethnic blending which must have taken place across the generations.
Too often people are still not informing themselves properly about Africa itself and the documented origins of the Afro-Diaspora. Many specific details may have been lost forever but there is a wealth of solid and unbiased sources available which can help you see both the greater picture as well as zoom in more closely to your own relevant context. See also:
- Fictional Family Tree incl. African Born Ancestors (Tracing African Roots)
- DNA studies for Africans and Afro-Diasporans (Tracing African Roots)
- Documented ethnic/regional origins of the Afro-Diaspora (Tracing African Roots)
- Maps (ethnolinguistic, slave trade, various parts of Africa) (Tracing African Roots)
4) To be fair Ancestry’s African breakdown during 2013-2018 was far better in my opinion than 23andme’s African breakdown during that same period (before their update in 2019). Unlike any of its commercial competitors AncestryDNA was able to distinguish no less than 5 different West African regions. In addition it also did a reasonable job at separating West African DNA from Central/Southern African DNA (“Cameroon/Congo” and “Southeastern Bantu”). Which is essential for getting a full scope perspective on the origins of the Afro-Diaspora. See also:
- “West Africa” category on 23andme (2013-2018)
- “Central & South African” category on 23andme (2013-2018)
5) Both Liberia and the Ivory Coast can be said to be intermediate between Upper & Lower Guinea, because of their ethno-linguistic composition also including Atlantic and Mandé speakers. However these countries also have large numbers of Kru, Akan and Gur/Senoufo speakers which are mostly missing in Upper Guinea (see this page). Also during my survey it turned out that both countries are genetically speaking mostly characterized by “Ivory Coast/Ghana” (2013-2018). And in that sense they largely fall outside of the Upper Guinean genetic component described in table 3 & 5.
6) As a recent example of what might perhaps also be considered continued USA-centric bias see for example:
- Why 1526 is as deserving of Commemoration as 1619 (Afropunk, 2019)
- The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History (The Smithsonian, 2019)
- Before 1619, there was 1526: The mystery of the first enslaved Africans in what became the United States (Washington Post, 2019)
Intriguingly those probably earliest Africans to set foot on currentday USA soil might very well have been Upper Guineans! As it is said the 1526 expedition departed from Santo Domingo (DR). And the Upper Guinean origins of the Dominicans from the 1500’s are quite well documented! See also this blogpost.
In 2016 I already blogged the following:
“assumed prominence of Senegambian ancestry among African Americans is up for reconsideration. Upper Guinea is often proposed as one of the biggest “homelands” for African Americans based on historical documentation. And to be sure African American AncestryDNA results do indeed confirm the widespread existence of these lineages. Still judging from the average amounts being reported for “Mali” and especially “Senegal”, Upper Guinean origins on average do appear to be more diluted and subdued than expected. This also includes results from Louisiana for whom the Inter-Colonial and Domestic Slave Trade is often underestimated when considering their roots within Africa.
The exact degree of Senegambian origins and any possible reasons for its relative greater dilution among African Americans are yet to be determined. But at any rate the often made assertion that African Americans would have the greatest proportional share of Upper Guinean ancestry within the Americas may no longer be tenable. It might very well have to be rephrased into African Americans have a greater share of Senegambian ancestry only when compared to the English speaking West Indies and Haiti but not so when compared with the Hispanic Caribbean and Mexico/Central America. The persistent Upper Guinean genetic imprint among many Hispanics, often dating already from the 1500’s/1600’s can no longer be ignored.
This research outcome might imply that text books will need to be rewritten in regards to this aspect as statements such as below seem to be unfounded,or atleast only partially justified:
“ The Senegambians were much more prominent in North America than in South America and the Caribbean. “ (source: In Motion, The African-American Migration Experience)
” In the United States, African mothers were reasonably likely to be Igbo or Wolof: a thesis that can eventually be tested through DNA studies” (Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Hall, p.142, 2005).
7) Obviously more research is needed to gain greater insight in the approximate origins of African Americans within the wider Upper Guinea area. Something which I myself also intend to perform in the near future. Based on DNA matching patterns. However if eventually it indeed turns out that the Upper Guinean roots of African Americans are more so to be found to the east and south of Senegambia proper. Then the term “Greater Senegambia” is probably in need of reevaluation. This term has become quite popular in the last decade or so among historians of the Afro-Diaspora when referring to the wider Upper Guinea. Often also including Liberia in fact! However this term might be misleading in the sense that a false idea might be conveyed that the focus is still on Senegal & Gambia proper. When in fact it will be the surrounding countries/areas which might be of greater importance to understand the ancestral lineage of African Americans hailing from this wider area.