Are African Americans really mostly “Nigerian”?

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.

23andme’s 2020 study

My own survey findings based on 23andme and AncestryDNA results

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Table 1 (click to enlarge)

This overview is showing the scaled African breakdown for the combined USA sample group (n=5785) featured in Micheletti et al. (2020). As well as for my own African American survey group (n=200). Despite smaller sample size actually very similar outcomes. Providing mutual corroboration. As can be seen “Nigerian” was clearly the most significant region. Going by group averages around 35%. Usually “Nigerian” is appearing as primary African category (162/200=81% in my survey). But even so “Nigerian” is still far from being predominant (>50%). Especially “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean” is also showing up as a substantial component. Furthermore regional scores indicative of Senegambian and Central African DNA are still considerable and nearly at 10%, on average. Making for an overall varied and rather balanced African breakdown. Do notice as well that around 20% of the African breakdown is falling in one of the “Broadly” categories!

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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:

Within the remaining part of this blog post I will discuss the following:

  1. Why do so many African Americans have Nigerian ancestry?
    • Ancestral implications of “Nigerian” go beyond modern-day borders
    • Domestic Slave Trade from mostly Virginia spreading Bight of Biafra lineage
    • Lower Senegambian than expected because of less reproduction?
    • Substructure according to state origins
  2. African breakdown for other parts of the Afro-Diaspora 
    • Mostly in agreement with historical expectations
    • Overlap & differences with my own survey findings
    • Regional diversity and substructure
    • Confirmation of Upper Guinean Founding Effect?
  3. Discordances & limitations of 23andme’s study
    • Afro-descended samples taken from migrants underrepresent wider variation in countries of origin
    • Central African IBD disproportionately high when contrasted with regional admixture from Central Africa 
    • Sex-biased admixture: multiple & context-dependent historical narratives! 
  4. Exciting future prospects:  personalized 23andme results featuring African IBD specified according to ethnic groups Continue reading

Gullah Genetics

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.

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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.

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My analysis is also zooming into coastal areas and contrasting with inland areas within South 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):

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Genetic Landscape of Gullah African Americans (Zimmerman et al., 2020)

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“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)

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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:

  1. Summary of my own survey findings based on 23andme and AncestryDNA results
  2. Review of Genetic Landscape of Gullah African Americans (Zimmerman et al.; 2020)
  3. African DNA matching patterns, beneficial for creating your own narrative about your personal African roots!
  4. Screenshots of 23andme & Ancestry results for African Americans from South Carolina

Continue reading

Locating African American haplogroups within Africa

Charting the ancestry of .. (Fig. 1b)

Charting the ancestry of .. (Table 2)

Charting the Ancestry of African Americans (Salas et al., 2005)

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Charting the Ancestry of African Americans (Salas et al., 2005)

“Here, we make use of an African database of 4,860 mtDNAs, which include 948 mtDNA sequences from west-central Africa and a further 154 from the southwest, and compare these for the first time with a publicly available database of 1,148 African Americans from the United States that contains 1,053 mtDNAs of sub-Saharan ancestry. We show that >55% of the U.S. lineages have a West African ancestry, with <41% coming from west-central or southwestern Africa. These results are remarkably similar to the most up-todate analyses of the historical record.

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Ethnic Origins of South Carolina Runaway Slaves

South Carolina Runaway Slaves 1730-1790

Francisco Menendez, a Mandinga runaway slave from South Carolina, became leader of the free black militia at Fort Mose in the Spanish ruled Florida of the 1700’s.

SUMMARY

Number of runaway slaves: 2,424
African origins specified: 508

TOP 3 BREAKDOWN OF AFRICAN BORN SLAVES

“Angola” (mostly Bakongo) 149 – 29% of African specified
“Gambia” (incl. Mali/Senegal) 61 – 12% of African specified
“Ebo” (Igbo & related ethnic groups) 49 – 10% of African specified
Source

Above summaries are based on the HIGHLY interesting collection of runaway slave advertisements published in American newspapers in the 1700’s:Runaway Slave Advertisements : a Documentary History from the 1730’s to 1790, Volume 3, South Carolina”. This very extensive work was put together by Lathan Windley in 1983 and has been used by many historians ever since.  Besides ethnic/regional origins you can discover many more fascinating details about these advertised runaway slaves if you read the texts closely.1 

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