Uncovering African Roots
DNA Tests, New Technology Reveal African Heritage
by David Johnson
Howard University has assembled the largest collection of DNA records from West and Central Africa in the world, some 3,800 samples in all
Not long ago, an African American trying to trace his or her genealogy came up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: slavery. Even if a person's ancestry could be traced back through the slave years in this country, it was considered virtually impossible to determine where in Africa one's family originated.
However, science is now solving the riddles of the past. Some time next year Howard University plans to begin offering genetic testing so Americans of African ancestry can determine where on the continent their ancestors came from. In the meantime, Cambridge University Press, North America, is now offering a CD-ROM containing the records of two-thirds of all slave ship voyages.
World's Largest West African Data Base
Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., has assembled the largest collection of DNA records from West and Central Africa in the world, some 3,800 samples in all. The collection concentrates on ethnic groups in areas where most slaves in the United States came from.
Most blacks brought to the U.S. came from what are now Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, all of which are in West Africa. Smaller numbers came from Senegal, the Gambia, the Congo River basin, and Angola.
When they came to the U.S., the groups of Africans were dispersed, and mixed with other ethnic groups, so they usually quickly lost their tribal connections.
African Americans With European Ancestry
The collection also includes various European, Native American, and Asian samples for comparison. Researchers point out that many African Americans will also indicate European ancestry, while others may also have Native American blood.
The project will be set up to test either mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, and the Y chromosome, which is handed down from father to son.
While the cost has yet to be determined, some press reports placed it as high as $300.
CD-ROM Lists the Voyages
Titled The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Cambridge University Press CD-ROM contains records on an amazing 27,233 slave ship voyages between 1595 and 1866. In subsequent editions, it is hoped to include up to 80 percent of all voyages.
It is likely that records on the remaining 20 percent have been lost, according to scholars.
name, its owners, where it acquired slaves, and where they were taken.
Virginia's Ibo Past
The records are surprisingly detailed because, after all, slaves were considered valuable property and investors wanted an accounting of their money.
Interesting patterns emerge from all the figures. For instance, Ibo people from what is today eastern Nigeria were a leading ethnic group in Virginia. On the other hand, slaves from Senegambia, today the nations of Senegal and Gambia, were more prominent in the Carolinas. This is probably because Carolina rice planters favored slaves already familiar with rice, which was commonly grown in Senegambia.
Barbados and Cuba received the most varied African populations, with slaves coming from most of the continent. Central America's slave population was heavily drawn from the Gold Coast, what is now Benin, Togo, and parts of Ghana.
Five Percent to the U.S.
Only five percent of the 12 million African men, women, and children were brought to the U.S., while 40 percent went to Brazil. Conditions were so much better in the U.S. that slaves survived to have children, while in Brazil, and other tropical countries, the carnage was massive, requiring a steady supply of new labor.