Several months ago, I received the above test results from AncestryDNA. What this seems to be telling me is that over half of my African ancestors may have come from within the Bight of Biafra region (Nigeria). A whopping 48% (of my 92% African composition) from one area is indeed a lot compared to the percentages of many other people of African descent who have taken this DNA test. As DNA technology continues to advance, I first questioned the validity of AncestryDNA’s results. I continue to have some questions about how they determined this, as most researchers do. So what do I truly think about these DNA results?
One of my dreams since I was a teenager was to find my “Kunte Kinte” ancestor. Just like the story told in “Roots,” I wanted to find an African ancestor, his/her African name, a specific West African village, the name of the slave ship that brought my ancestor to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the confirmed slave port, and more. Even when I started researching my family tree in 1993, I had a number of elderly relatives living with whom I had long, revealing conversations about our roots. In picking their brains, I often asked them if they had heard an elder grandparent or another family elder during their young days talk about Africa. And always, the answer was “No.” Like the majority of African-American researchers, I was not fortunate to gain any oral history about a specific ancestor who was brought over from a specific place in Africa.
Nevertheless, several roads seem to indeed point to Nigeria and DNA was paving the way. In the early 2000s, DNA technology started rapidly emerging and a DNA company called African Ancestry was started in Feb. 2003. They utilized DNA technology to tell people of African descent where their direct paternal or direct maternal ancestry may have originated and the African ethnic groups. When I say “direct paternal,” I mean father-to-father-to-father-to-father-and-so-one since their PatriClan test examines the Y-chromosome in men, which is passed down unchanged from father to son. Also, when I say “direct maternal,” I mean mother-to-mother-to-mother-to-mother-and-so-on since their MatriClan test examines a person’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down unchanged from mother to child.
Before I could even order the MatriClan test, my first cousin – Mom’s sister’s daughter Charlotte – informed me that she and her husband Kwame had just ordered kits. Since Charlotte and I have the same mtDNA, which came from our maternal grandmother, Minnie Davis Reed – who got it from her mother Mary Danner Davis, who got it from her mother Louisa Bobo Danner, who got it from her mother Clarissa Bobo, who got it from her mother Matilda Boyce, who got it from her mother Jenny (born c. 1765), and so on – that meant that I didn’t have to order the kit. I waited for Charlotte’s results and was just as excited as, or more than, she was. Her test results revealed that our mtDNA matches the Fulani (a.k.a. Fulbe) people who live in northern Cameroon today. Based on the sources I’ve read, the Fulani people in that part of Cameroon had not long migrated into that area from northern Nigeria, where they had been for hundreds of years. They consider the Fulani in northern Nigeria as their cousins. Therefore, it’s plausible that our 5th-great-grandmother Jenny’s maternal ancestor, maybe her mother or her maternal grandmother, was living somewhere in northern Nigeria at the time of capture during the transatlantic slave trade.
Another DNA test pointed to Nigeria as well. As part of my family’s 150th Year Commemorative Reunion of the Descendants of Lewis & Fanny Barr in 2009, the planning committee and I thought it would be a great idea to get some African origin information about Lewis and Fanny from DNA technology and announce it at the banquet. Since my uncle John W. Reed had already taken the PatriClan test, we knew that Grandpa Lewis Barr’s Y-chromosome, which was passed down unchanged to my maternal uncles and numerous other Reed males, matches the Mbundu people of Angola. A 100% match. What about Grandma Fanny Barr, my great-great-great-grandmother? She was born around 1790 somewhere in Virginia, sold down south to Rev. William H. Barr of Abbeville, S.C. by 1810, and later taken to Pontotoc County, Mississippi in 1859 by William Barr, Jr. We found a cousin who carries Grandma Fanny’s mtDNA via Fanny’s daughter, Sue Barr Beckley. To our delight, African Ancestry found that Grandma Fanny’s mtDNA matches the Fulani and Yoruba peoples of Nigeria.
Also, for years, I have always wondered if one of my maternal grandmother’s grandparents, Hector Davis & Lucy Milam Davis, had Igbo ancestry. They had at least one set of twins, Uncle Sam Davis (1873-?) and Aunt Alice Davis Wilson (1873-1956). I have wondered this ever since I read an article about the high rate of twin births in Nigeria and among the Igbo people of Nigeria. This article stated that Nigeria has the highest rate of twins in the world. I lose count of all of the twin births in my maternal grandmother’s family.
With my first cousin’s twins, Tony & Tonisha
But those three potential roads to Nigeria is a very small part of the big picture. I plausibly asserted that after nine generations back, I hit the time frames in my family tree when many of my African ancestors were living in Africa; many in that 9th generation endured the horrific Middle Passage, while few in that 9th generation were probably among the first to be born on American soil to African parents. The 9th generation would be my 7th-great-grandparents. For many African Americans, it could be from the 7th generation and upwards. It will vary. Back to the 9th generation, one has a total of 512 7th-great-grandparents. Based on my results from both 23andMe and AncestryDNA, my ancestry composition is approximately 90% African. Therefore, I'll make an educated guess that about 455 of them were African, about 50 of them were European, and a couple of them were Native Americans. And what AncestryDNA seems to be telling me is that over half of those 455 strong African ancestors were from the Nigeria area. Wow!
Now this gets me back to my question. What do I think about the AncestryDNA results? Because it appears that “Ground Zero” in America for many of my lineages were mainly Virginia and South Carolina, I feel that the results seem historically reasonable. Why? Virginia ranked second among the areas where slave traders imported at least 30% of all Africans who were transported into North America. South Carolina ranked first; historians estimate that over 40% of all Africans who were imported into North America were disembarked in South Carolina. One of the African “hotspots” where Virginia slave traders obtained most of their human cargo was indeed the Bight of Biafra region (38%), followed by the Angola-Congo region (16%), the Gold Coast region (Ghana) (16%), and the Senegambia region (modern Senegal & the Gambia) (15%) [Source: Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 157.].
Do I think AncestryDNA’s analysis is the exact true picture of my African roots? No. There will always be a margin of error. Could it be close to the true picture? Yes, in my opinion. DNA technology, as far as African ethnicities are concerned, is still advancing. Geneticists are still researching to gather more data as we speak, and I have a lot more to learn. However, since the dark events of American history, namely American chattel slavery, yielded a lot of unknown factors about our African roots, I don’t think it will ever be possible for anyone to gain the exact true picture. Besides, how will we even know if it’s the entire true picture? I just simply use these DNA results as good tools as I attempt to continuously draw the bigger picture of my African origins as best as the known factors will allow.