Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification

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.

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: 

west-africa-political-map

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.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification

  1. Pingback: How the term ‘Bantu’ tripped up my genetic genealogy journey | Genealogy Adventures

  2. Nicely done…my views on this subject aligns with my comments regarding “Bantu”. I want to thank you because you’ve given me even more food for thought.

  3. Oh, i forgot to mention that Geno 2.0 NextGen farms out its autosomal results on the lines of your second option – West, North, East, and South African. It’s a step forward from its former ambiguous classifications such as “Mediterranean,” which was absolutely meaningless.

  4. Pingback: DNA.land’s DNA analysis tool’s major improvement | Genealogy Adventures

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