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.

 

Can we really make assumptions about African American DNA admixtures?

I caught up  with some of the geneticist team who were going to be a part of my first proposed television series the other day. Skype truly is a wondrous thing!  We chatted about my YDNA Haplogroup, E1b1a1a1f1a. There’s something about this haplogroup in particular that has confused me.

To recap for those of you who are new to genetics and genetic genealogy, a haplogroup is a term scientists use to describe individual branches, or closely related groups of branches, on the genetic family tree for human beings. In theory, all members of a YDNA haplogroup (passed from fathers to sons) can trace their ancestry back to a single individual until we reach a theoretical genetic ‘Adam’, the father of every male on the planet. Women have a genetic ‘Eve’, the point of origin for human mtDNA (passed from mothers to daughters).

So, we had a chat about good ole E1b1a1a1f1a. In order to have an informed discussion, I gave them access to my Genebase account. Genebase is the DNA testing company I used to test the full sequence of my YDA. It’s worth noting that other, more commercial, DNA testing companies test only various parts of YDNA and mtDNA.  I needed full sequencing done as a basis for my TV series.

Let’s take a quick look at the information they needed which formed the basis of our discussion. To be 100% transparent, we stripped out all non-African DNA from the results. I only wanted to look at the African part of my YDNA, which was the bit that was causing me all kinds of confusion.

My YDNA sequencing:

Image of a partial snapshot of my YDNA sequencing results.

This is a partial snapshot of my YDNA sequencing results from Genebase, with various genetic mutations marked. Click for larger image

At this point, Tim, one of the geneticists (and he also happens to be an anthropologist) said that he saw something interesting – something he hadn’t noticed before when we were planning the TV series. But he wanted to wait a bit until he mentioned what it was. He wanted to see if the other two people on the Skype session would notice the same thing.

Before we went there, we looked at the cultures and tribes I’m genetically linked to via my YDNA.  You can see this in the two images below:

African tribes my YDNA links me to based on my DYS19a, DYS389i DYS389ii DYS390X DYS391 DYS393 YDNA markers

African tribes my YDNA links me to based on my DYS19a, DYS389i DYS389ii DYS390X DYS391 DYS393 YDNA markers. You can also see some of the tribes and cultures I’m genetically linked to at genetic distance of 2. Click for larger image

Image showing my DYS385a, DYS385, DYS392, DYS393, DYS456, GATAH4 marker results.

Image showing my DYS385a, DYS385, DYS392, DYS393, DYS456, GATAH4 marker results. Click for larger image

You’ll notice a neat little phrase in the the images above. It’s Genetic Difference. “Genetic distance” is the number of mutation “steps” or mismatches between any two individuals.  “0” is a perfect match, “1” is a one-step mutation, etc.  The more mutations, the longer the probable time period since the most recent common ancestor.

So, based on the last two images above, I am closely matched with the Akele and the Punu in Gabon as well as the people of Oman. I’m also closely matched with Egyptians. The second image is unusual in that it (currently) connects me to Egyptians and no other culture or tribe.

Let’s look at where the Akele and Punu are found in modern Gabon:

Ethnographic map of modern Gabon. Bakele=Akele and Bapouno+Punu

Ethnographic map of modern Gabon. Bakele=Akele and Bapouno+Punu. Click for larger image

The Punu (also referred to as Bapunu and Bapounou, are a Bantu speaking group from Central Africa.  It’s one of the four major peoples of Gabon, inhabiting interior mountain and grassland areas in the southwest of the country, around the upper N’Gounié and Nyanga Rivers. Bapunu also live in parts of the Republic of the Congo. Punu traditions record a migration from the south sometime before the 19th century, as a result of wars somewhere between the Congo and Niari River.

The Kele people (also referred to as Akele, Bakele, Dikele, and Western Kele) are also an ethnic group in Gabon.

Realization #1

Now the 3 chaps I was chatting with took one look at my Haplogroup and responded along the lines of “ok. African Haplogroup. It get’s lots of traction in Central Africa, particularly in and around the Congo region.”

That’s when I asked them to look at the people I’m linked to (Akele, Punu, Omani and Egyptian).

This is the point when Charlie and Rob chimed in, almost in unison. “Whoa, wait a minute, E1b1a1a1f1a is really rare in Gabon. This doesn’t make any sense”. I laughed at this point and welcomed them to my world of confusion.

It turns out that E1b1a1a1f1a is rife with confusion (oh lucky me!). This Haplogroup is a fairly recent classification. As more human populations undergo DNA testing, the more we understand about YDNA, mtDNA and the haplogroups they have been assigned. Which is a good thing. It’s worth remembering that Genetic genealogy and commercial DNA testing are still in their relative infancy. Further research and testing means a more refined understanding of genetic inheritance. It means a more finessed understanding of us – human beings. What’s known and understood now will undergo refinement down the road. We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the human evolutionary history. There is so much more yet to be uncovered, much less understood. It’s worth remembering that too.

I say this to highlight the point that there is only a basic understanding of the E1b1a1a1f1a haplogroup. E1b1a1a1f1a is linked to western Central Africa. It is rarely found in the most western portions of West Africa. It is, however, prevalent in Nigeria and parts of Gabon (The Bantu expansion revisited a new analysis of Y chromosome variation in Central Western Africa. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1365-294X.2011.05130.x). It’s also closely linked to eastern and southeastern Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, etc), where one group of geneticists believe it originated. There is another genetic school of thought that states that E1b1a1a1f1a’s origins are Levantine (basically, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt).

If the scientists can’t agree, what’s a poor genetic genealogy adventurer to do?

So this is where Tim chimed in. He’s the one who noticed something unusual in my YDNA sequence:  “Anyone else notice the DYS391P mutation?”

outline1

My partial YDNA sequence with the specific mutation the geneticists were discussing.

The other two men’s reactions were priceless. Charlie: “What, what?, back up a minute”.  Rob: “Yeah, we need to back up for a sec. How did that happen?”

At this point I laughed and just said “You tell me, you’re the scientists”.

Direct ancestors & genetic cousins

africa_asia.eps

A map of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The blue areas are the ones I cite in this post. The pink areas are also in other parts of my YDNA sequencing at a genetic distance of 1. As you’ll see, Gabon is notable by its geographic distance from everywhere else I have a genetic link to at a genetic distance of 1…which raises the fundamental question: How did that happen? Click for a larger image.

Rob and Tim got into an interesting conversation about my haplogroup and the very specific mutation within it. Both made a good point. I’m genetically connected to a staggering number of African tribes. Rob and Tim pointed out that I will be a direct descendant of only a few. All of the others would be genetic cousins. At a mutational difference of 1, the Akele, the Punu, and the Omani are the best candidates for being my direct ancestors. The Egyptians are too. They are just an older direct ancestor pool. At the moment, we’re speculating that all of the other tribes and cultures with a genetic distance greater than 1 would be genetic cousins. In other worlds, I’m not a direct descendant of them. We share a common ancestry further back in time. That time frame could be a few generations (prior to my unknown ancestor’s enslavement and transportation to the United States) for some, to centuries for others…to millennia.

All 3 surmise that at some point within the last 1,500 years or so, an east African man, with Arab male ancestors, carried my YDNA, with a key mutation, into north Africa and northwest Africa. This tallies with the other cultures and tribes in my YDNA, namely the Berber and the Tuareg. At some point, one of his male descendants, a Berber-Tuareg man with this haplogroup and DNA, settled in what’s now present day Gabon.

That’s not surprising. Africa has truly ancient trade routes. And where there are trade routes, there are people. Where there are people, DNA gets exchanged and admixtures arise. The following scientific paper, suggested by Charlie, made for some insightful reading into this specific subject: Sacko, O. Influences of Trans-Saharan Trade’s Cultural Exchanges on Architecture: Learning from Historical Cities and Cultural Heritages in Mali and Mauritania ( http://www.kyoto-seika.ac.jp/researchlab/wp/wp-content/uploads/kiyo/pdf-data/no39/oussouby_sacko.pdf)

To shed some light on this, you’ll find some images that show ancient African trade routes.

East Africa trade routes:

A map showing ancient trade routes from east Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, India and beyond.

A map showing ancient trade routes from east Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, India and beyond. Is this how these regions contributed to my YDNA? click for larger image.

Intra-African Trade routes: 

Map showing ancient trade routes within Africa.

Map showing ancient trade routes within Africa. We know my YDNA travelled from East Africa to Northwest Africa along the North African Mediterranean Coastline. Is the route shown at the top of the image the way it travelled across northern Africa? click for larger image

Once established among either the Akele or the Punu, this ancestor’s male descendants married and produced offspring who melted into the surrounding tribal landscape. At some point, one of his male descendants was enslaved and sent to America. That’s the theory my 3 colleagues presented in the end. Much more DNA testing needs to be done on African populations to better understand the evolution of present day African admixtures and history. Significantly more DNA testing needs to be done.  I offer this exchange:

So what’s common and what’s not when it comes to African  Admixtures?

Charlie: “Brian’s haplogroup and this mutation just aren’t commonly seen in Gabon.”

Tim: “How do we know that? Science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to African DNA. We just don’t know. I don’t. Maybe it is rare. Maybe it isn’t. We just aren’t in a position to say what is or isn’t common with African DNA. What I will say is that I find this very, very interesting. It’s something I want to spend some time looking into.”

Charlie offered an interesting and plausible insight. He suggested that perhaps the ancestor who was abducted and then sold into slavery was specifically chosen because it was known that his family wasn’t indigenous to Gabon. They may have been part of the Akele and Punu for only a few generations. If his family had a falling out with a rival family or clan, that’s all it would take. The Akele and the Punu were both heavily engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. So they had the means and the connections to abduct and then sell a perceived ‘other’. Considering what’s happening all around the globe right now, this scenario isn’t just conceivable, it is highly probable.

When it comes to African American ancestry, what’s ‘normal’

Rob asked an interesting question: “Do you guys think Brian’s sequencing is common or uncommon in African Americans?”

I beat them all to the punch with a simple question: “What’s considered ‘common’ when it comes to African American admixtures?”  I was asked to clarify the question, which I duly did. I pointed out these numbers from the last US Census:

1) 45,672,250 or 14.3%: Black Only or Black in combination with another race;

2) 42,158,238 or 13.2%: Black Only;

3) 42,316,387 or 13.3%: ‘Black Only’ or ‘Black in combination with another race’ (non-Hispanic); and

4) 39,528,225 or 12.4%: Black Only (non-Hispanic)

This doesn’t cover those who self-identify as black and Hispanic, etc – or those who don’t even know that they have an African descended ancestor.

It’s believed that 1 million Americans have taken DNA tests. I haven’t found any reliable statistics that show how many of these DNA test takers are African descended Americans. I suspect that the number of African Americans who have taken DNA tests is a very small percentage of that overall 1 million figure. Infinitesimally small. Statistically speaking, not large enough to make any qualified statements.

This happens to be a huge bugbear for me. There are shows that make assertions like: most African Americans don’t have Native American ancestry, or, if they do, that African Americans ‘usually’ have X amount. Or, that few African Americans are 100% African in their ancestry. Or, that any given African American will have Y% of European ancestry or SE Asian ancestry… the assertions go on and on. If this subject interests you, Tim recommended an excellent article: The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans (http://materiais.dbio.uevora.pt/MA/Artigos/Genetic_Structure_and_History_of_Africans_and_African_Americans.pdf)

Now, if 10 million African Americans were to take DNA tests, then we’d have a significant DNA data set to begin making generalized DNA-based statements. Today? We’re working in a dark room without any windows or light. Just a single candle. That’s just not enough illumination to make any kind of definitive statement. Sorry, but I am stickler for such things.

The same is true of African DNA. We just don’t know if the prevalence of any given genetic admixture is typical or atypical. We know more about how DNA travelled from eastern Africa to China than we do about how it travelled from eastern Africa to all other points in the African continent. The remoteness of some tribes is a barrier to large scale genetic testing. Then, there’s the climate: arid and acidic soil conditions – as well as extremely moist environmental conditions – which aren’t conducive to preserving human remains, much less fragile DNA. Such finds would enable science to study the ancient roots and migrations across Africa of the ancient peoples who gave rise to the modern day tribes we see today. Then there’s the question of where to look for ancient remains to test, and then compare to modern day tribes. Africa is a huge continent. Looking for this is like looking for a needle in one huge haystack. Science has some real barriers when it comes to the genetic testing of African populations.

I was pretty pleased when all 3 men agreed that there is a need to stop asserting what’s typical when it comes to the DNA of African descended people.

Tim asked my opinion about whether or not I believed that the vast majority of American slaves came from western Africa. I didn’t hold back. Given the number of slave ports on the western African coast, one could assume that a significant proportion of slaves sent to the United States probably did come from the western African coastal region. What that number would actually be is just a guess.

And me being me, I went one step further with one of my analogies: New York City is an enormous port. Every manner of products and goods are shipped from, or flown out of, New York City. It is one of America’s exporting hearts. Not every single product or goods shipped out of New York came from New York or was produced in New York. They come from all four corners of the United States. It would take close inspection of export documentation to determine what percentage of good shipped from New York City actually came from New York, or the surrounding Mid-Atlantic or New England states.  One could assume what percentage of these came from this region. Maybe you’d be right. Maybe not. Only research could reveal what’s correct and what isn’t.

The same holds true for African American genetic genealogy as well as African genetic studies. For the time being, I don’t think anyone really knows. This needs to be understood and accepted. We just don’t know. I appreciate that’s a hard thing to hear. I say this to myself each and every day to manage my own expectations.Enslaved African ancestors could have come from pretty much anywhere in the African continent.

For the time being, I take my genetic results as an indication. No more and no less. My YDNA test indicates that I’m a direct descendant of an African man with an interesting Arabian Peninsula-East African-North African-Akele-Punu admixture. How he got that admixture is anybody’s guess. When that admixture occurred is anybody’s guess. And as more African people have their DNA tested and studied, this picture will hopefully become more finessed. Hopefully, the missing puzzle pieces will fall into place.

My geneticist friends are troopers. Bless them, I’ve hit them with a barrage of questions. None of the questions I’ve asked are easy to answer. Thankfully, they find them really intriguing questions that have piqued their interest.  I ask questions because I want to know. *smiling* and I can’t begin to tell you how badly I want to know. Are the Yoruba my first or second cousins, genetically speaking? Are the Fulani my second cousins or third cousins twice removed? Are the Baka something like a 10th great grand uncle?

I want to tackle this basic and fundamental set of questions before I even begin to think about how I’m genetically linked to everyone else in my YDNA – Central Asian, Persian, Sephardic Jewish, SE Asian, Korean and European.

To do the kind of genetic genealogy adventure TV series that my heart of hearts wants to do – we definitely need to figure out this smorgasbord of YDNA.

There’s a practical reason for wanting to know. I share my finds with my wider family, who find all of this fascinating (to various degrees). When you tell your family members you’ve found a new cousin, the first question is usually a simple one: how are we related? In straightforward genealogy, you can show them a family tree and walk them through the connection so they can see it for themselves.

I’d love to be in a position to do this with the global tribes and cultures we’re linked to. That’s the one thing I can’t do at the moment. And yes, I want to know for me. *grinning* For once, I can make this all about me. I want to know. I want to know where these different global groups of people fall on my YDNA tree.

 

Mapping my father’s mtDNA to African tribes

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:

  1. My Y-DNA (haplogroup subclade  E1b1a1a1f1a1) – the DNA that is passed down from fathers to sonsdna-reunion-y
  2. 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.dna-reunion-m
  3. 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.dna-reunion-m

This project helped me to better understand:

  1. How each of these 3 sets of African DNA travelled within the African Continent; and
  2. 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):

Susan Roane mtDNA outlined

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:

  1. The number of African tribes that have been tested is relatively small compared to non-African populations; and
  2. 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-presence-in-west-africa

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.

There are claims that the Fulani introduced Islam to Africa. I don’t know if this is true or not. I do believe, however, they were early adopters of the Islamic faith. In turn, they made it the official religion of their empire. You can read a bit about the Fulani and Islam here: The Spread of Islam in West Africa: Containment, Mixing, and Reform from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century,  http://spice.fsi.stanford.edu/docs/the_spread_of_islam_in_west_africa_containment_mixing_and_reform_from_the_eighth_to_the_twentieth_century

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.

Some articles about the Fulani:

  1. Wikipedia (It’s Wikipedia – so by no means a definitive authority on the subject):  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fula_people#Timeline_of_Fulani_history
  2. Who are the Fulani People & Their Origins:  https://tariganter.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/who-are-the-fulani-people-their-origins/

Back to the Fulbe

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

George Murdock’s map of the Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa

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

The renowned American anthropologist, George Murdock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Murdock), published Africa: Its peoples and their culture history in 1959 (http://www.amazon.com/Africa-Peoples-their-Culture-History/dp/0070440522).  Despite having little experience in Africa, Murdock used resources available at the time to create a comprehensive picture of how ethnic groups were distribution throughout Africa.

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

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

George Murdock's Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa map, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fascinating color-coded map of Africa’s diversity

AfricaMap

A screen grab of the interactive AfricaMap. click for larger image

Harvard University has created an interactive map which illustrates the ethnic diversity within the African continent. The map is based on data from a 2001 book edited by anthropologist Marc Leo Felix.

I have spent hours playing around with this map. The amount of data it contains is simply staggering.

This map highlights points that I have made over the years: understanding the dispersal of human DNA within Africa is complicated.

Each color on the map roughly corresponds to an ethnic group that constitutes the majority within a region, based on how people self-identify. Ethnicity is notoriously difficult to measure and demarcate — everyone sees their own ethnic identity a little differently . The results roughly correspond to a 1959 ethnography by anthropologist George Murdock, as well as a 2002 Harvard Institute study on ethnic diversity.

For me, one key issue remains.  The migration and dispersal of ancient humans within Africa is nowhere near as well understood or studied as the dispersal of ancient humans from Africa around the globe. Science knows more about how humans migrated from the eastern Horn of Africa to Ireland than it does about how humans migrated from East Africa to Africa’s western coast.

One of indications of this is inherent within the interactive map itself. The different African ethnicities are defined by language groups (i.e. Bantu speaking, Chadic speaking, Cushtic speaking, etc). It’s like saying the Normans of France, the Cornish, the Irish and the Scots are the same ethnic group because they are historically Celtic speaking people of northwestern Europe. Or that all Arabic speaking peoples are the same because they share the same language.

However, this map project is an impressive start. If, at the very least, you come away with a sense of just how diverse the different peoples of Africa are, thee map has succeeded in its main aim. It can also give the growing number of African Americans taking  DNA tests insights into the regions of Africa they are genetically connected to.

You can read more about this project, and access the interactive map, via the following article: Fisher, Max, 2015. A fascinating color-coded map of Africa’s diversity, Voxhttp://www.vox.com/2015/11/10/9698574/africa-diversity-map

You can read my previous posts about African genetics & African American genetic genealogy here:  https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/tag/african-dna/

Finding the right DNA testing company for your requirements

This post is a follow on from yesterday’s post Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe? and an earlier post Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question.

I took my first DNA test to answer one basic question: who in the world am I genetically connected to? I knew the question I wanted to have answered. This, in turn, helped me research a mind-bewildering option of DNA testing facilities to find one that I felt could best deliver the right answer.

Researching DNA testing facilities and companies took me around 6 months. When it comes to spending money, I am exceedingly cautious. I can’t tell you how many online reviews I read through. That’s all kind of a blur now. I wanted a service that was respected in the DNA/genetics community, scientifically robust and would stand up to close scrutiny. This was partly for personal reasons – I wanted to know that the information I was paying for would be accurate. It was also for professional reasons. After all, I planned to turn this adventure into a television series. That second point was (and remains) an important consideration.

When I had a shortlist of 5 companies, I asked DNA specialists for their thoughts and opinions. In the end, the list was narrowed down to two companies. To be honest, there wasn’t that much difference between them in terms of price, service, reputation and perceived quality. And I’ll admit it, in the end, the final choice came down to me flipping a 50 pence coin. It came up heads…so that’s the company I chose.

I am in no way plugging here, but the winner was a company called Genebase. This isn’t an advertorial. I don’t get a commission. I’m citing it and providing examples to illustrate my understanding of my own DNA results specifically. As well as how I gained an understanding of human genetics, admixtures and the human journey out of Africa and around the globe in general.

Genebase, as I’ve said previously, was an excellent choice for me. It’s not suitable for everyone. It doesn’t offer handy little pie charts or percentage breakdown overviews. You have to work those out for yourself. But what it did give me was the science behind the results it provided, which was (and remains) invaluable to me.

So let’s have a gander at how this particular service works using my YDNA test results.

So here we have my YDNA test result broken down into segments.

genebase1

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Users can analyse each segment in turn. So let’s look at my Option 12. In this option, my results are going to be compared to data sets for 19 specific populations. Here are the 19 populations this segment is being compared to and the number of YDNA samples each population contains:

  1. US African American 253 samples
  2. US Hispanic 139 samples
  3. US Caucasian 242 samples
  4. Jordan, Middle East 221 samples
  5. Iran, Middle East 80 samples
  6. Egypt, Middle East 84 samples
  7. Smyrna, Greece 45 samples
  8. Abkhaz, Caucasus 51 samples
  9. Avar, Caucasus 114 samples
  10. Chechen – Chechnya, Caucasus 108 samples
  11. Chechen – Dagestan, Caucasus 98 samples
  12. Chechen – Ingushetia, Caucasus 108 samples
  13. Dargins, Caucasus 100 samples
  14. Kaitak, Caucasus 33 samples
  15. Kubachi, Caucasus 65 samples
  16. Lezghins, Caucasus 80 samples
  17. Ossets-Digor, Caucasus 125 samples
  18. Ossets-Iron, Caucasus 226 samples
  19. Shapsug, Caucasus 97 samples

Running my analysis, these are the results. With a possibility of 19 matches, I match 14 of the populations in the list. The degrees of the matches vary wildly:

 

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The report also generates various appendices, which provide additional information. I still marvel that there is an appendix which shows the number of genetic matches for this segment within the data sets used. You can see these appendices below (this is a series of images, click on each on to see the larger image).

genebase2-2genebase2-3genebase3genebase4-1genebase4-2

Last, but not least, are the peer-reviewed journal articles that analyze the various populations. These articles are scientific/academic…which is a polite way of saying very, very, very dry. Nonetheless, they have helped shape my understanding of DNA transference among various populations, the migration patters out of Africa and, in some cases, illustrate how seemingly unconnected tribes are actually offshoots of an “umbrella” tribe which reached a migration crossroads – with different groups within that tribe going off in different directions.

These were the accompanying papers for the results within this analysis. They’re freely available online, if you’d like to have a look:

US African American , US Hispanic & US Caucasian (the same paper covers all 3 populations): http://www.cstl.nist.gov/biotech/strbase/pub_pres/Schoske2004.pdf

Egypt, Jordan & Iran (the same paper covers all 3 populations):
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312577/?tool=pubmed

Smyrna (Greece) results:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068964/?tool=pubmed

Ossets-Iron , Ossets-Digor, Lezghins, Abkhaz, Chechen – Ingushetia, Avar & Shapsug populations in the Caucasus region: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21571925

With all of the different segments with their own analysis reports and reading, for my YDNA and mtDNA tests…you can imagine the level of reading that I’ve done. Which, in turn, led me to other journals and papers.

What I have is a better understanding of some of the more ‘out of the blue’ results I’ve had in my YDNA and mtDNA tests. As I’ve mentioned previously, this kind of test, the test that I was quite clear about wanting, stretches back millennia. I have a good grounding on how certain populations came to be present in these two forms of DNA. And, in some cases, some fairly sound hypothesis on when certain admixtures became part of my DNA (this will more than a little help from geneticists).

I will be the first to raise my hand and state that gaining this level of insight and understanding into my YDA and mtDNA wasn’t cheap. I didn’t want a quick fix answer and blimey, I didn’t get one. Yet, I’m thankful for the experience. It’s given me a glimpse and an understanding into the most intrinsic part of who I am. I’ve loved sharing what I’ve uncovered and discovered with my family. And, at the end of the day, it sent me down a remarkable road of discovery.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll sign off saying it again with some pointers about DNA testing.

  1. Before taking a DNA test (either autosomal or YDNA/mtDNA) – be ruthlessly clear in your own mind about what question you want to have answered. This will determine the best type of DNA test for you .
  2. Do your research on DNA testing companies and facilities. Read every comment and review. Ask family and friends or Facebook family history/genealogy groups for their opinions.
  3. Read the fine print. Find out all of the limitations for each and every DNA testing company you research. What information, exactly, can they provide. Don’t be afraid to email a company and ask for confirmation of this in writing.
  4. Understand that DNA testing is still in its relative infancy. This is a nice way of saying manage your expectations. DNA is still a relatively unknown country. If you approach your results as being indicative/relative – and not absolute truths – you won’t go too far wrong. Always be skeptical about ‘big’ claims.
  5. Keep an open mind about what you will discover. If you’ve ever been whisked away on a surprise magical mystery jaunt – think of DNA testing like that. Just sit back, buckle up and enjoy the journey without thinking too much about what the final destination is. Just know it’s going to be good/interesting.

 

Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe?

If you’re African American, can you really know what tribe you come from? It’s a question I’ve been fielding via email and through comments on my blog. My posts about Gedmatch’s admix tools seem to have prompted this question, which I’ve been happy to field. So I decided to blog about it.

I look at the question this way. Each of us has sixteen 2x great grandparents. We also have thirty-two 3x great-grandparents. Even if all of these people were 100% of African descent , the chances of all of them being from the same tribe is, well, exceedingly, incredibly, rare. To the point of being impossible.

We are the children of many tribes.

I get the psychological need for the children of former slaves throughout the Americas to identify with a tribe. It’s a pretty basic psychological need for any people without an ancestral identity to reclaim a lost and stolen past.

However, as I recently pointed out to a Mrs C from Chicago, even those from a European background aren’t off the hook either in this regard. I’ll explain using the analogy I used for her.

Say Joe Blogs, whose immediate ancestors were born and raised in Inverness, Scotland, had an Etruscan ancestor (the modern Tuscan region of Italy). That ancestor had descendants who, in turn, became Romans – still in the Tuscan region. Think about all the myriads of peoples and cultures that were a part of the Roman empire and who either moved to Italy or were brought back to Italy as slaves. The chances are, Joe Blogs’s Roman ancestors would have intermingled with any number of people and cultures without ever having to leave the region of their birth. Say, for instance, one of these Roman Tuscan descendants entered the Roman army and was sent off to Gaul (modern France) and stayed and took a wife from the local population there. Over the centuries their descendants would come to be part of the kingdoms of the Franks (proto France) and the Germanic tribes. And let’s not forget the Celts lived there too.

In a few generations, some of these Franco-Germanic-Celtic ancestors moved to Normandy, where they intermingled with the Viking populations who had settled there. And one or two descendants of these Normans hopped across the English Channel with William the Conqueror when he invaded England. They’re still Norman however, chances are, they inter-married with the conquered Anglo-Saxons to keep the local and regional peace. One or two generations down the line and some of their descendants make the move to Scotland and Ireland.

And, that’s not throwing in the added mixtures of Pict and Scandinavian that were floating around Scotland.

So what does that make Joe Bloggs, who self-identifies as Scottish? Technically, it makes him an Etruscan-Roman-Frankish-Germanic-Celtic-Norman-Anglo-Saxon-Irish-Pict-Scandinavian Scotsman. Along the road to become Scots, his ancestors would have had vastly different senses of identity.

Or to use a very simple example, even if you identify as French or German – what kind of French or German are you? Looking at the map below, it’s worth bearing in mind that most countries are relatively modern inventions. Each one of these Franco-Germanic kingdoms in the map below would have been distinctly different from one another. Each would have had its own identity, customs and tribal affiliations.

It all serves the point that Europeans can’t claim a single identity either. In all likelihood, only the most ancient and remote tribes dotted around the globe can make such a claim.

My point? There isn’t a DNA test available that can answer that one question so many African descended people in the Americas so desperately seek an answer to: what tribe do I belong to? With so many of our ancestors contributing to our DNA from all over Africa, it’s a fundamentally impossible question to answer.

America is indeed a melting pot. For those with an African heritage, it is most definitely an African melting pot.

I think the most honest answer that any such test can offer is a percentage breakdown: x% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country A’, Y% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country B’ – and so on and so forth. It may, in all likelihood, connect you to many tribes who share a common language (e.g Bantu speakers).

Which is why I have problems with articles like this one: Pinpointing DNA Ancestry in Africa http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2011/10/tracing_dna_not_just_to_africa_but_to_1_tribe.html

My African DNA has travelled from East Africa through Northern Africa (YDNA) and through Central Africa (mtDNA). If I limited myself to the era when Africans were first transported to the Americas, I’m still genetically connected to an area spanning from Angola, up the western coastline, and all the way around to Tunisia. That’s the result of generations of marriages among my African-American ancestors whose ancestors came from so many different parts of Africa. I honestly believe that as more African descended people from the Americas test their DNA, a more reflective picture of the African diaspora will emerge.  Western Africa may have been the main egress point for Africans to the New World. That, however, doesn’t  mean the vast majority of slaves had to come solely from this region.

The various images below show long-established ancient land and sea trade routes within Africa. People, spices, precious metals, minerals, food, etc were all transported throughout the continent.

African trade routes in the early Islamic Era

I’m going to use a simple analogy.  It’s a crass analogy and a bit brutal. Followers of this blog are pretty savvy readers, so I trust that you’ll get why I’ve used it. In it’s heyday, the Mississippi River transported all manner of goods from the northern states to ports in the south. Just because the goods left from a major port like New Orleans, doesn’t mean that all of the goods were produced in Louisiana, Alabama or Arkansas.

I would be highly skeptical of any company making claims it can provide a sole tribal result. Again, DNA just doesn’t work that way.

All I do know is where I would have been born In Africa, had my ancestors not been enslaved, is anybody’s guess. There are some cool places that are contenders. I’m resolved to never knowing a specific country or tribe. I’m just enjoying finding out more about the African countries my DNA is tied to. Understanding this, my sense of identity doesn’t come from a tribe, but through uncovering my family’s American history. It comes from re-connecting lost branches of my parents’ families to the overall family tree. And meeting relations from these lost branches. This, in and of itself, has been a powerful and transformative experience.

Being able to slowly and steadily undo what centuries of American slavery accomplished – the breakdown and destruction of enslaved families – has been largely cathartic. It’s like giving slavery the finger: My enslaved ancestors do have a history. I am connected to something far greater than myself. Try as hard as the American slavery system did to erase their identities, my African descended ancestors did leave footprints. Those footprints may have been hard (sometimes nigh on impossible!) to find…but I found them. And I’ve shared them so they’ll never be forgotten. For me, this is as valuable, more valuable, than having the name of a tribe. It’s what I mean by giving slavery the finger.

The video below has the worst title imaginable. Bear with me and just ignore the poorly thought-through title. The video itself makes a good point. You can visibly see how important reclaiming identity is for African Americans. DNA testing companies need to provide far more transparency about the information they provide in terms of African results.

DNA testing is an invaluable tool. I’ve written often enough about my own experience. The value of the outcome depends on what your objectives are. You could be stitching your family tree together and re-connecting with lost family. Or you might want to have an understanding of the peoples and cultures you’re connected to through your DNA . Testing is a powerful experience for either of these goals.

If, however, you are seeking a tribal identity, it’s best not to spend your money.