Recently Ancestry introduced a new region called “Nigeria East-Central”. The first addition to their West African breakdown since their truly pioneering update in 2013.1 Sadly this novelty is a major let-down. Ancestry could and should have done so much better! They had more than enough time to prepare for it…A further specification of Nigerian DNA has been on the wishlist for many people. I have also been advocating this for several years already.
In order to assess Ancestry’s latest update I have done a survey among 50 people from several parts of the Afro-Diaspora. 80% of my survey group (40/50) did not receive any “Nigeria East-Central” score at all. All group averages are barely 1% (see this overview). The highest individual score in my survey was only 3% for a Haitian. Don’t get me wrong: such minimal scores can still provide valid indications. Which I will also discuss in this blog post. But these paltry statistics are a clear sign of how little added value this new region brings.
This first major expansion of Ancestry’s West African breakdown since 2013 should have been done in a meaningful and beneficial way for Atlantic Afro-descendants. Relying on historical relevance when deciding on new regions. Frankly anyone with some basic googling skills would know already! Southwest Nigeria (centered on Yorubaland) and southeast Nigeria (centered on Igboland) are obviously going to be first choice when wanting to specify Nigerian DNA. As demonstrated by 23andme in their update earlier this year. Instead Ancestry completely passed over these pivotal regions of Nigerian origins for the Atlantic Afro-Diaspora… Such a wasted opportunity! See also:
- Ancestry’s 2022 update: some bright spots, but too little too late!
- New Update on 23andme: Ethnic Group Matches within Africa! (part 1) (part 2)
Contents of this blog post:
- How to interpret your “Nigeria East-Central” scores
- Ancestry should reveal the ethnic backgrounds of its “Nigeria East-Central” samples!
- Historically relevant for Atlantic Afro-descendants?
- Summary in 11 steps.
- When will Ancestry finally create Nigerian Genetic Communities?
- How many Nigerian DNA samples does Ancestry have?
- Always be cautious with ethnic implications in DNA testing!
- Screenshots of “Nigeria East-Central” scores
1) How to interpret your “Nigeria East-Central” scores?
Map 1.1 (click to enlarge)
The area highlighted in Ancestry’s “Nigeria East-Central” region is part of the so-called Middle Belt. A transition zone between Northern and Southern Nigeria. Ethnically speaking a highly diverse region, but with the Tiv people probably being the largest group. The red boxes in the maps above were inserted by myself. Obviously just intended as an imprecise approximation of the area which Ancestry has lineated as being “Nigeria East-Central” 😉
Ancestry is failing to provide its customers with a decent explanation of why this region was created and what exactly it is suppose to imply. Ancestry is not giving any helpful information, except for the map shown on top of this blog post. Especially the regional description on Ancestry is truly a meaningless blob… From Ancestry’s map we can however gather that an interior area of Nigeria is being pinpointed. Located in the eastern part of the socalled Middle Belt. Going by official terminology used by the Nigerian government it covers states found in the North-Central and North-East regions (see map 1.1).
This is a highly diverse region with a complex history of migrating peoples from all directions. Including various ethno-linguistic groups such as the Tiv who are related to Bantu speakers from Cameroon and Central Africa. Idoma and especially Igala languages being akin to southern Nigerians. Hausa-Fulani are relative new-comers and obviously to be linked to the north or even Upper Guinea. There are also other West-Chadic speakers who settled there for a longer time. The historically well known Jukun people also have a language of their own which is part of the wider Niger-Congo group. While the most likely indigenous Plateau languages are still being spoken despite being under threat of extinction (see this paper).
- Ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria (Muturzikin, very detailed!)
Ancestry’s map for “Nigeria East-Central” is not showing any overlap into neighbouring Cameroon and also not with coastal southeast Nigeria. Unlike Ancestry’s map for “Nigeria” proper, it is also not extending into Chad or Central African Republic. Which is why I think any direct Chadic implications are unlikely.2 For people with scores greater than 1% I am inclined to say that this new “Nigeria East-Central” region indeed appears to be correlating with interior Bight of Biafra origins (see this page for maps). As might be expected from the labeling of this region. But this is based on quite tenuous findings! Especially given that again for most people this region will simply be absent or at trace level (1%).
Looking into my African survey results (see this link) I think any direct Igbo connection can be ruled out. Because it seems that Igbo customers of Ancestry rarely get assigned with “Nigeria East-Central” scores of above 2%. The group average in my survey being less than 1% (see this overview). In fact also other non-Igbo Nigerians from the southeast (such as Ijaw or Efik) or the North (Hausa-Fulani) do not tend to get any substantial scores (>5%) for “Nigeria East-Central” from what I have seen sofar. The same goes for the Cameroonian results I have surveyed. Of course my observations are limited in number and scope.3 But still these outcomes are already indicative of how this region is quite an outlier and not even common among Nigerians themselves.
As I will explain further below actually multiple ethnic implications might apply on a case-by case basis. But right now the most convincing “Nigeria East-Central” score I have seen is for a person of confirmed Tiv background (1/2). No less than 48% “Nigeria East-Central” was reported by Ancestry to describe his Tiv side! Combined also with 43% “Senegal” which undoubtedly describes the DNA inherited from his other parent who is Fulani. See also screenshot posted in section 3. The Tiv people are probably the most numerous ethnic group living in the area which is highlighted by Ancestry for their “Nigeria East-Central” region. To be found in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa and Plateau States. But apparently less so in Adamawa state which is also featured in the “Nigeria East-Central” region.
Ancestry should reveal the ethnic backgrounds of its “Nigeria East-Central” samples!
Map 1.2 (click to enlarge)
The green-boxed area in this map shows just a subset of the ethnic diversity to be found in the “Nigeria East-Central” region. Many of these groups are closely related but others are likely to be genetically distinct. Because of historical migrations they might even be more so connected to their ancestral areas elsewhere. Therefore it is essential to know which samples Ancestry has been using!
As I have always maintained right from the start for proper interpretation we need to know the exact background of Ancestry’s samples! Most crucial aspect would be their ethnic origins but also knowing their state origins within Nigeria can be very relevant.4 Afterall it makes a world of a difference if Ancestry has been using exclusively Tiv samples or rather a mix of samples from this highly ethnically diverse area! Possibly also including Igala, Idoma, Jukun or perhaps even Chadic samples? The latter option cannot be ruled out yet. But so far I have only seen one Nigerian result which is clearly in support of Ancestry using Tiv samples for its “Nigeria East-Central” region.
Again because of Ancestry’s lack of transparency (only stating the obvious…) I am forced to go by my unconfirmed assumptions. But another perhaps tell-tale indication of this region (mainly?) containing Tiv samples is to be found in the peculiar appearance of “Nigeria East-Central” trace amounts among Central Africans and even Cape Verdeans. See further below for screenshots in section 3. In fact I myself also now have 1% “Nigeria-East Central” and the screenshot shown on top of this blog post is actually featuring my own results!
On first sight this doesn’t make much sense. Although to be sure in theory other ancestral options might still be valid for Cape Verdeans (by way of São Tomé & Principe?). But for Central Africans I highly suspect that this outcome is caused by genetic overlap among Bantu-speakers. Keeping in mind that the Tiv people are speaking a Bantu-related language! Quite likely these trace amounts are therefore merely picking up on shared Central African DNA markers dating from ancient Bantu migrations. Currently not well represented in the other DNA samples available to Ancestry for its “Cameroon, Congo and Western Bantu” region.
Historically relevant for Atlantic Afro-descendants?
Map 1.3 (click to enlarge)
Source: “The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census” (Curtin, 1969). This map is showing the ethno-linguistic origins of so-called Recaptives in Sierra Leone. Based on interviews by Koelle, a German linguist from the 1800’s. It confirms that people from the “Nigeria East-Central” region were indeed also victimized by the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. However proportionally speaking their numbers were minor when compared with other groups from near the coast and also the highlands of Cameroon. Take note of the size of the circles and not the numbers in parentheses which are just group identifiers (#). Biggest circle belongs to the Anang (#136), which is an Ibibio subgroup. The number of Igbo captives (#49) is actually being left out of consideration because otherwise their circle would cover most of the map!
Table 1.1 (click to enlarge)
Source: “Sources of the Nineteenth Century Atlantic Slave Trade” (Curtin & Vansina, 1964). This overview is based on the same Koelle data-set which was used for the map above. Around 20 Tiv speakers are being listed as an estimated total number being present in Sierra Leone around 1850. Again a precious testimony. But keep in mind that during the 1848 census in Sierra Leone several thousands of Yoruba and Igbo people were mentioned (see this chart). Also going by other clues it is safe to say that captives from the Middle Belt have been relatively minor in number when compared with captives from especially southern Nigeria.
In my previous blogpost I made a plea for Ancestry to provide historically relevant regions & genetic communities for Atlantic Afro-descendants. Referring to the historically documented African origins of African Americans and other Atlantic Afro-descendants (West Indians, Latin Americans and Cape Verdeans). Of course many details are still unknown. But the main outline has pretty much been clarified already on a aggegrated level. During several decades historians have collected extensive and very valuable data-sets which can help to illuminate this research question. Especially when combining with other clues (cultural retention, historical travel accounts but also genetics!). These data-sets are not only based on slave voyages but also include the (presumed) ethnic origins and even recorded names of African captives which have historically been documented. See also this overview:
The so-called “Nigeria East-Central” region on Ancestry is best to be taken as a proxy of the eastern part of the Middle Belt area in Nigeria. Part of the hinterland of the greater Bight of Biafra area. Which featured slave ports such as Bonny and New Calabar, located in southeastern Nigeria. Trans-Atlantic slave trade from this coastal part of Nigeria has been abundantly documented. However determining the ancestral ties between the interior parts of Nigeria and the Atlantic Afro-Diaspora remains quite challenging. Because in most historical sources specific references to the Middle Belt are uncommon. See footnote 5 for an overview of literature I have consulted.5 But fortunately we do possess a huge amount of very detailed data about so-called Recaptives who were settled in Sierra Leone during the first half of the 1800’s. As shown in the overviews above.
As a standard disclaimer you should of course always keep in mind inherent limitations and inform yourself about the relevant context. In this case we are dealing with data which is more so representative of the very last phase of Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. These so-called Liberated Africans were mostly heading to Brazil and Cuba because slave trade to most other parts of the Americas had already been abolished by this time. In previous time periods the slave trade patterns might very well have been different. Especially the extent of inland sourcing. Also depending on destination in the Americas. Still this unique Sierra Leone dataset should be insightful because of its wide scope and very rich details.
It can be confirmed that people from the “Nigeria East-Central” region were indeed also victimized by the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. However at the same time it is crystal clear that captives from southern Nigeria were much more prevailing. Because from the 1848 census held among Recaptives in Freetown/Sierra Leone thousands of people were identified as being either Yoruba or Igbo (see this chart). While for example at the same time only about 20 Tiv persons were estimated to live in Sierra Leone. In fact also from other sources obtained from across the Afro-Diaspora southern Nigerians (either Igbo or Yoruba) are consistently showing up as most numerous (when compared with people from other parts of Nigeria). Not to mention also being most culturally influential. Genetic evidence (esp. DNA matching patterns) is slowly helping to corroborate this.
It should be stressed that many other ethnic groups from all-over currentday Nigeria have been listed in the Sierra Leone data-set. Which is a precious testimony indeed and not to be overlooked. Based on these findings I would certainly agree that the Middle Belt also is of historical significance when Tracing African Roots! Any “Nigeria East-Central” score, no matter how small, might indeed be historically plausible. Then again historical relevance also implies a ranking of importance and prioritization. Seen from that perspective it should be quite obvious that the estimated genetic impact of southern Nigerians among Atlantic Afro-descendants is undeniable. And I would say also decisive and indispensable when wanting to get a first rudimentary breakdown of their Nigerian origins. While the foreseen genetic impact of the Middle Belt is much more subdued. Judging not only from historical evidence. But also based on the disappointingly low frequency of actual “Nigeria East-Central” scores on Ancestry. See also:
- Krio from Sierra Leone: Afro-Diasporans with a twist? (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
- DNA study pinpointing possibly Middle Belt origins for an individual from St. Maarten (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
- The Igbo Connection for Virginia & Virginia-Descendants (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
Summary in eleven steps
My discussion of this newest region within Ancestry’s African breakdown may at times appear harsh. However I do want to acknowledge that “Nigeria East-Central” certainly is not some kind of Nigerian scam 😉 With proper interpretation you can still get valuable indications when receiving such scores. Even when these scores will usually be at trace level.6 However don’t be too quick to rep this particular part of Nigeria yet! Keeping in mind all usual disclaimers about regional admixture:
1) Ancestry’s map for “Nigeria East-Central” highlights the eastern part of the Middle Belt of Nigeria. Ethnically speaking a highly diverse region, but with the Tiv people probably being the largest group.
2) Judging from actual Nigerian Ancestry testers it is likely that Ancestry has been using Tiv samples. But possibly also additional samples from other ethnic groups are included in the 471 DNA samples which underpin the “Nigeria East-Central” region.
3) Just like the other African regions on Ancestry “Nigeria East-Central” is not an exclusive marker for any given ethnic group! Multiple ethnic implications might apply on a case-by case basis.
4) Any “Nigeria East-Central” score, no matter how small, might indeed be historically plausible. People from the “Nigeria East-Central” region have also been victimized by the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Although to a much smaller degree than southern Nigerians.
5) The fact that sofar most people only receive this region in trace amounts would then actually be in line with historical plausibility as well. Remember that on average the DNA contribution of an ancestor living in the mid 1700’s could be around 0.5%-1.5%. See also: DNA inheritance from 1 single ancestor.
6) Do keep in mind that trace regions can appear and disappear with each update 😉 So don’t get too attached to these estimates!
7) Trace amounts of around 1% might still be inherited indirectly by way of southern Nigerian ancestors (Igbo etc.) who themselves may have had distant/minor lineage from the Middle Belt. Similar to how Pygmy DNA among Atlantic Afro-descendants will often have been transmitted by mainstream Central Africans who already acquired this DNA during ancient times.
8) On the other hand Middle Belt origins could also fall under the regular “Nigeria” region. Genetic overlap in regional admixture is inevitable. Especially when dealing with neighbouring populations which are part of the same wider ethno-linguistic groupings. Therefore do not rule out that you have any (eastern) Middle Belt lineage simply because Ancestry did not report any “Nigeria East-Central” for you!
9) In certain cases trace amounts of “Nigeria East-Central” will sometimes just reflect misread Central African DNA. Keeping in mind that the Tiv people are speaking a Bantu-related language!
10) Higher scores will usually offer more solid ground to establish a legitimate ancestral connection with this region. The new Ethnicity Inheritance tool on Ancestry could be very helpful in assigning “Nigeria East-Central” scores to certain family lines. Going up your family-tree and therefore getting closer to the first ancestor who would be the original source of that regional score.
11) Best way of corroborating is by finding associated DNA matches with confirmed lineage from “Nigeria East-Central”. Although the odds are likely to be quite small given that from my experience there are ony very few Nigerian DNA testers from the Middle Belt.
2) When will Ancestry finally create Nigerian Genetic Communities?
“Create new African “migrations”, a.k.a. genetic communities. As far as I am aware currently there are only two “migrations” in place for Africans. […] Especially for Nigerians […] I would imagine something could already be set up. Even more so when appropriate academic samples can be added.“ (Fonte Felipe, 2018)
“Another potentially very helpful suggestion might be to enable DNA matching with all the African samples contained in Ancestry’s Reference Panel. Possibly also to be combined with Ancestry’s migration tool. Creating new African genetic communities […].” (Fonte Felipe, 2018)
“In particular I believe that when wanting to get more solid ground on the question of either Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa-Fulani origins for Afro-descendants it will be very helpful if Ancestry were to create Nigerian “migrations”. However not ethnically labeled, as this will often be misleading! But rather something along geographical lines like distinguishing a southwestern Nigerian “migration” from a southeastern Nigerian “migration” as well as a northern Nigerian “migration”.
After all if a country as small as Ireland has no less than 92 (!!!) distinctive sub-regions on Ancestry (see this article) why not further specify Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa and also among the principal countries of provenance for Afro-Diasporans!” (Fonte Felipe, 2019)
Throughout the years I have made numerous suggestions for improvement. In 2018 already I made a plea to include Nigerian genetic communities on Ancestry. Because I believe such an introduction (when carried out correctly) will truly be a game changing event for Atlantic Afro-descendants. Further specification of their ancestral origins within especiallly southern Nigeria is in most pressing need. Much more so than the perhaps well intentioned but still very disappointing introduction of “Nigeria East-Central”. Which has sofar proved to be just a marginal area of Nigerian lineage.
Despite some technical challenges I do think that such genetic communities for Nigeria are perfectly feasible. Given Ancestry’s ample resources, incl. a relatively high number of Nigerian (migrant) customers. And additionally also Ancestry’s widely acclaimed Sorenson (SMGF) database which includes thousands of unique Nigerian DNA samples. Of course where there is a will there is always a way Hopefully Ancestry can find inspiration in 23andme’s recommendable initiative which can link you to 25 African ethnolinguistic groups, incl. 4 separate groups for Nigeria! See also:
Figure 2.1 (click to enlarge)
Similar to Ancestry also 23andme applies two methods to tell you more about your ancestry: 1) regional admixture by way of their “Nigerian” category 2) genetic groups which are based on IBD matching and pinpointing either location or even plausible ethnic lineage! Despite some shortcomings this feature can really push your research for specific Nigerian lineage to the next level!
In my previous discussion of Ancestry’s latest updates I mentioned that overall speaking I was not impressed. Because I just know that Ancestry is able to do so much more! When you compare with developments taking place on 23andme this really becomes crystal clear. As shown above 23andme now provides four so-called genetic groups to distinguish ethno-linguistic Nigerian lineage. Obviously not a 100% accurate tool but intended to be complementary with 23andme’s more basic regional admixture framework. Allowing for a much anticipated meaningful breakdown of Nigerian ancestry.
These genetic groups on 23andme are comparable to the genetic communities on Ancestry. Although not completely the same. The biggest difference being that Ancestry’s genetic communities are strictly based on matching strength with other customers. While 23andme is using both its customer database as well as pre-selected African reference populations.
Why can’t Ancestry do the same thing? Instead of releasing an uninspired “Nigeria East-Central” region which is hardly showing up for anyone. Why not put Ancestry’s Nigerian samples to much better use by enabling DNA matching? For all I care this could also be done in an adjusted format of the current genetic community tool. But atleast make an attempt to provide maximal informational value for Ancestry’s Afro-descended customers. Again aside from African Americans this will also include Latin Americans, West Indians and Cape Verdeans. Minorities to be sure but all combined representing a substantial share of Ancestry’s customers who do not deserve to be continuously ignored!7
How many Nigerian DNA samples does Ancestry have?
Map 2.1 (click to enlarge)
Source: former website of the Sorenson Database. This database (SMGF) was acquired by Ancestry in 2012. The overview on the left is showing the number of samples collected in countries all over the world. Take note how this SMGF database contains several thousands of DNA samples from Nigeria (n=4220). Aside from the USA they actually represent the largest group. This database also contains many samples from Benin (n=2159) and Cameroon (n=2453).
I find it very intriguing that the number of samples being used for “Nigeria East-Central” (n=471) is not that far removed from the number of samples being used for “Nigeria” (n=593). See this link which shows Ancestry’s Reference Panel. It makes me wonder why all of sudden Ancestry is able to have access to such a great number of additional Nigerian samples from the Middle Belt? This is afterall a rather unusual area in DNA testing. Also one might ask: is Ancestry only making partial use of its even greater database of Nigerian DNA samples? And if so, what is the reason for withholding these potentially very valuable DNA samples for uncovering the Nigerian roots of Ancestry’s paying customers?
To be sure there could be several explanations but I highly suspect that these “new” samples being used to define the “Nigeria East-Central” region may have been sourced by way of the former Sorenson (SMGF) database. This sample collection has been in Ancestry’s possession for ten years already. Because Ancestry acquired the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) in 2012. This unique and very comprehensive database formed the basis of Ancestry’s breakthrough update in 2013. And it most likely was also the source of the spectacular increase in samples from Benin/Togo, Cameroon, Mali and also Nigeria in 2018 & 2019 (see section 2 of this blog post). As shown above the number of Nigerian samples (n=4220) in this SMGF database is quite spectacular! Although I am not sure if all of them are indeed suitable for the purpose of autosomal regional admixture and/or IBD matching.8
Naturally this could turn out to be a true goldmine! Even if only half of these samples are available within the AncestyDNA set-up. Also including genetic communities! Serving as an alternative for relying on relatively rare African (migrant) customer samples. In this blog post I have expressed my misgivings about the “Nigeria East-Central” region. Still I have to stress that I am very pleased that such a great number of samples (n=471) from the Middle Belt has been made available for DNA testing! But again my urgent suggestion would be to apply these samples for genetic communities/DNA matching rather than for regional admixture (or else both). Because this will most likely be of the greatest benefit for Ancestry’s Afro-descended customers.
Always be cautious with ethnic implications in DNA testing!
“Can Nigerian ethnic groups be genetically distinguished? […] The three ethnic groups I have selected for this research question (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo) are fairly distinctive. Because they are not neighbouring people but rather located in separate parts of the country (north, southwest and southeast), characterized by different (ancient) migration histories. Smaller ethnic groups from the same approximate region are likely to be greatly overlapping in genetics and hence much more difficult to distinguish (if at all).” (Fonte Felipe, 2019)
“my final Nigerian survey findings are suggesting that even between Yoruba and Igbos and even more so between southern Nigerians and the Hausa-Fulani a noticeable degree of genetic differentiation can indeed be observed. Not per se consistent on an individual basis but more apparent when based on group averages and approximate tendencies. Highlighting that regional admixture DOES matter!” (Fonte Felipe, 2019)
“For Afro-Diasporans this is an entirely different issue. […] Generally speaking I do not think it is currently possible to obtain a “100% accurate” ethnic specification of your Nigerian ancestry. At least not by relying solely on admixture analysis, such as performed by AncestryDNA and other commercial DNA testing companies. And actually also not by testing your direct maternal or paternal line (see this article).
“However by conducting careful follow-up research (DNA matches, historical plausibility, genetic genealogy etc.) I do think you can increase the chances of learning more about the likely ethnic backgrounds of your Nigerian ancestors.” (Fonte Felipe, 2019)
“Short recap of disclaimers: 1) Not intended to be conclusive! Ethnic identities are fluid and context-dependent. 2) Keep in mind implied timeframe. 3) Focus on complementarity of DNA matches and regional admixture 4) Educate yourself on historically plausible ethnic origins” (Fonte Felipe, 2022)
A common complaint about regional admixture is that it can include ancestors from various ethnic groups, all at the same time. As we have seen this very much also goes for “Nigeria East-Central”. Afterall this part of Nigeria (Middle Belt) is highly ethnically diverse! Because Ancestry is not transparent about it we do not know if the 471 samples being used for “Nigeria East-Central” are also ethnically diverse or instead just taken from one ethnic group (Tiv?). Either way, “Nigeria East-Central” seems inherently unqualified to serve as a straightforward predictor of Nigerian lineage which is commonly found among the Atlantic Afro-Diaspora.
A better idea in my opinion would have been to start with creating separate regions for southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria. Because from my Nigerian survey results this should already be feasible given genetic distinctions between the Hausa-Fulani from the north and the Igbo and Yoruba from the south. This might then also be beneficial for adressing the remaining gap of the Central Sahel within Ancestry’s African breakdown. However creating smaller units based on solely regional admixture may often turn out to be overambitious. As illustrated also by the difficulties Ancestry is still having in delineating English DNA from Scottish and Welsh DNA. A certain degree of genetic overlap seems to be inevitable when using admixture analysis in such tightknitted cases.
Then again regional admixture 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. In this regard the new “Nigeria East-Central” region has proven to be of very little added value. Because for most people this region is either absent or appearing at trace level. I suspect this is mostly a reflection of such lineage simply not being prevalent among Atlantic Afro-descendants for historical reasons. But perhaps there is also an additional issue of Ancestry’s algorithm oversmoothing “Nigeria” and therefore underreporting “Nigeria East-Central”.
I strongly believe that combining regional admixture for a broad outline and creating underlying genetic communities for zooming into specific lineage is the way forward. As mentioned earlier I therefore think that the samples being used by Ancestry for “Nigeria East-Central” could be put to better use by allowing DNA matching and/or creating an associated genetic community for the eastern Middle Belt. This might still lead to a relatively low frequency of results. But given robust IBD thresholds the outcomes will then be much more reliable! And possibly also to be correlated with specific ethnic origins.
For more details on my previous Nigerian survey results:
- Nigerian AncestryDNA results 2013-2018
- Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa-Fulani? Nigerian AncestryDNA results 2013-2018
Map 2.2 (click to enlarge)
As shown by these three maps the Middle Belt is a transition zone between southern and northern Nigeria. Characterized by lower population density and higher ethnic diversity. Take note that Nigeria’s top 3 ethnic groups are located in southern and northern Nigeria. Living in states which show the highest population density. See also this section for more Nigerian maps (incl. very detailed historical maps of the Benin, Oyo and Sokoto empires as well as the Bight of Biafra hinterland in the 1800’s).
Nigeria is said to have hundreds of ethnic groups and even more languages so obviously it is very diverse! Still a lot depends on definition. Many ethnic groups are very closely interrelated and clustered within greater ethno-linguistic groups. And even when the population shares are only estimates the top 3 ethnic groups form a clear absolute majority. Combined the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo are possibly accounting for more than 60% of the Nigerian population. This is a very insightful aspect of Nigerian demographics! Especially when also taking into account that these 3 groups combined quite likely form the greatest source of Nigerian lineage for Atlantic Afro-descendants as a whole. Judging from historical plausibility but also the circumstance that the Middle Belt appears to have always been relatively underpopulated (see this article).
This is why I am advocating for prioritizing the creation of genetic communities centered on Southwest, Southeast and Northern Nigeria. Ancestry’s genetic community tool based on IBD matching strength might not be 100% accurate. But it has already proven to be greatly useful for zooming into the known micro-level origins of especially Europeans and Americans. It therefore potentially holds immense importance for people who are not aware of their specific origins beforehand! And as demonstrated by 23andme similar tool of genetic groups you do not need to rely strictly on customer samples. Given the predicaments of Tracing African Roots for Atlantic Afro-descendants it is more than justified to also use any other type of samples available. That is to say Ancestry’s Reference Panel but also (whenever possible) Ancestry’s SMGF database!
I would however strongly advice Ancestry: don’t apply potentially misleading ethnic labeling for genetic communities within Africa! Just stick to geo-political labeling (as shown in map 2.2) in order not to feed into false hope.9 Even when actually genetic communities centered on Southwest, Southeast and Northern Nigeria are likely to be closely correlated with ancestral ties with resp. the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani. And therefore very valuable when interpreted correctly! Precondition being that Ancestry applies a well designed strategy when selecting the appropriate samples and also providing helpful context.
One major disclaimer should be mentioned about the Hausa-Fulani given their recently mixed origins. By way of their partial Fula background they are also genetically linked to Upper Guinea. Which clearly shows up in their DNA results. Admixture-wise: high amounts of “Senegal” but also a multitude of Fula related DNA matches from Senegambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone etc.. Preferably therefore samples to be selected for Northern Nigeria should be from “pure” or atleast predominant Hausa lineage. Otherwise this might cause major confusion when Atlantic Afro-decendants get matched with Hausa-Fulani! Because from my observations such matching is usually the result of shared Upper Guinean ancestry and not through shared Hausa ancestry (see my Cape Verdean survey from 2018).10
Ethnic intermingling should always be taken into consideration actually. Also for the Yoruba and Igbo in relation with neighbouring groups such as the Edo, Ijaw, Ibibio etc.. Never expect 100% genetic delineation for neighbouring populations! Because people have and will always ethnically mix! This has been true since ancient pre-historic times already. Glass half-full mentality should prevail however. And given proper context and appropriate disclaimers usually there will be room for plentiful helpful indications!
As a last recommendation I would like to point out that Ancestry should avoid careless handling when adding new genetic communities for Nigeria, and also other parts of West & Central Africa. Regrettably Ancestry did not provide any useful context in the community history for “Eastern Africa”, the latest African genetic community. And also not for the genetic community linked to Cape Verdean origins, which continues to be offensively mislabeled. Furthermore lessons should be drawn from 23andme’s introduction of no less than 25 ethnolinguistic genetic groups from Africa (see this blogseries). To be sure this tool based on matching strength is still a work in progress. But at least 23andme has set things in motion and stepped up their game! Something which Ancestry for some strange reason is still refusing to do…
3) Screenshots of “Nigeria East-Central” scores
Just limiting myself to a few updated results which feature the new “Nigeria East-Central” region with relatively high amounts. Also including seemingly random results which feature this new region as a trace amount. See my spreadsheet for a complete overview of individual results during my survey.
NIGERIA (1/2 Southeast? + 1/2 eastern Middle Belt?)
***The highest “Nigeria East-Central” score I have seen sofar! Person on the left is his African American DNA match. Unfortunately I do not know the exact background of this person. Except that he is of confirmed mixed ethnic origins within Nigeria. It will be very insightful to learn more about such results because it allows us to stand on more solid ground when speculating on the samples Ancestry has been using to determine their “Nigeria East-Central” scores.
NIGERIA (1/2 Tiv + 1/2 Fulani)
This screenshot shows a comparison between an African American (on the left) and a Nigerian of confirmed Fulani-Tiv backgrond on the right. Clearly in this particular case “Nigeria East- Central” is strongly correlating with Tiv lineage.
NIGERIA (Middle Belt/Taraba state: Hausa-Fulani)
This screenshot shows a comparison between an African American (on the right) and a Nigerian of self-identified Hausa-Fulani backgrond on the left (his individual results are posted further above as well). By far the highest “Nigeria East-Central” score I have seen for African Americans or any other Afro-descendants from the Americas! Quite astonishing but given her match to a Hausa-Fulani from Taraba state quite plausible. I am guessing that the ancestor they share in common is actually not Hausa or Fulani but rather from one of the other ethnic groups in this state. Take note also of the additional “Cameroon, Congo & western Bantu” score for the Hausa-Fulani guy who is very likely to have local Middle Belt lineage as well. Knowing the ethnicity of the DNA segment they have in common should be extremely helpful!
AFRICAN AMERICAN (South Carolina/Lowcountry)
Another quite exceptional score for an African American! His mother shows 4%. This person of confirmed Gullah descent has done impressive research into his African DNA matches as well as genealogy. He was able to confirm & specify practically all African regional scores by way of associated DNA matches. However sofar not for this new “Nigeria East-Central” region. I suspect this could be merely because Nigerian DNA testers from the Middle Belt are quite rare. However it is also telling that this new score caused a decrease of 7% “Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu” (previously 28%). Hence it seems that there is indeed some genetic overlap caused by probably Tiv samples being used by Ancestry.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (Hato Mayor)
CAPE VERDE (Santiago)
Highest “Nigeria East-Central” score I have seen among Cape Verdeans. I myself also have 1% of this region as do several of my Cape Verdean DNA cousins. I am guessing it is simply reflecting misread Central African DNA. In my case actually my new “Nigeria East-Central” score replaced a previous trace amount of 1% “Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu”. Although other ancestral options also still remain possible. Perhaps involving São Tomé & Principe, which is a former Portuguese ruled island group located near the Bight of Biafra (see this map).
1) Nearly ten years ago in 2013 AncestryDNA revolutionized the world of DNA testing with a pioneering West African breakdown. Obviously this original 2013-2018 version had several shortcomings. But still it represented a major advance at that time and offered unrivaled West African regional specificity when compared with other commercial DNA testing companies during that same time period as well as any third-party analysis such as available on Ged-Match, DNA Land etc.. See also these links:
- AncestryDNA Makes Scientific Breakthrough in West African Ethnicity (Ancestry, 2013)
- AncestryDNA survey findings (2013-2018 version) (Fonte Felipe, 2018)
2) The map of “Nigeria East-Central” is highlighting a restricted area within Nigeria without any overlap in neighbouring countries (see this map). Including the following states: Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau, Adamawa and Taraba (see this map). Although one has to be careful this still already provides a meaningful clue. Because the regional map of “Nigeria” proper is extending into neighbouring countries, incl. Chad (see this link). Therefore we can assume that these cross-border implications do not apply for “Nigeria East-Central” itself.
As argued in this blog post for proper interpretation of this new “Nigeria East-Central” region it is crucial to know the ethnic backgrounds of the samples which have been used by Ancestry. Given that Ancestry is not transparent about this I can only speculate. But judging from actual Nigerian results I have seen it seems quite likely that Ancestry has been using Tiv samples. The Tiv people arguably also being the largest population group in the area which is highlighted by “Nigeria East-Central”. It is very noteworthy in this regard that the language the Tiv speak is actually related to Bantu languages spoken in Cameroon and Central Africa.
Therefore I do not think that any direct Chadic implications are linked to “Nigeria East-Central”. First of all Chadic speakers are not prevailing in this highly diverse eastern part of the Middle Belt. Leaving aside relatively recent Hausa migrants who originate from the north, see also this map or also this one. There has been some historically interesting interaction with Chadic-speakers and the Jukun people (whose language is not Chadic but rather a subgroup of Niger-Congo languages). Especially during the times when the Kwararafa and Wukari states covered much of the “Nigeria East-Central” area.
But again we do not have any certainty if these West-Chadic groups, such as the Angas, Bata or Tangale, have been included in the samples used by Ancestry. Within my survey only one Hausa-Fulani guy did show a more noticeable score for “Nigeria East-Central”: 5% (see section 3). However I do not think this small amount is due to his Hausa or Fulani background. Rather I believe it reflects additional lineage inherited from ethnic intermingling involving people native to his homestate Taraba. This state apparently has over 80 ethnic groups, incl. also Tiv.
With Ancestry’s latest update in 2022 most parts of Africa are now being covered with atleast one corresponding region. However the central Sahel region (Niger, Chad, Central African Republic) still remains a significant gap within Ancestry’s African breakdown. Given the lack of samples from the Central Sahel it makes sense that neighbouring regions such as “Nigeria” are filling the void. This is just a second-best solution which will hopefully be remedied by Ancestry with their next update. Adding such samples should also be beneficial for differentiating northern from southern Nigerian DNA in the near future. But there will always be some inherent genetic overlap. Therefore the creation of additional genetic communities for northern and southern Nigeria will be even more illuminating and mutually reinforcing as well!
3) Aside from my survey of updated AncestryDNA results among Afro-Diasporans and Africans I have actually also looked into many other profiles which have been shared with me. Also including the Nigerian DNA matches which I have found for people in my ongoing African DNA matching surveys and the DNA matches being reported for actual Nigerians.
4) In typical fashion Ancestry is still not revealing the exact background of their African samples (beyond nationality). Even when such details are crucial for proper interpretation! Ancestry is not alone in being reluctant when providing such details. This also goes for many other DNA testing companies (see this link). Especially the ethnic but also provincial backgrounds of their reference samples can be very relevant but are often not clarified. However Ancestry should take a cue from 23andme which is becoming more transparent in this regard (see this link for 23andme’s African Reference Panel and this link for 23andme’s African genetic groups).
5) Below you can find an overview of literature I have consulted to learn more about how the Middle Belt of Nigeria has been impacted by Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Obviously not meant to be exhaustive! This area has an intriguing degree of ethnic and cultural diversity. Also the landscape is very striking. However in the last couple of centuries its history has often been tragic and violent. Sadly also with currentday repercussions.
Recommended to read all these articles for yourself whenever possible. But for a short recap: the Middle Belt area is squeezed in between northern and southern Nigeria. There were two main slave trading circuits: coastal and interior. Arguably the most important one was centered on northern Nigeria. Especially when the Sokoto Caliphate came into being around the early 1800’s. Slave labour being intended for local usage but captives were also re-exported through Trans-Saharan routes.
Muslim traders did interact frequently with coastal people living along the Bight of Benin, esp. the Yoruba. Therefore slave ports along the Bight of Benin most likely handled the greatest number of Middle Belt captives. Direct trading contacts between Muslim traders and the Bight of Biafra are seldomly mentioned. However by way of several intermediate traders (Igala, Idoma, Tiv and Jukun) this would still have resulted in some minor flow of captives from the Middle Belt being directed for Trans-Atlantic Slave trade through the Bight of Biafra as well.
- Sources of the Nineteenth Century Atlantic Slave Trade (Curtin and Vansina, 1964)
- Population Density and ‘Slave Raiding’-The Case of the Middle Belt of Nigeria (Mason, 1969)
- The Sokoto Caliphate Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Tambo, 1976)
- State Formation in Nigeria : A Historical Background (Satpathy, 1992)
- Southeastern Nigeria, the Niger-Benue Confluence, and the Benue in the Precolonial Period: Some Issues of Historiography (Afigbo, 1997)
- Islam, slavery, and political transformation in West Africa : constraints on the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Lovejoy, 2002)
- Becoming African: Identity Formation among Liberated Slaves in Nineteenth-Century Sierra Leone (Northrup, 2006)
6) One should always be very careful with trace amounts of regional admixture. Afterall admixture analysis is not 100% accurate and especially with smaller amounts it might produce so-called “noise” results. Misleading estimates which fall within the inherent margins of error. It might very well be that these trace amounts will disappear again with the next update
Of course this is not to deny the potential informational value to be gained from smaller regional scores. But close scrutiny and independent verification are always called for. Each case to be judged on it own merits. Unless you have additional clues and corroborating evidence it will usually not be worth your time to investigate any further. As I once said it is best to keep your eye on the main prize and don’t get distracted by the small change, no matter how shiny they appear to be!
On the other hand the historical plausibility of small “Nigeria East-Central” scores for Atlantic Afro-descendants can indeed be established. And therefore this does put such scores in another class than totally unexpected trace scores from “exotic” regions such as East Africa.
7) In 2013 Ancestry was still very much at the forefront of providing a West & Central African breakdown which was truly beneficial for Ancestry’s largest segment of Afro-descended customers. African Americans and other Atlantic Afro-descendants (West Indians, Latin Americans and Cape Verdeans). However with subsequent updates during 2018-2022 Ancestry has not really moved beyond what it had already achieved in its 2013-2018 version. The predictive accuracy of the West & Central African breakdown was being played around with. Something which only now with the 2022 update seems to be fully corrected.
To be fair new regions have been created for Southern and Eastern Africa. However these regions are hardly ever being reported for African Americans and other Atlantic Afro-descendants. And therefore they are of little to no use. Despite the addition of likewise marginally appearing “Nigeria East-Central” it is still true that there are only 6 African regions which really matter for Atlantic Afro-Diasporans. At least when going by double digit scores (“Senegal”, “Mali”, “Ivory Coast & Ghana”, “Benin & Togo”, “Nigeria” and “Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu” ). See also this overview. I find this really disappointing because for me it underlines once again that further specification of West and Central African DNA seems to be last on Ancestry’s priority list…
8) You might wonder (like I did) why Ancestry did not use all of the available African samples in its Sorenson database right away in 2013. When they first provided their pioneering West African breakdown. However it seems that at the time there were still some issues to resolve about required consent for commercial purposes. Which perhaps may have caused the delay. See also these articles for more references:
- Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (ISOGG)
- Cruwys News (see comment by Debbie Kennett made on 8 January 2015 at 15:12)
The website of the Sorenson database has regrettably been taken down by Ancestry in 2015. But luckily it can still be accessed by way of the internet archive By performing a search I could verify that all expected countries from AncestryDNA’s African breakdown are included on the website. And especially Nigeria has been sampled extensively by SMGF (see map 1.2). However it is to be kept in mind that these samples were originally obtained for either Y-DNA or Mitochondrial DNA. But *possibly* Ancestry has now also managed to extract autosomal DNA from these samples. Again this is speculation on my part!
Looking into the 471 newly added samples for “Nigeria East-Central” it is very tempting to go with this SMGF scenario though. Because such samples from this particular area are quite rare in other publicly available databases to my knowledge. Not at all present in either the HGDP or 1000 Genomes databases (mentioned as other sources for Ancestry’s Reference Panel). The number of Nigerian Ancestry customers originally from the Middle Belt may also be assumed to be much too small to support an increase of 471 samples. So by way of elimination only the Sorenson database seems to remain as a viable option.
9) Several valid objections can be made about the country name labeling being applied on both Ancestry and 23andme for their regional admixture categories. But the truth is that the labeling of ancestral categories will always be tricky and a trade-off! Admixture categories but also genetic communities referring to ethnic groups might be just as deceptive or even more so! As many people will again tend to take them too literally. Underestimating not only the sheer number of ethnic groups existing in Africa (thousands!) but also the complexity of interplay between fluid ethnicity, overlapping genetics and shifting political borders. The same goes for precolonial African kingdoms which again were not static entities. But instead very often ended up being multi-ethnic after expansion and assimilation of neighbouring peoples.
Personally I prefer ancestral regions which are referring to either non-political geography or meta-ethnic/linguistic groups. Such as Atlantic, Mande, Kru, Akan, Gbe etc. (see this page). But I fear that inherently there will always be some degree of blurriness involved and exact delineation might be impossible to achieve in many cases. Instead of generating false hope it might be a more honest approach to go by the motto of “don’t be more specific than your data supports”. Previous blog posts of mine dealing with this topic:
- “What tribe am I?”
- Fictional Family Tree incl. African Born Ancestors
- Is it possible to pinpoint a plausible ethnic origin for one’s African bloodline?
- What can be learnt from AncestryDNA when trying to trace African ancestry?
10) I highly suspect that this finding among Cape Verdeans will also be valid for many people from other parts of the Afro-Diaspora. That is, in many cases a Hausa-Fulani match will be due to a shared ancestor from Upper Guinea and not from Nigeria. Documented slave trade from northern Nigeria being quite particular. More likely to have involved fully Hausa captives in fact rather than (mixed) Hausa-Fulani captives. And also mostly occurring in the final phase of Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Given the history of the wars caused by the relatively late (1800’s) expansion of the Sokoto empire. Also to be taken into account is that northern Nigeria as a whole was probably more so involved with Trans-Saharan slave trade than Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I am pretty sure that the Hausa-Fulani matches for Cape Verdeans are ultimately caused by way of shared Upper Guinean DNA. Because my Nigerian AncestryDNA survey findings show that Hausa-Fulani consistently show a considerable “Senegal” score in addition of usually also substantial “Nigeria” scores. I have also seen the DNA matches being reported for two Hausa-Fulani. And unsurprisingly they often tend to be closely related with Fula DNA testers from Upper Guinea. However only a chromosome browser might confirm I suppose or perhaps also triangulation with Fula matches.
A typical ancestral scenario might involve one Fula man residing in for example Senegambia or Guinea in the mid 1700’s. Due to local warfare he ends up being deported as a captive to Cape Verde. His brother however decides to migrate eastwards as many Fula people had been doing then for quite some time already. He finally settles down in northern Nigeria (Sokoto empire). Where his descendants eventually intermingled with the native Hausa people. Resulting in a present-day DNA match with a Cape Verdean!