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:
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:
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:
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.
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?”
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
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:
Intra-African Trade routes:
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.