I have created a new page featuring the AncestryDNA results for West Africans from the following countries: Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo & Benin. I will create a new section for the remaining part of West Africa (Upper Guinea) shortly. The number of results I have collected so far might be minimal but already my survey findings turn out to be quite insightful. I also provide some statistical data, analysis and relevant context. Follow this link to view the page:
In addition I also discuss the implications these findings might have for Afro-Diasporans in an attempt to improve proper interpretation of their West African regional scores, in particular for “Ivory Coast/Ghana” and “Benin/Togo”. One of these implications I will also discuss in greater detail in this blog post:
“Benin/Togo” is also predictive of Ghanaian & Nigerian DNA
The so-called “Benin/Togo” region seems to be quite predictive of Beninese origins (based on two results). However in addition ancestry from eastern Ghana and southern Nigeria might also be described by this region. You will need to perform your own follow-up research in order to find out more specifics.
Map 1 (click to enlarge)
“Benin/Togo” also predictive of Ghanaian & Nigerian DNA
Map 2 (click to enlarge)
In my West African survey I have so far included two results from Benin (both with a Gbe speaking background). And their “Benin/Togo” scores (82% on average) are perfectly in line with what Ancestry mentions about the score of the “typical native” also being exactly 82%! Of course this represents only a very limited sample size but it does testify to the predictive accuracy of this region. I have however also come across substantial and even impressingly high so-called “Benin/Togo” scores for people from other countries than either Benin or Togo. Most notably (eastern) Ghana and (southern) Nigeria. But surprisingly also among people of the Afro-Diaspora coming from places with relatively few documented direct ancestral connections with either Benin or Togo (see figure 1 & 2 below). I have already blogged about these findings because they were seemingly so counter-intuitive at first sight:
- Is “Benin/Togo” really pinpointing origins from within Benin’s borders?
- Nigerian AncestryDNA results (scroll to section 4)
My ongoing survey now allows me to more solidly confirm what I had previously already outlined in the blog pages referenced above. The “Benin/Togo” region can indeed be predictive of genuine Beninese ancestry but not exclusively so! Keeping in mind that my sample size is still limited, so far the highest “Benin/Togo” scores (>80%) have been obtained for persons with a Gbe speaking background. For one Ewe person from Ghana it was even as high as 97%! To be sure this does not mean that “Benin/Togo” is an indicator of actual Gbe or Ewe descent! Other ethnic backgrounds might still be perfectly compatible with high “Benin/Togo” scores. However this finding does seem to suggest that AncestryDNA is using samples taken from Gbe-speaking populations to calculate their so-called “Benin/Togo” estimates.
Knowing the history (ca. 1000-1500 AD) of the Gbe migrations (see map 2), originating in southern Nigeria and spreading westwards across Benin & Togo into eastern Ghana, is crucial to gain deeper understanding. And also just being aware that West African ethnic groups are often spread across borders and share a great degree of ancient origins with neighbouring groups is essential. Either way I imagine this finding could really be an eye-opener for many people looking to interpret their so-called “Benin/Togo” results. It puts the reporting of so-called “Benin/Togo” scores into much better perspective. Both for Ghanaians and (southern) Nigerians, but also for Afro-Diasporans.
I like to underline that so-called “Benin/Togo” is not an exclusive marker for any given ethnic group or nationality. Both according to Ancestry’s own info (see map 1) as well as my survey findings it could be suggestive of many different ethnic origins from eastern Ghana into southern Nigeria, while possibly also some ethnic groups further west such as the Gur speaking people in Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast might score substantial amounts for this region as well. This geographical range perhaps ultimately to be explained mostly by shared ancient origins from Nigeria rather than from Benin or Togo.
How to make more sense of “Benin/Togo” scores
Figure 1 (click to enlarge)
Figure 2 (click to enlarge)
Performing follow-up research based on your AncestryDNA score for the so-called “Benin/Togo” region might very well enhance your understanding of the actual ancestors who passed on this part of your DNA. In some cases it might even help you pinpoint specific ethnic lineage! However as always it pays to be careful and not jump to conclusions. Below I will just describe a schematic approach. Intended in the first place for people with substantial amounts of “Benin/Togo”.1 Naturally other approaches can be fruitful as well.
- Realize that any so-called “Benin/Togo” % can also be indicative of either Ghanaian or Nigerian DNA (among other less likely possibilities which I will exclude for now because of decreased odds and/or lack of data).
- Realize that your “Benin/Togo” amount is likely to be traced back to numerous family lines and not just one (unless you happen to have relatively recent West African ancestry). Just as an example: a 25% score “Benin/Togo” for a typical Haitian might be due to the genetic contributions of in between 15 to 50 different African-born ancestors. On average the DNA contribution of an ancestor living in the mid 1700’s could be around 0.5%-1.5%. See also:
- Realize that therefore your “Benin/Togo” score could include ancestors from various countries, all at the same time. For example a 25% score “Benin/Togo” for a typical Barbadian might possibly be traced back to 10 ancestors from Benin, 8 ancestors from Ghana and 7 ancestors from Nigeria. Just to name one possible combination out of many others depending on your individual family history.
- Build up your family tree and attempt to trace back to your earliest known ancestral location in the Americas for all lines. The so-called “migrations” (a.k.a. genetic communities) you have been assigned to by AncestryDNA will usually be quite indicative in this regard! For example for African Americans it might be truly worthwhile to know if most of their ancestry is to be traced back to either Virginia or South Carolina. For people from Louisiana any distant Haitian ancestry could be relevant.2 For West Indians it will be useful to know if there has been any inter-island migration within their family tree.
- Research the documented slave trade patterns for these earliest known ancestral locations. This will give you an approximate idea of the odds involved with having for example either genuine Beninese origins or rather Ghanaian or Nigerian ancestry. It’s advisable to also study all other relevant aspects of local history (incl. possibly African retention) associated with these earliest known ancestral locations in the Americas. See also:
- Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database
- Discussion in next section
- Perform a full scan of your DNA matches and filter them for 100% African profiles. Determine if there are any matches among them from Nigeria, Benin, Togo or Ghana. Be sure to also check if “Benin/Togo” is being reported for them as a main region.3 Provided they are genuine IBD matches this could directly inform you if you happen to have any genuine lineage from Benin or Togo as opposed to rather having either Ghanaian or Nigerian ancestors which passed on this “Benin/Togo” part of your DNA. However many reservations are to be taken into consideration! Firstly your MRCA might not be of the same background as your match. Also be aware that these matches will give you an indication of only one single family line. Furthermore realize that certain West African nationalities (Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso etc.) are underrepresented among Ancestry’s customer database, while others might be fairly well represented (Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia etc.). Stacking the odds in favour of receiving matches from those last countries. Which however may not per se be in line with their overall proportional contribution to your DNA. Moreover absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!
- How to find those elusive African DNA matches on Ancestry (Tracing African Roots)
- Try fitting your West African matches (MRCA’s) into your family tree. This will be very tricky given scanty information and will also require a lot of patience. But it might still be worthwhile for eventually zooming in closer to your West African origins along a certain family line or even actually identifying a West African ancestor! Breaking down those brick walls based on paper trails! Having other close relatives also DNA tested will of course be greatly helpful. Especially if they share the same West African matches with you. However any shared matches for your West African match might do the trick I suppose. As long as you can figure out how these shared matches are to be placed in your family tree. More advanced techniques such as triangulation and DNA painting might also open up promising avenues.
“Benin/Togo” across West Africa & the Diaspora (sorted)
Chart 2 (click to enlarge)
Chart 3 (click to enlarge)
Chart 2 is displaying the current findings of my ongoing survey of both Afro-Diasporan as well as West African AncestryDNA results (see this page for a full overview). Even though due to limited sample size this data is preliminary it is still also cross-sectional because it was collected at random from various parts of the Diaspora and also within West Africa. Overall contributing to the robustness of the data. Chart 3 is taken from the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database and features the proportional shares of each slave trade region for selected parts of the Diaspora.4 The share of Bight of Benin (a.k.a. Slave Coast) is being highlighted. This would be the coastline of modern-day Togo, Benin and western Nigeria. See also this map.
We can establish that so far among West Africans the so-called “Benin/Togo” region is most prevalent among Beninese, followed by Nigerians and Ghanaians. Also take note that as expected among other West Africans it is most subdued for Ivorians and practically non-existent so far for Liberians. Given my discussion of West African results (see this link, section 3) this outcome can be considered as roughly corroborating the prediction accuracy of the “Benin/Togo” region among West Africans themselves. Even when obviously the sample size for Benin itself is very minimal and also samples from Togo & Burkina Faso are not yet included in my survey.
In regards to the Afro-Diaspora we can observe how so far “Benin/Togo” is peaking for Barbadians & Haitians while it is most subdued for Cape Verdeans and Mexicans (whose overwhelmingly predominant areas of provenance are Upper Guinea and Central Africa). This conforms more or less with what we know already about slave trade patterns (see chart 3). Going by proportion and sheer numbers of slave trade with the Bight of Benin as well as cultural retention (Vodou!) the primary ranking of Haiti (Saint Domingue) is not surprising at all. Actually going by these criteria Brazilians from Bahia might be expected to have an even greater “Benin/Togo” imprint. However as clearly illustrated by the minimal share of Bight of Benin in the slave trade with southeast Brazil (1.4%) this is not something to be generalized for the whole of Brazil. Which seems to reflect also in the more so intermediate group average of 12% “Benin/Togo” for my Brazilian sample group so far.
Perhaps in contradiction to general knowledge but the Bight of Benin was actually also a very significant trading area for African captives who ended up in English as well as Dutch colonies within the West Indies. In particular Barbados incorporated a relatively large segment of people shipped from the Bight of Benin (18.8%). It seems that also genetically this Bight of Benin connection has left a profound legacy. Even when most likely also Ghanaian & (southeast) Nigerian origins are to be included in that very impressive group average of 31.7% “Benin/Togo”. Furthermore my Barbadian sample size (n=15) is still quite limited so this preliminary group average might actually also decrease with the future addition of more Barbadian AncestryDNA results into my survey. For more in depth discussion see next paragraph.
The “Benin/Togo” group averages for Hispanic Caribbeans are somewhat intermediate but also hiding a great deal of underlying variation. They may yet provide extra insight as I suspect that for Hispanic Caribbeans with a relatively larger total amount of African DNA (>50%) also an increased relative share of “Benin/Togo” will be observed, on average. Especially for Dominicans. In line with perhaps more recent African origins (1700’s/1800’s versus 1500’s/1600’s). I will devote a separate blog post to this topic eventually.
The so-called “Benin/Togo” scores reported for African Americans are more complex to disentangle. For now I will already note that based on charts 2 & 3 the estimated slave trade from the Bight of Benin (2%-3%) into the US is remarkably lower than the African American group average for “Benin/Togo” (14.7%). This is actually true for several other nationalities in my survey as well. But for none is the difference so striking! One might already deduct that the odds of “genuine” Beninese origins are lowest for African Americans and highest for Brazilians & Haitians. Based on a comparison of proportional shares in slave trade from either the Gold Coast (mostly Akan speakers? but also Volta-Niger speakers such as the Ewe), Bight of Benin (mostly Volta-Niger speakers, such as the Fon but also Yoruba) and Bight of Biafra (mostly Volta-Niger speakers, such as the Igbo). This comparison is heavily skewed toward the Bight of Benin for both Haiti and Brazil. But clearly not so for the USA. Its proportional share for Benin proper (2.26%, see map 3) probably being one of the lowest across the entire Afro-Diaspora!
How to account for unexpectedly high “Benin/Togo” scores among African Americans & Anglo-Caribbeans?
Chart 4 (click to enlarge)
Map 3 (click to enlarge)
One of the most surprising outcomes of my ongoing survey of AncestryDNA results across the Afro-Diaspora has been the higher than expected average scores for “Benin/Togo” seen for African Americans and to a lesser degree also for Anglo-Caribbeans such as Jamaicans and Barbadians.5 It is surprising because even given individual variation and many possibilities of “real” Beninese ancestry to some (minor) degree, documented Trans Atlantic slave trade data does not seem to support such a consistently high average level of “Benin/Togo”, especially not for the USA.
It’s intriguing to think about what might possibly be causing this outcome. I will attempt to take this discussion one step further based on additional context. The following four scenario’s I will describe may provide partial explanations for the unexpectedly high “Benin/Togo” percentages being reported but as a fair warning in advance they are also to some degree speculative!
- Larger than assumed proportion of Ewe captives involved in Gold Coast slave trade
- Mislabeling of southern Nigerian DNA
- Early arrival of Bight of Benin captives & dispersal due to inter-colonial slave trade
- Illegal slave trading with Bight of Benin after 1807/1808
1) Large proportion of Ewe captives involved in Gold Coast slave trade?
“The lack of historical attention to Ga, Adangbe, Ewe, and—to a lesser extent—Fante speakers in the central coast has a lot to do with the historical “weight” associated with centralized and expansionist kingdoms in Atlantic Africa—particularly Asante, Dahomey, Benin, and Kongo.”
“Those who lived in decentralized societies and small polities constituted a majority of the people in the Gold Coast and throughout Atlantic Africa and, by the fact of their relative powerlessness vis-à-vis centralized kingdoms, they were overrepresented among the enslaved, the (dis)embarked, and the dispersed. It is for this very reason that their collective stories form an important aspect of the Gold Coast diaspora.” (Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power, W. Rucker, 2015, p.27)
One of the key findings of my West African survey has been that the actual ethnic background of a West African might be a better predictor of his or her breakdown on AncestryDNA rather than their nationality. We can clearly see this in chart 4 where I have specified some subgroups along ethnic lines for my Ghanaian and Nigerian survey participants. Of course allowance to be made for my minimal sample size and possible simplification of more complex ethnic backgrounds. It is still very useful to be aware that my Ewe samples from Ghana show the highest “Benin/Togo” group averages so far (aside from 2 actual Beninese persons). While also for various southern Nigerian ethnic groups “Benin/Togo” is a significant genetic component. Any African American or West Indian descendant of either eastern Ghanaians (in particular the Ewe and perhaps also Ga-Adangbe) or southern Nigerians is therefore likely to have inherited part of their so-called “Benin/Togo” score through them.
The genetic impact of non-Akan Ghanaians (such as the Ewe but also Gur speakers from the north) on the Afro-Diaspora may have been seriously underestimated up till now. Their historical presence in the Americas often being either neglected or ignored. In part due to an overemphasis on the Akan and their prestigious associations with the Ashanti empire. To be sure the so-called Coromantee influence has indeed been profound in especially the Anglo-Caribbean. However it is perhaps sometimes forgotten how cultural assimilation of less influential ethnic groups from Ghana into the Akan/Coromantee mold may also have been rampant. It is useful to know that despite being a majority the Akan make up less than 50% of the current-day population of Ghana (see this link). While the actual share of Akan people among Gold Coast captives is yet to be determined, but this could actually also have been less than 50% (see quote above).
Due to their geographical location Ewe and Ga-Adangbe captives in the Americas might have been conflated with either the Akan or also with fellow Gbe speakers from Togo/Benin. The latter were often labeled as “Papa” or “Popo” at least in English or Dutch colonies. There exists another related slave ethnonym, “Mina”, which could also be very relevant in this regard. The correct interpretation of this term has been contested among historians. Both Akan and Gbe being suggested as the main intended group of people for this “Mina” designation. Naturally this will often be context-dependent as this term was used not only in French but also Portuguese and Spanish colonies. However my AncestryDNA survey findings might put a new twist on it.
- African Ethnicities and the Meanings of ‘Mina,’ (Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, 2003)
- Ethnicities of Enslaved Africans in the Diaspora: On the Meanings of “Mina” (Again) (Robin Law, 2005)
- Documented ethnic origins of Liberated Africans in Cuba (take note of the listed subgroups of the nacion “Mina”, as well as actual embarkation ports!)
Despite being shipped away from the so-called “Gold Coast” (and also counted as such in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade database) a higher than expected number of these captives might actually originally have been from the borderlands with Togo (so-called Volta region). Or also in fact from Togo or even Benin itself! Only ending up in the European slave ports along the Gold Coast instead of the Bight of Benin because of coastal shipping or overland routes. All of which is to say that the proportion of Gbe (incl. Ewe) & Ga-Adangbe speaking people among Gold Coast captives might have been larger than hitherto imagined.
Obviously much more research is needed to establish firmer ground. However my preliminary AncestryDNA survey findings might already be indicative of some of the main trends. Going by the preliminary group averages depicted in chart 4 it’s least likely that any “Benin/Togo” amount being reported for an African American or Anglo-Caribbean would have been inherited by way of an Akan ancestor (3.9%). As actually the “Ivory Coast/Ghana” region is a quite accurate predictor of Akan lineage (but not exclusively so!). For my Ga-Adangbe samples so far it’s a rather mixed picture (19% but mostly due to 1 perhaps atypical sample). But the occurrence of predominant “Benin/Togo” amounts (71%) among my Ewe samples seems to be a quite consistent and telling outcome already.
Recombination of genetic components across the generations can be quirky though and there may also be other complexities to consider so all of this is just to sketch 1 plausible yet still inconclusive ancestral scenario. To be applied on African Americans and West Indians as a whole. You will need to have further corroborating evidence to confirm in individual cases! A promising avenue of follow-up research might be to systematically investigate and compare the number of DNA matches among the Afro-Diaspora as reported for Ghanaians of either Akan or Ewe lineage. See also:
- Documented ethnic origins for Jamaicans and other Anglo-Caribbeans
- Ewe people and their part in the Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power (Walter C. Rucker, 2015)
- DNA matches reported on AncestryDNA for Ghanaians of Akan & Ewe descent (under preparation)
2) Mislabeling of southern Nigerian DNA
Aside from indicating (eastern) Ghanaian lineage so-called “Benin/Togo” might also very well be derived from southern Nigerian ancestors. As can be seen in chart 4 my Nigerian survey participants so far score in between 20-30% for “Benin/Togo”. However in individual cases it can get as high as 40% or even 50%, as shown in figure 1. That compilation picture is featuring the maximum scores for some of my sample groups (see this link for maximum scores among the Afro-Diaspora). This “Benin/Togo” reporting is quite consistent across the board for southern Nigerians. It is not at all exclusive to the Yoruba but also to be observed for the Edo and Igbo! And while not shown in chart 4 actually also for persons of Efik, Urhobo or Isekiri descent (see my Nigerian survey). So any of these southern Nigerian ethnic groups is likely to have passed on so-called “Benin/Togo” DNA markers into the genepool of African Americans & Anglo-Carribeans.
In section 3 of my West African survey page and also on this page I have already discussed why the genetic origins of actual Nigerians are not fully covered by just only the region “Nigeria”. Additional regions are needed to describe their DNA, in particular “Benin/Togo” but also “Cameroon/Congo”. Similarly also for African Americans & Anglo-Caribbeans the “Nigeria” region may not be reporting the full extent of someone’s Nigerian origins. But rather it may tend to underestimate them, generally speaking. And the reported “Benin/Togo” amounts for African Americans & Anglo-Caribbeans might in part actually also have been inherited by way of Nigerian ancestors who already carried these DNA markers in their own genome.
Obviously putting an exact number on this additional Nigerian genetic contribution by way of “Benin/Togo” is impossible to do right now. However just taking a wild swing at the available data I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that about 5% of the 14.7% “Benin/Togo” average score for African Americans is actually hailing from southern Nigeria. While another 5% could actually be from eastern Ghana. The remaining 4.7% “Benin/Togo” then being much more in line with what you would expect based on the slave trade records. Both Ghana (14.46%) and Nigeria (16.34%) being much more likely to host source populations for African Americans than Benin (2.26%, see map 2).
For Anglo-Caribbeans it’s more complex because they do tend to have a substantial documented connection with the Bight of Benin. And therefore for them “Benin/Togo” has an increased likelihood of being the “real thing”! Just to get an approximate idea we might apply a very rough formula derived from the average Nigerian breakdown in my survey so far (see chart 4). Whereby 52% “Nigeria” is combined with 26.4% “Benin/Togo”. Put in another way a ratio of 1% “Nigeria” / 0,5% “Benin/Togo”. Based on my very preliminary data for Barbados this would imply that 8% (1/2 * 16% “Nigeria”) is to be deducted from the 31.7% “Benin/Togo” group average, which leaves a still hefty average amount of 23.7%! For Jamaica we would arrive at a corrected “Benin/Togo” average of about 10% (21.4% – 1/2 * 22% “Nigeria”). Any possible Ewe connection still included though! Of course this is a mere speculative exercise at this stage which needs more fine-tuning and increased sample size. It is certainly not intended to be applied for individual cases 😉 Only an update by AncestryDNA might clarify this issue, improving their reference panel with additional West African populations. For more details and references see:
3) Early arrival of Bight of Benin captives & dispersal due to inter-colonial slave trade
Chart 5 (click to enlarge)
Chart 6 (click to enlarge)
“Assuming that the inter-colonial trade from the British Caribbean to South Carolina reflected the ethnic composition of the transatlantic migration to the British Caribbean, this inter-colonial trade must have diversified the enslaved population in South Carolina considerably. For captives from the Bight of Benin, in particular (mostly Aja in this period), transshipment to South Carolina was no doubt profoundly alienating. They composed more than a quarter of the slave trade to the British Caribbean, but no known voyages linked their home region and South Carolina directly.” (Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807, G. O’Malley, 2014, p.185)
As discussed above both eastern Ghanaian and southern Nigerian origins for any “Benin/Togo” reporting among Anglo Caribbeans and African Americans are certainly not to be ruled out. But it seems undeniable already that many of such scores will also include a significant and genuine ancestral tie with people from current day Benin & Togo. Most apparently for Barbados but also for Jamaica which has a “Benin/Togo” group average that is only just falling behind the one for Haiti (21.4% vs 23%, see chart 2). This rather pronounced impact is possibly to be explained by the relatively early arrival of the contingent of Bight of Benin captives in the Anglo Caribbean. Combined with dispersal into North America through inter-colonial slave trade this may have set off a demographic founder effect in both the West Indies as well as the USA.
English slave trade patterns show a great deal of fluctuation across time and also in regards to destination within the Americas. Generally speaking, as shown in chart 5, up to 1730 the Bight of Benin seems to have played a significant role but afterwards its share in English slave trade decreased sharply. Given that most of English slave trade was geared towards the West Indies rather than North America this would be especially relevant for Barbados and Jamaica. The more specific and up-to-date slave voyage data for Barbados confirm that especially during the late 1600’s and early 1700’s there was indeed a major inflow of captives from Benin arriving in the West Indies. And possibly by way of inter-colonial slave trade these captives were also partially brought over first to Jamaica when its plantation economy was being set up in the late 1600’s as well as to the USA.
According to recent research (see chart 6) this inter-colonial slave trade via the West Indies would amount to about 15% of overall slave importations for the USA (domestic and overland slave trade from within the US is however not included!). Inter-colonial trade was more pronounced for some states than others. Apparently being continued even when Trans-Atlantic slave trade was also in full force throughout the 1700’s. But proportionally speaking this inter-colonial slave trade from the West Indies might have made the biggest impact right from the start in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. These decades marked the crucial beginning of the formation of African Americans as well as Jamaicans and Barbadians as new populations through the blending of ethnic lineages from various parts of Africa. An exact reconstruction of this process might never be possible. But increasingly both historical and now also genetic evidence seems to be forthcoming that people from the Bight of Benin may have been more prominent in all of this than imagined so far.
Despite the prevailing brutal living conditions in the Caribbean – causing negative reproduction rates in general – it might possibly be that cumulative founder effects were set in motion by those people who did manage to survive the ordeal and passed on their genes to the first generations of locally born slaves in the Caribbean as well as to some degree in the USA. So it would seem in this case the inherited “Benin/Togo” markers could be signaling genuine Beninese ancestry, especially from the Aja, Fon and other Gbe speaking groups who would have had a relatively larger presence during these earlier time-periods. This may be especially true for Barbados because unlike most other parts of the West Indies (but similar to the US!) it had a naturally reproducing slave population already in the late 1700’s which put an end to the need of continued mass slave imports. See also:
- Proportion of African-born vs. Creole in West Indian slave populations (Higman, 1984)
- Early testimony (1680’s!) of cultural retention in Jamaica from Benin (“Papa” music) (R. Rath, 1993)
- The North American Periphery of the Caribbean Slave Trade, ca. 1700–1763 (Gregory E. O‘Malley, 2014)
4) Illegal slave trading with Bight of Benin after 1807/1808
“In the Bight of Benin, traffic peaked in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was nevertheless the part of West Africa where the slave trade persisted longest. Almost all the captives leaving the region after 1830 passed through Lagos and Whydah, with the latter port remaining active into the mid-1860s.” (Abolition of the Slave Trade, 2012)
“the fate of the Clotilda has stood out as an intriguing chapter in the history of slavery in the United States. It’s even more important in Alabama, where the slaves brought from what is now Benin, in Africa, aboard the Clotilda settled in Mobile Alabama after emancipation, in an area that became known as “Africatown.” (Is This the Wreck of the Last U.S. Slave Ship?, S. Pruitt, 2018)
“Over the 25 years between 1842 and 1867, 14,060 of these ‘liberated Africans’ were moved to British Guiana, 11,391 to Jamaica and 8,854 to Trinidad, as were 5,027 to the Windward Islands and St Kitts.” (General History of the Caribbean: The long nineteenth century : nineteenth century transformation, ed. K.O. Laurence, 2011, p.197)
We have already established that English as well as American slave trade with the Bight of Benin would have been relatively minor or even insignificant after the 1730’s (see chart 5). However illegal slave trade taking place after 1807/1808 may have again depended on the the Bight of Benin to a greater degree (e.g. the Clotilda voyage in 1859!). The extent of these illegal slave trading activities for the USA and in particular its demographic impact is usually assumed to be rather restricted though. Given the very low reported rate of African born slaves in the USA throughout the 1800’s and the documented early creolization of American slaves in general this option therefore seems least likely to offer an overall explanation for the high averages of reported “Benin/Togo”.
Although in selected individual cases it could very well be. Especially for the Gulf states as well as the coastal area of South Carolina & Georgia there might be increased odds. It might be useful to know that African born slaves at that time were often referred to as “Guinea man” or “Guinea woman” (“Guinea” being a standard term to refer to coastal West Africa in a general way, see this link). I have come across such terms a few times already in slave narratives written down in the early 1900’s. Implying they were uncommon but not totally unheard of yet. Dedicated family tree research might be very rewarding then as documentation might still exist even. Most recently such research delivered spectacular results for Questlove, a musician and member of the Roots. He was found to descend from one of the captives on board of the last documented slave ship to the USA, the Clotilda (see this link).
For the Anglo-Caribbean a related ancestral option arises from the fact that during the 1800’s thousands of so-called recaptives or also Liberated Africans were being settled and employed as contract labourers in the West Indies. Many of these Liberated Africans were recruited among ex-captives who were originally shipped from the Bight of Benin. It is often said that aside from Congo’s (a blanket term for Central Africans) also Yoruba’s (a.k.a. Nago) were predominant among them. In line with the main areas of illegal slave trade for Brazil & Cuba in that time period. After having been intercepted these Liberated Africans were being introduced by the English into their colonies with the greatest demand of labour due to still expanding sugar plantations. This was mostly the case for Guyana and Trinidad but also Jamaica may have received close to 12,000 of these recaptives.
Judging from the data I have seen it seems that Barbados was not among the main recipients and so this scenario could be least plausible or even irrelevant for Barbadians. Actually also for Jamaicans the odds of having Liberated African lineage which connects into any substantial “Benin/Togo” score might be rather low. Going by rough estimates it would seem that the number of Bight of Benin contract labourers was not that high to make a major impact on the Jamaican gene-pool (at most 5,000? within a total Jamaican population of 375,000-500,000 between 1840-1870, see this link). Most of them being concentrated in two parishes. Still due to their amazing retention of Yoruba customs I imagine it must not be that difficult to trace back such lineage and possibly correlate with any “Benin/Togo” (and also “Nigeria”) amounts. Further reading:
- Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (Sylviane A. Diouf, 2007)
- The Illegal Slave Trade to the United States, 1808-1860 (In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, 2005)
- The end of the British Atlantic slave trade or the beginning of the big slave robbery, 1808-1850 (Christian Cwik, 2014)
- Etu & Nago: The Yoruba Connection (House of Oosaala Productions, 2004)
The four possible ancestral scenario’s I have described above all have varying degrees of plausibility & probability. Each one of them or also any given combination might apply in individual cases. Each case to be judged on its own merits naturally and depending also on any possible additional clues. In order to at least fit in some of the pieces of the “Benin/Togo” puzzle follow-up research is simply a must! As I have argued above aside from African DNA matches also a close study of the slave trade patterns and just any relevant piece of local history for your earliest known ancestral location in the Americas might go a long way. Even when clear-cut results will not be guaranteed.
As a final reminder I like to stress yet again that so-called “Benin/Togo” is not an exclusive marker for any given ethnic group nor nationality. Any amount scored for this region can be suggestive of many different ethnic origins from eastern Ghana into southern Nigeria, while possibly also some ethnic groups further west such as the Gur speaking people in Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast might score substantial amounts for this region as well. All of this aside from possibly pinpointing genuine origins from within either Benin or Togo.
Right now there’s just no way of making the distinction. Perhaps with an upcoming update there will be more clarity. But even so a perfect measure of “genuine” Beninese ancestry might never truly be possible due to artificial manmade borders and a high degree of genetic similarity between neighbouring ethnic groups, especially those belonging to the Volta-Niger language group (Gbe, Ewe, Fon, Aja, Yoruba, Edo, Igbo etc.). In the end all of these ancestral regions are afterall constructs much like the very concept of “ethnicity” itself. Actual amounts being reported for the so-called “Benin/Togo” region are first most a measurement of genetic similarity to most likely Gbe speaking samples from Benin and Togo. Nothing more but also nothing less! Because in themselves AncestryDNA’s estimates are already quite insightful and also roughly in line with what you might expect given West African genetics and the documented origins of the Afro-Diaspora based on slave trade records.
Still one is left to wonder how might an updated and expanded configuration of Ancestry’s reference panel lead to improvement? Firstly a careful selection of relevant reference populations to be added would seem prudent. Especially the inclusion of Gur samples from Burkina Faso might result in sharper regional delineation. The creation of a less confusingly labeled region to describe and measure genetic affiliations with Gbe samples from not only Benin and Togo but also eastern Ghana would also be beneficial. And in order to decrease the inevitable overlap with fellow Volta-Niger speaking southern Nigerians perhaps it might be a good idea to for once dispense with the ubiquitous Yoruba samples and only rely on more genetically distinctive Igbo samples for the “Nigeria” region and perhaps also add in Middle Belt Nigerian samples?
Example: results for an African American
***(click to enlarge)
Results for his mother (click to enlarge)
I will now proceed with applying some of the general guidelines from my action plan on the results of an African American man who graciously gave his permission for me to do so. His 33% “Benin/Togo” score, as shown above, is very striking and clearly above average going by my survey which included 350 African Americans (the scaled group average being about 14%). Representing about 39% (33/84) of his African breakdown! Although it’s still quite typical as for many African Americans this region comes out as the biggest one (55/350 in my survey). The “Benin/Togo” score for his mother is likewise above average (20/82 = 24%) even if less pronounced than for himself. See also:
I will try to focus on outlining some potentially useful avenues of follow-up research based on his primary 33% “Benin/Togo” score as well as his background as an African American. I would like to stress that it would be foolish to pretend there are any one-size-fits-all answers. Despite commonalities the various parts of the Afro-Diaspora are also characterized by a great degree of unique & localized aspects. Which according to your background will impact your own research. There are however many strategies which may not per se lead to pinpointing your own Juffure(s) 😉 but at the very least will increase your awareness of ancestral locations and distant relatives within Africa.
Naturally we all might have our own priorities or preferences when searching for our African roots. But if you want your research to be all encompassing you will want to rely on the complementarity of your various findings. Afro-Diasporans cannot afford to be snobbish about the imperfections of admixture analysis. Basically we will want to maximize all the informational value we can obtain. Taking any promising lead we can get and combine with other clues. Seeing the glass as half full and not half empty. Rather than be overcritical and risk loosing out on helpful information, even when only approximate or incomplete. Your admixture results will always be relevant to put things in perspective. If only to be able to (roughly) distinguish between major sources of ancestral origins versus minor lineage.
1) Trace back to your earliest known ancestral location in the Americas
- This African American man has already done solid family tree research. Two of his grandparents are from Georgia while he has one grandparent from South Carolina and one grandparent from North Carolina. Such a mixed state background going back only 2 generations might be quite common for African Americans. I also observed this during my African American AncestryDNA survey. Not so surprising I suppose given the many known migrations of African Americans within the USA (see this very informative website). This does however complicate any correlating with localized slave trade patterns.
- His “migration” or genetic community on Ancestry is “North Carolina”. This is not incorrect given the background of one of his grandparents. But it is still incomplete given the state backgrounds of his other 3 grand parents. His mother’s migration is more accurate as it specifies “Georgia African Americans” within the greater South Carolina genetic community. Her own great-grandparents on all sides also being from Georgia. This migration feature on Ancestry is obviously not perfect yet but potentially it could provide very important information. Giving more insight into your family’s origins during the 1800’s or even earlier. Illuminating broken up family ties due to Domestic Slave Trade.
2) Research the documented slave trade patterns for these earliest known ancestral locations.
- In the previous sections I have already established that direct Trans-Atlantic slave trade with the Bight of Benin was very minor for both South Carolina & Virginia, around 2-3% (see chart 3 & map 3). For Georgia and especially North Carolina the data is less abundant as well as less straightforward because these states relied much more on both inter-colonial slave trade with the West Indies as well as domestic slave trade from neighbouring US states (in particular South Carolina & Virginia) (see chart 6 and chart 7 below). However as far as I am aware any substantial direct link with the Bight of Benin is not apparent for these states either.
Chart 7 (click to enlarge)
- All these convoluted forced migrations greatly complicate obtaining a clearer picture. To be frank only very tentative and speculative comments might be warranted given this shaky basis. Still it seems to me that a eastern Ghana or also a southern Nigerian ancestral scenario explaining any “Benin/Togo” score for African Americans from North/South Carolina & Georgia remains very likely. Even when the possibility of genuine Beninese/Togolese ancestry from especially earlier time-periods (1650-1750) by way of inter-colonial trade with the West Indies is also relevant.
- For people from the Diaspora of course one thing doesn’t rule out the other as multiple lineages can be combined in one person. For more details see:
- Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807, (G. O’Malley, 2014)
3) Perform a full scan of your DNA matches and filter them for 100% African profiles.
Chart 8 (click to enlarge)
Results for his mother
Chart 9 (click to enlarge)
- Charts 8 & 9 show the overviews I obtained after first scanning and then filtering all of the DNA matches in Excel for my African American example and also his mother (see this tutorial). I took a conservative approach in order to rule out false positives. Therefore I only left in matches with not only plausible ethnic regions but also featuring plausible (African) family names and other corroborative profile details. Based on that selection I believe he has at least 9 African matches on Ancestry. And his mother possibly even 13! Very impressive and insightful already.
- The likely background column is partially an educated guess on my part. Aside from detailed profile details only contacting these matches might provide conclusive confirmation of their background. This African American has actually already been in very meaningful and inspiring contact with several of his matches. All matches which have been verified by him or also by consulting public family tree details have been marked with *. And in fact he has performed admirable research in finding African matches also with other DNA testing companies (FTDNA and 23andme). In addition he and his mother also have further matches from Congo as well as Ghana.
- The most striking aspect of this overview is the relatively high number of Nigerian matches despite a subdued “Nigeria” score for both himself (3%) and his mother (5%). Most of them being Igbo. Take note that most if these matches have “Benin/Togo” as secondary region! Given my previous discussion it becomes very tempting to then correlate the so-called “Benin/Togo” scores of my African American example and his mother with southern Nigerian ancestry. It’s also perhaps already telling that among his Ghanaian matches so far no Ewe persons were included. Suggesting that a Gbe ancestral scenario might be less likely (based on current results).
- Even so, their overview of African matches is perhaps best to be considered as preliminary and a snapshot given the composition of Ancestry’s customer database. As already pointed out the odds of matching Nigerians might be greater simply because they are taking the AncestryDNA test in greater numbers when compared with for example people from Benin or Togo. Thanks to the very laudable efforts of the African Royal DNA project the number of test results from Benin is increasing however!
- Another consideration could be that any genuine Beninese or Togolese ancestors are perhaps most likely to have arrived in the early 1700’s or even late 1600’s (see chart 5). Because of greater generational distance their DNA inheritance might not be big enough (on average) to produce DNA segments above the matching threshold. Although in admixture results their (combined) genetic legacy might still be very noticeable.
- The appearance of Central African (Angolan & Congolese) as well as Senegambian (Fula) matches is also very interesting and quite likely to be correlated with his prominent “Cameroon/Congo” as well as “Southeastern Bantu” scores. Furthermore his and his mother’s minor “Africa North” scores seem to be strongly indicative of this part of their DNA being inherited by way of Fula people. In particular the 3% for his mother is quite distinctive. Such a combined Central African & Senegambian heritage goes very well with the documented history of African origins for South Carolina & Georgia.
- The Benin/Togo & Nigerian connection perhaps best explained by both inter-colonial and domestic slave trade. I have myself not done any detailed reading yet on the documented African origins for Georgia and North Carolina. But given their proximity and domestic slave trade connection the more widely publicized African origins of both South Carolina and Virginia will be very relevant. See also:
4) Try fitting your West African matches (MRCA’s) into your family tree.
Because this African American has also tested his mother he already has a very valuable way of finding out where any of his African matches are to be placed in his family tree. Helpful clues may be forthcoming from comparing not only their admixture results but also their DNA matches. We already saw that his and his mother’s “Benin/Togo” and “Nigeria” amounts are quite similar. And currently 4 of his African matches on Ancestry are shared with his mother. Two of them confirmed Nigerians of Igbo descent (father & daughter).
It is perhaps also telling that his mother has more Nigerian matches (9) than himself (3). Many of these matches are showing a rather small shared segmentsize. Barely appearing above Ancestry’s threshold of 6cM. Implying that these matches are vulnerable to dilution and recombination. And therefore it makes sense that fewer of these matches are detectable for himself. This highlights the importance of testing older generations as this will increase the odds of receiving African DNA matches.
- His maternal grandparents lifestyle included many precious elements based on African customs (cuisine, language). Given their Georgia background a Gullah/Geechee connection seems quite plausible. This is a highly fortunate circumstance which after closer study might very well lead to connecting some of the dots within his DNA results. Because of a greater degree of African retention many details about their specific African origins are already known. See also:
- This last step of my action plan to make more sense of “Benin/Togo” scores is perhaps most daunting but certainly not impossible! Applying advanced genetic genealogy tools such as triangulation and DNA Painting might also produce very constructive results. I have no personal experience with this kind of research. But I am really looking forward to more African Americans using these techniques not only to build up their African American family trees within the time frame of the 1900’s & 1800’s. But going one step beyond and to also start incorporating their African DNA matches (MRCA’s) in their family trees! Being aware of the proper historical context and the various interpretation possibilities for so-called “Benin/Togo” scores might hopefully be beneficial in these efforts.
1. I will be working under the assumption that these “Benin/Togo” scores are reported as main region and also with a considerable relative share within the complete African breakdown. Arguably the main regions appearing in your results might be more deserving of your research efforts. Your research results might then be more fruitful and covering a wider span of your ancestral make-up. As after all the regions with the biggest amounts can be deemed to be more solidly based on your most important regional origins (even when taken as mere proxies).
Therefore any reporting of “Benin/Togo” as a mere trace region with low confidence will be left out of consideration. As the labeling already implies in such cases you are dealing with an increased possibility of a false positive or misreading of your DNA. Depending on the particulars actually such scores might still have informational value. But the array of ancestral possibilities simply becomes too broad for any meaningful discussion on this page.
2. It might be possible that within the USA context the odds of genuine Bight of Benin origins will be highest for people from Louisiana. However this is very tricky to ascertain due to much higher shares of inter-colonial (from the West Indies) as well as domestic slave trade (from the Upper South) rather than direct Trans-Atlantic slave trade with Africa. Therefore tracing back to the earliest ancestral locations within the Americas might be an especially difficult task. See also:
3. Ideally you would want to verify if the shared DNA segment with your West African matches is also showing up as “Benin/Togo”. Because that way you could have more certainty that these matches will indeed relate to your own “Benin/Togo” amount. Regrettably this potentially very useful information is not available because Ancestry so far has not implemented a chromosome browser. See also:
4. It should be pointed out that only Trans Atlantic slave voyages are being included in charts 3 & 5 as well as map 3. And not inter-colonial slave voyages! So this slave trade data is not intended to reflect the full picture. For example largely undocumented English contraband slave trading was very significant for the Hispanic Americas and to a lesser degree also Haiti (“Saint Domingue”). While for the USA especially Domestic Slave Trade from the Upper South looms large. In order to avoid any potentially misleading information I have therefore left out the highly incomplete data for the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Louisiana. As it is least likely that their African origins will be reasonably well represented by the TAST database. For all places mentioned obviously also post-Slavery migrations should be taken into consideration (for more disclaimers see this page).
5. This section is mostly based on an earlier blog post I wrote in 2015: Is “Benin/Togo” really pinpointing origins from within Benin’s borders? To date it remains one of my most popular blog posts. Especially in 2017 when it was by far my most read blog post (around 14,500 views). Indicating perhaps how especially this so-called “Benin/Togo” region has captured the imagination of many African Americans and other Afro-descendants while trying to make sense of their AncestryDNA results. As I will continue to say the country name labeling should not be taken too literally. However if you make an effort to inform yourself of the wider context and learn how to interpret correctly this usually unexpected regional score for many people could still prove very insightful in their quest to Trace African Roots!