DNA Adventures: Me and my mum’s mtDNA – Range 16024 to 16519

In this article, I will be posting about another range sequence for my mum’s mtDNA. You will see a summary explanatory section about mtDNA at the bottom of this article.

To my fellow Old Ninety-Six County, South Carolina cousins, this is the female line this DNA covers:

My mum < Pauline Matthews < Gertrude Harling < Aurelia Holloway < Amanda Peterson < Violet Williams < Moses Williams, Sr’s unknown first wife (not Mariah Stallsworth).

My mum’s mtDNA: Range 16024 to 16519

Note: Please click each image to see a larger version.

Genebase uses an analytical comparison measurement called RMI,which you will see in the numbers provided in the bar graph images below. RMI (Relative Match Index) is a measure of how closely your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplotype matches those of a defined population group as compared to all other population groups in the comparison. For example, a RMI of 100 means that you are 100 times more likely to belong to that population set as compared to the rest of the populations.

Mutation = 0 is a perfect match / Mutation = 1 or more means a mutation has occurred in the comparison mtDNA matches.

So…there’s quite a bit to take in. And this only covers another short range of sequence ranges for my mum’s mtDNA! Feel free to ask questions! I appreciate this takes a while to wrap one’s head around. Dorothy, are definitely not in autosomal DNA territory any more!

A quick reminder about mtDNA

Just so we all know what we’re looking at, here are some illustrations of mtDNA:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell

As you can see, mtDNA looks very different from the 23 chromosomes that form autosomal DNA (the DNA you inherit from both parents).

For a more in-depth understanding of mtDNA, I invite you to read Roberta Estes’s excellent article Mitochondrial DNA – Your Mom’s Story over at DNAeXplained via https://www.google.com/amp/s/dna-explained.com/2017/05/09/mitochondrial-dna-your-moms-story/amp/

DNA.land’s DNA analysis tool’s major improvement

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:

dnaland1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 )
  4. 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.
  5. Take early results as an indication of the global cultures you might be connected to. These results will not be definitive. See Point #4.

Keep up the great work, DNA.land!

21 Sep 2016 note: Regular readers will be familiar with my Congo and Central African DNA results, which I should have mentioned here. These too are lumped in under “West Africa” (Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classificationhttps://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/why-i-struggle-with-west-africa-as-a-genetic-classification/). I sometimes forget that it takes time for new readers to read previous dna-related posts on the site

Mapping my YDNA flow in Africa

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.

Rapanui

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:

A partial list of African genetic tribal matches with a GD of 1 and 2.

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.

easter island-3

“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 

Here’s a study on the Omani Arab population:
Alshamali F, Pereira L, Budowle B, Poloni ES, Currat M. 2009. Local population structure in Arabian Peninsula revealed by Y-STR diversity. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19339785?ordinalpos=4&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

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

afr_asia_pol2

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.

 

How the term ‘Bantu’ tripped up my genetic genealogy journey

This post is the last in a series of issues, challenges, and barriers I’ve faced in understanding African Genetics and my autosomal, YDNA and mtDNA results.

The first post in this series, Can we really make assumptions about African American DNA admixtures? (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/can-we-really-make-assumptions-about-african-american-dna-admixtures), covered how science and genealogy TV shows aren’t in a position to make generalizations about what is or isn’t typical/common when it comes to admixtures in African and African-descended people.

The second post, Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/why-i-struggle-with-west-africa-as-a-genetic-classification), covers why I think the ‘West African’ classification some DNA analysis tools provide is meaningless.

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.

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 approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes.

The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes. You can read more about the Bantu languages via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_languages

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:

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.

niger-congo_map

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.[1]  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.[2] Particularly with genetic markers associated with Southern Cushitic people and East African nomadic herding tribes.[3] 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:

  1. The Bantu People, Melissa’s Anthropology Blog.  https://mathildasanthropologyblog.wordpress.com/2008/04/29/the-bantu-people

  2. Bantu peoples in South Africa, Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples_in_South_Africa
  3. The Bantu Expansion,  http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/resources/clarifications/BantuExpansion.html

References:

  1. Luis, J. R.; Rowold, D.J.; Regueiro, M.; Caeiro, B.; Cinnioğlu, C.; Roseman, C.; Underhill, P.A.; Cavalli-Sforza, L.L.; Herrera, R.J. (2004).“The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations” (PDF). American Journal of Human Genetics 74 (3): 532–544. 
  2. Trombetta, Beniamino; D’Atanasio1, Eugenia; Massaia, Andrea; Ippoliti, Marco; Coppa, Alfredo; Candilio, Francesca; Coia, Valentina; Russo, Gianluca; Dugoujon, Jean-Michel; Mora, Pedro; Akar, Nejat; Sellitto, Daniele; Valesini, Guido; Novelletto, Andrea; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio (2015). “Phylogeographic refinement and large scale genotyping of human Y chromosome haplogroup E provide new insights into the dispersal of early pastoralists in the African continent.”. Oxford Journals 7: 1940–1950.
  3.  Henn, Brenna M.; Gignoux, Christopher; Lin, Alice A.; Oefner, Peter J.; Shen, Peidong; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio; Tishkoff, Sarah A.; Mountain, Joanna L.; Underhill, Peter A. (2008). “Y-chromosomal evidence of a pastoralist migration through Tanzania to southern Africa.”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 10693–8.

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.