A few weeks ago I saw the Woman King and just like audiences all over the world I was blown away by the excellent cast and how beautifully the movie was shot. But most of all I love how a West African historical setting is the main focus in a Hollywood blockbuster! This movie has created a lot of attention and heated debate. Not least because of the justified critique of historical revisionism. Rest assured this blog post won’t feature yet another review in that line-up! However I will be providing an overview of resources and research findings which should be helpful to learn more about the historical and also genetic relevance of slave trade from the Bight of Benin.
The kingdom of Dahomey was located right at the center of the Bight of Benin which infamously was also known as the Slave Coast. The impact of slave trade from the Bight of Benin has been widespread across the Americas. For various groups of Atlantic Afro-descendants. But especially in terms of cultural retention there are some stand-out areas such as Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Suriname. And genetically speaking also Barbados. Hopefully this blog post can serve as some kind of guidance for interpreting your own personal DNA results when wanting to trace back to Benin and neighbouring countries.
Before I continue I do want to quickly clarify my own stance on the Woman King controversy.1 When blogging about DNA test results on Ancestry and 23andme I have always warned against absolute dismissal. Because this may leave you empty-handed even when valuable insights are still to be gained! Instead from the start I have argued for a glass half-full mentality. Of course critical assessment is still required. But I firmly believe that you should always attempt to inform yourself about context, be aware of nuances and check your own bias, before passing judgement. The Woman King movie provides an excellent opportunity to do just that! In the last section of this blog post I will post many more useful links but a highly recommended starting point for more research is:
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 wayfor 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:
In this blog post I will provide a review of Ancestry’s latest update.1 As always I will keep my focus on the African breakdown featured in Ancestry’s so-called Ethnicity Estimate. In fact Ancestry has released several updates earlier this year. Eventhough some positive developments are taking place overall speaking I am not impressed. Because I just know that Ancestry is able to do so much more! It almost seems that Ancestry is going out of its way in order to avoid making any truly breakthrough update for their customers of West/Central African descent…
***Ancestry is introducing two new African regions with this update. These are however either minimal or absent for practically all Atlantic Afro-descendants. The good news is that the predictive accuracy of “Ivory Coast & Ghana” is finally being restored to its former level from the 2013-2018 version! At last providing a reasonable indication of DNA associated with that region and neighbouring countries (especially Liberia!). Something which Ancestry managed to screw up during their previous updates..
My main qualm with Ancestry is that genetic communities for pinpointing West & Central African lineage are still missing! Even when earlier this year 23andme demonstrated that such a feature can be implemented already. Introducing 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…
Contents of this blog post:
African breakdown for Africans after the 2022 update
Ancestry’s African Reference Panel
African breakdown for Afro-descendants before and after the 2022 update
Best African breakdown since 2013-2018!
Ethnicity Inheritance and Chromosome Painter
How can Ancestry finally take things to the next level?
In my previous blogseries I featured the latest update on 23andme intended to zoom into ethno-linguistic African lineage. Although these new ethnic group matches are very promising at this point they still very much remain a work in progress. And therefore follow-up research is still needed if you want to uncover your entire African lineage! This follow-up research can consist of several aspects. However in this blogpost I will focus on African DNA matches listed among your DNA Relatives on 23andme.
Figure 1 (click to enlarge)
This overview is obtained from the “Nigerian” admixture report for an African American. You can find this among your other ancestry reports on 23andme. Featuring a confirmed Igbo DNA match for him on the left. Even when he did not yet receive any ethnic group match after the latest update on 23andme.
Figure 2 (click to enlarge)
Currently the odds of getting assigned to an African ethnic group on 23andme are still rather low. Around 20% for African Americans, according to my survey (n=100, see this overview) and about 50% for Cape Verdeans (n=50, see this overview). And even if you do get lucky than usually you will only get matched to one single ethnic group or at most 2 or 3. While realistically speaking most Atlantic Afro-descendants will have manymore ethnic connections from various parts of Africa. Receiving one single African ethnic group match can of course be very valuable but it will still represent only one isolated connection with Africa out of potentially dozens or even hundreds of others.1
In order not to get side-tracked you should therefore explore alternative ways of finding your African DNA matches yourself! And afterwards you should also conduct further follow-up research. First of all to assess if the matches you found are indeed providing a valid genealogical (IBD) connection to a plausible African lineage. And if so then you can really achieve a massive breakthrough by attempting to assign this African match to a particular familyline by triangulation and/or chromosome mapping.
In the remaining part of this blog post I will discuss the following:
Four ways to find your African matches on 23andme
Search your DNA relatives by African country of birth
Look for African DNA relatives listed in your regional admixture reports
Perform advanced filtering of your “100%” African DNA relatives (only on 23+)
Do a manual browse through of all your DNA relatives
Look for shared DNA matches
Considerations when dealing with DNA matches
Poll: how many African DNA matches have you found sofar on 23andme?
This is the second part of my blogseries which deals with the update last month on 23andme. Introducing no less than 25 ethno-linguistic groups from Africa to get matched with! In order to learn more about the ethnic origins of some of your African ancestors. In the first part of this series I already covered the question of how accurate these ethnic group matches might be. Follow link below for more details:
In this post I will be focusing on what to expect. Basing myself mostly on the survey findings for 100 African Americans and 50 Cape Verdeans. But I will also post screenshots of updated results from other parts of the Afro-Diaspora.
Figure 1 (click to enlarge)
Just to quickly repeat myself. Last month 23andme released its most recent update which could very well signal the start of a truly game-changing feature for zooming into ethno-linguistic African lineage1. Of course this new feature on 23andme, based on matching strength, is not perfectly flawless. However despite a few shortcomings I am very excited about this update on 23andme! Because based on more than 50 updated results for Africans (see this overview) I am quite impressed with the accuracy of this tool. Also the results I have seen for 50 Cape Verdeans and 100 African Americans are actually in line with historical plausibility.
This update has already been fully rolled out.2 But still the odds of obtaining even only one of the 25 ethno-linguistic groups are rather low for most people. Depending also on your background. It seems for African Americans there’s only about a 20% chance. For many people 23andme is simply not able to detect a sufficient level of matching strength. Which is inevitable given the limitations of 23andme’s current African reference database. Understandably this may come as a big disappointement. However don’t despair because this update is a work in progress and upcoming updates will eventually reach more people! Glass half full mentality also for 2022 😉
Figure 2 (click to enlarge)
Take note that the updated results on the right only feature one ethnic group match. Despite this African American woman being over 80% African and regionally speaking from atleast 4 major areas in West & Central Africa. Of course this finding in itself is already incredibly valuable. However this possibly Fula and/or Wolof lineage most likely covers less than 5% of her total ancestry. While for her primary region “Nigerian” not a single ethnic group has appeared yet. In fact, although not being detected she might still also have additional Mandinka ancestors. To be grouped under “Senegambian & Guinean”. Follow-up research is still needed if you want to uncover your entire African lineage!
In the remaining part of this blog post I will discuss the following:
Survey findings for 100 African Americans
“Igbo”, “Kongo & Mbundu” and “Fula & Wolof” most frequent
Survey findings for 50 Cape Verdeans
“Fula & Wolof” and “Mandinka” most frequent
Updated results from other parts of the Afro-Diaspora
Atlantic Afro-descendants (Brazil, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti etc.)
Indian Oceanic Afro-descendants (Mauritius/Réunion, Seychelles, South African Coloured, UAE)
Recap previous disclaimers
Some ethnic group matches appear more frequently than others
Each regional admixture category potentially includes ancestors from various ethnic groups
Earlier this month 23andme released its most recent update which could very well signal the start of a truly game-changing feature for zooming into ethno-linguistic African lineage.1 Going beyond the broad regional admixture categories such as “Nigerian” and “Senegambian & Guinean”. Which are already quite useful in fact. However by now providing much more granularity 23andme is really stepping up its game! For more details read this announcement by 23andme:
Of course this new feature on 23andme, based on matching strength, is not perfectly flawless or without its inherent limitations. And to be sure the possibility of learning more about the specifics of your African ancestry by looking for African DNA matches has been around for several years already (see this overview). However the novelty of this update lies in the robust manner in which your DNA is being compared to a wide array of 25 historically plausible populations to indicate the ethnic origins of (some) of your African ancestors.This is an ambitious endeavor which has been greatly anticipated by so many people throughout the years! Bringing to life a regional African breakdown which was often experienced as being too basic and incomplete.2 Although from my assessment actually many valuable insights can also be derived from regional admixture, when interpreted correctly (see this overview).
Figure 1 (click to enlarge)
Despite a few shortcomings I am very excited about this update on 23andme! Because based on more than 50 updated results for Africans I am quite impressed with the accuracy of this tool. Also the results I have seen for 50 Cape Verdeans and 100 African Americans are actually in line with historical plausibility. This blogpost series is therefore intended as a first introduction. In future blogposts I will follow-up with more details on the implications of these ethnic group matches within Africa! In fact I will also edit this blogpost itself with more information in the upcoming weeks (especially footnotes). So you might want to check that out too by revisiting this blogpost.
Right now the odds of obtaining one of the 25 ethno-linguistic groups are rather low for most people. Depending also on your background. For many people 23andme is simply not able to detect a sufficient level of matching strength. Which is inevitable given the limitations of 23andme’s African reference database.3 Understandably this may come as a big disappointment. However don’t despair because this update is a work in progress and upcoming updates will eventually reach more people!
Table 1 (click to enlarge)
This chart shows that only 21 out of 100 of my African American survey participants received any ethnic group match (a few received more than 1). Hence the odds of receiving this update (~20%) are not that high. But still it is already a clear improvement when compared with the odds of receiving a match for an African country by way of 23andme’s Recent Ancestor Location tool. Based on a previous survey of mine this was only 3% for African Americans (see this overview).
In the remaining part of this blog post I will discuss the following:
Not intended to be conclusive! Ethnic identities are fluid and contextdependent.
Keep in mind implied timeframe.
Focus on complementarity of DNA matches and regional admixture
Educate yourself on historically plausible ethnic origins
How accurate is this update?
Updated results for 50+ Africans
In part 2 of this blogpost I will discuss my survey findings for 100 African Americans and 50 Cape Verdeans. Furthermore I will also post screenshots of updated results from other parts of the Afro-Diaspora.
Last year 23andme’s research team published a major landmark study titled “Genetic Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Americas“. Arguably the largest DNA study to examine African ancestry in the Americas!Covering a wide span of the Afro-Diaspora, incl. also several thousands of African Americans. Highly interesting therefore. The research approach of this study consists of combining genetic data obtained from 23andme customers with Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade patterns. Which is practically the same approach I have been using ever since I started my AncestryDNA survey in 2013. This study by 23andme is even including Cape Verdean samples as a control group! Which is something I have done as well in all my research sofar.1 Since I have recently finished my survey findings based on 23andme results (2018/2019 version) it should be useful to compare notes.
In this blogpost I will compare my own research findings (based on regional admixture) with 23andme’s study from 2020. In fact much of the data contained in 23andme’s study (based on the 2018 version of Ancestry Composition) is consistent with my own. As demonstrated above in Table 1. Which features the African breakdown for African Americans on 23andme (scaled to 100%).2 Despite smaller sample size on my part actually very similar outcomes. Providing mutual corroboration. The study’s main findings of lower Senegambian and higher Nigerian ancestry than expected for African Americans are in line with what I had already established in my 2015 survey. Based on AncestryDNA test results for 350 African Americans. As well as more recently in my 23andme survey. See also:
I have published another new page within the 23andme section of my blog. It features my survey findings based on 100 23andme results as well as 68 AncestryDNA results for African Americans with deep roots from South Carolina. Incl. several Gullah persons! Most of my findings are in agreement with previous published studies on African American genetics. In line with expectations Rice Coast related DNA seems to be more elevated indeed among South Carolinians.1 As indicated firstmost by a high frequency of primary “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean” scores on 23andme. As well as prominent “Mali” scores on Ancestry. But in fact also Central African lineage and strictly Senegambian2ancestry appear to be more pronounced in South Carolina than elsewhere in the USA. To be sure Nigerian (related) ancestry is very common in South Carolina too but intriguingly it seems to be relatively subdued among Gullah persons.
Table 1 (click to enlarge)
This overview is exploring regional substructure between various parts of South Carolina. Obviously only preliminary due to minimal sample size. However already a very insightful constrast between coastal and inland areas is surfacing. The Lowcountry and Pee Dee clearly having relatively elevated group averages for “Senegambian & Guinean” and especially “Ghanaian, Liberian and Sierra Leonean”. While “Nigerian” scores are much more prominent in Upstate and Midlands. Intriguingly the substantial Central African level showing up in coastal areas is also maintained into Midlands.
My analysis is also zooming into coastal areas and contrasting with inland areas withinSouth Carolina. And this kind of granularity might be a first when compared with other research projects (along with the inclusion of Southeast Asian admixture statistics). Atleast as far as I know and also when dealing with regional admixture within Africa as well (otherwise see Parra et al. (2001) for a truly pioneering study). Such a comparison is particularly insightful when wanting to grasp the localized formation of the Gullah people in the Lowcountry and adjacent Pee Dee area! In order to avoid any assumptions being made on my part I will not use Gullah as a synonym for people from the Lowcountry and/or Pee Dee.3 Although of course this is the main area where they are located. Follow the link below for fully detailed analysis, references and screenshots (incl. also AncestryDNA results):
Genetic Landscape of Gullah African Americans (Zimmerman et al., 2020)
“Relative to southeastern non-Gullah African Americans, the Gullah exhibit higher mean African ancestry, lower European admixture, a similarly small Native American contribution” […]
“Despite a slightly higher relatedness to Sierra Leone, our data demonstrate that the Gullah are genetically related to many West African populations.”
“This study confirms that subtle differences in African American population structure exist at finer regional levels. Such observations can help to […] guide the interpretation of genetic data used by African Americans seeking to explore ancestral identities.” (Zimmerman et al., 2020)
In this blogpost I will compare my own research findings with a very interesting recent study on Gullah genetics. This paper, linked above, is currently still in preprint. But it is consistent with several of my own research outcomes. Especially in regards to the quotes above. Impressively the study is based on the autosomal DNA results of 883 unrelated Gullah African Americans! A much larger sample size than I was able to use therefore.
However due to differences in methodology regrettably its potential for breakthrough insights is not fully realized. Resulting in less regionally detailed outcomes than I was able to obtain with my surveys based on 23andme and Ancestry results. To their credit the authors of the study largely succeed in sketching an appropriate historical framework for properly contextualizing their research outcomes. But at times essential details are still lacking while some of the information given appears to be outdated or not well referenced. Within the remaining part of this current blog post I will discuss the following:
Summary of my own survey findings based on 23andme and AncestryDNA results
In the last couple of years 23andme has implemented several updates. Often beneficial for Tracing African Roots! Starting with the introduction of a new African regional framework in 2018. Finally providing a meaningful breakdown of West & Central African ancestry!Soon afterwards I started a survey of 23andme results among Africans as well as African Americans and other Afro-descended nationalities.1 Similar to my previous Ancestry surveys my main research goal has always been to establish how much these results on an aggregated group level can already (despite limitations of sample size and other shortcomings) be correlated with whatever is known about the documented regional African roots for each nationality. As well as to improve correct interpretation of personal results.
Two years ago in February 2019 I published the first part of my examination of 23andme’s African breakdown. Which was based on my surveyfindings for 173 African 23andme testers from 31 countries (see this blog post). My 23andme survey has been ongoing till 23andme’s update in October 2019.2 Because of other projects I have not been able to process my entire data-set earlier. But in this blog post I will at last present my main 23andme survey findings based on 889 results from 28 different countries across the Afro-Diaspora! Actually I have already analyzed these results in greater detail (incl. screenshots of individual results) on these pages:
A small selection of 23andme results from across the Afro-Diaspora. Most of the outcomes are roughly corresponding with documented African roots for each of my survey groups. Unrealistic expectations about “100% accuracy” as well as counter-productive obsessing about regional labeling should be avoided. Instead focus on what ever informational value you can obtain despite imperfections. Take notice as well how the additional Recent Ancestor Locations are on point!
To summarize: I do indeed believe that 23andme’s African breakdown has passed the test! Although obviously there are several shortcomings to take into account. Based on both my African and Afro-Diasporan surveyfindings I find it quite impressive though that 23andme is often able to describe a person’s African origins in a meaningful regional framework. Which will usually quite closely correspond with either known genealogy or historical plausibility. The additional non-African scores and Recent Ancestral Locations actually reinforcing the robustness of 23andme’s predictions. In the remaining part of this blog post I will discuss the following:
Upper Guinean Founding Effect for Hispanic Americans
Virginia’s African roots most impactful on African American overall genepool?
Meaningful differentiation between Anglo-Caribbeans, Dutch Caribbeans and Garifuna
Frequency of primary African regions
African Americans, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Hispanic Americans, West Indians
Southeast Asian admixture indicative of Madagascar connection
For those who are not aware: ROOTSTECH Connect is the world’s largest family-history technology conference. And this year it will be a completely FREE and VIRTUAL experience! Hundreds of amazing sessions will be available online during and also after RootsTech Connect has ended on February 27th! Many of those sessions will offer precious insight for Africans and Afro-descendants in their quest to Trace African Roots! All it takes to attend is a free online registration. Right now more than 315,000 participants from more than 200 countries and territories worldwide have already registered! For more details:
I am very honoured, grateful and excited to also be part of this tremendous event! Because I will be giving an presentation as well! I will be demonstrating my scanning and filtering method to zoom into African matches or any other type of lineage you are interested in researching. I originally devised this technique in 2017. And I have been using it ever since to conduct my ongoing African DNA matches surveys. After registering for ROOTSTECH you should be able to find my class listed in the various search menus. But you can also just directly see it by following the link provided above.
If you are having trouble finding your African DNA cousins this can hopefully offer you a great opportunity to systematically look for your African DNA matches!During the event there will be an occasion to ask any questions by way of a chatroom. But of course you can also always reach me here on my blog if anything needs clarification or just to leave a comment. See also:
In the remaining part of this blog post I will show a few slides for a sneak preview 😉 Furthermore I will also provide all materials/links mentioned during my presentation. For those intending to watch my presentation: Thank you for your attention! I will be rooting for you that the ethnic filtering method I have discussed will be beneficial for you as well!