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Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade


Pinpointing DNA Ancestry in Africa.


DNA research shows that most African-Americans descended from just three regions of Africa -- all on the Atlantic side of the continent.


Before the advent of DNA testing, scholars relied on shipping records that listed the African ports from which slaves were exported to determine where in Africa the African-descended population of the United States originated. But these lists were quite limited because they noted only the port of departure and not the actual community from which the enslaved were taken. 


Advancements in DNA analyses, along with African shipping records, have revealed that African Americans do not have roots in the entire continent. A relatively small number of African groups supplied the lion's share of the ancestral African population.


In fact, three large regions of Atlantic Africa were the major contributors to the slave trade: Upper Guinea, including the modern countries of Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia; Lower Guinea, including the southern portions of Eastern Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria; and West Central Africa, which encompassed mostly the western portions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. In all, these regions made up only about 15 percent of Africa's total area, all on the Atlantic side of the continent.


People were once skeptical of claims made by early DNA ancestry-tracing services that they could identify a subject's "tribe" or "ethnicity" in Africa; the available data didn't seem to sustain such claims. But new ways of calculating ancestry from the genome and larger African samples can make determining ethnic identifications more accurate.


The Language Connection

Today, speaking a common language is the primary way to identify an African tribal or ethnic affiliation. Since African languages are quite stable and reports of these languages demonstrate that there has not been any large population movement within the slave-exporting region of Africa in the past 400 years or so, it should be relatively easy to match modern ethnicities or tribes with those of the slave-trade era.


However, the names of these languages and ethnic groups have changed over that period. For example, in 1767 a German missionary named Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp did a survey of slaves living in the Danish West Indies to try to determine which languages should be used for evangelical purposes. The Danish West Indies received slaves from the same shipping route that North America used.


Oldendorp, calculating ethnicity by language, listed 30 apparently different languages (his terminology sometimes makes it unclear where political and where linguistic units divided), and he provided vocabulary for 26 of these languages, which allows us to be certain of the modern equivalent. 


In the Americas, Africans were most likely to form social units with other people who spoke their language, even if they might belong to different political units; in Africa their identity was more likely connected to a political unit. Their rulers collected taxes, demanded service (including the military service that resulted in their enslavement) and rendered justice, while neighboring polities might well be hostile even if they spoke the same language.


People collecting information about identity in America were likely to choose linguistic units, while those commenting on it in Africa were more likely to focus on political units. This created an interesting paradox: The names of African "nations" in America often did not match exactly with the names of "nations" in Africa.


The Ethnic Connection

For African Americans seeking to learn about their African ancestry, there is also the issue of ethnic associations. Since the inception of colonialism, Africans have come more and more often to cast their identity in terms of ethnicity, or by "tribal" identity. While most certainly do recognize themselves as citizens of Senegal, Ghana or Angola, they are also quite likely to recognize identity as Wolof, Akan or Mbundu.


Neither the political units nor, as often as not, the linguistic units are directly comparable to designations of nations or states given for the era of the slave trade. In fact, less than one-third of Oldendorp's language names are the current names for the language. Ethnic maps, like the famous map published by George Peter Murdock in 1959, are the basis for most understandings of today's ethnicity, and researchers collecting DNA samples are likely to ask for these names when collecting the sample and report their results using the same names.


African Americans seeking their roots must understand that there was no Senegal or Ghana in the era of the slave trade, and that while Angola and Congo were commonly used as ethnic names, these places did not have anything like their modern borders.


The names of some of the ethnic groups of today have changed, and anyone attempting to find the links to African ancestors must know something about the history of the group.

According to Murdock's ethnic map, Africa has more than 1,000 ethnic groups and as many languages. By Oldendorp's definition, barely 30 of the ethnic groups on Murdock's map contributed to the population of the Americas. Africa appears to be somewhat less diverse in the era of the slave trade.


But using the geographic information that Oldendorp supplied, and plotting the borders and ethnicity according to the Murdock map, it becomes clear that Oldendorp's 30 ethnic groups encompassed 46 of today's ethnic groups. (This is because some modern ethnic groups make up two or three of Oldendorp's.) For a list of ethnic groups and their location in modern Africa, go to The Root article African Ethnicities and Their Origins.


For people seeking their roots, it is probably not as important to link to a long-lost political group or try to locate the 18th-century name of genetic ancestors. The real contribution of the results provided by DNA is that they connect an African American living in, say, Boston or New Orleans with an African who identifies himself by a name -- say, Asante or Wolof -- and who lives in Ghana or Senegal. The African American who shares genetic sequences with that person can link himself to that modern ethnic group. By matching genetic anomalies in an African American and an African, one can establish that these two individuals had common ancestors two centuries ago.


Slavery and Jim Crow were meant to wrench African Americans from their African past, but with research and advances in science, the search for ties to a vast continent has narrowed considerably.

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Great article, but there is one problem with this information.  This DnA information compares ones DNA with that of other LIVING people whose DNA samples were collected for this purpose.  Although, as the article states, there "hasn't been much movement," there have been some developments to be careful about.  For example, the article lists "Hausa" and "Fulani/Fulbe."  The problem is, the Fulani invaded the Hausa in 1804, and the two ethnicities have been intertwined ever since.


When I did my maternal DNA, it gave me the result of "Tikar and Hausa-Fulani."  That means that my mitochondrial DNA is shared with living people who come from the Tikar and Hausa-Fulani populations.  I didn't know about the Hausa-Fulani war of 1804, so I wasn't sure why they hyphenated the names of what I thought were two separate ethnicities.  So I read up and learned that, in fact, at the time my last African-born Mitochondrial ancestor would've been born, the Hausa and Fulani were separate ethnic groups.  The Fulani were based further north of the Hausa.  After the war basically united the two peoples, they in turn expanded, exerting influence over smaller groups like the Tikar, who are from south of where the Hausa were. 


As a result, I interpret my DNA result as being Tikar.  As much as I'd like to claim the powerful, storied heritage of the Hausa and Fulani, it is most probable that my great-great-times-however many-grandmother was a Tikar girl from what's now Cameroon.  I could be wrong, but for now, it makes the most sense to me.  Her MtDNA is shared with people who today are Hausa-Fulani probably because of developments that occurred on the continent after she was taken away.   A lot of mixture would've occurred between them nowadays than back then. 


Because of what I've learned and what I've concluded, I question whether many African-Americans have any Hausa or Fulani heritage, and I wonder how many other stories like this there may be with other ethnic groups -- particularly the Ashanti.  Nevertheless, a fascinating piece, and hopefully more knowledge about our past is forthcoming. 

Cholly copied and pasted:


White inspired idiocy.


Why don't you do your own research and use your own logic and commonsense before you regurgitate whatever some white or black lackey "researcher" spoon feeds you.



Do us a favor and tell us just how all of those people could come from so few ethnic groups and areas. How could ethnic groups lose all of those millions of people and still exist. How could the people of "west" Africa sustain such loses?



This is nothing more than white propaganda where they try to pigeon hole certain groups of people as slaves based on pseudoscience. They then will claim any African American that does not fit what they think their fantasy slave look as mixed. Which they then use to puff up their own white self-esteem.



Tell us why so many African Americans look like they are from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania.



Contrary to your own idiocy their was no narrow stereotypical look for a slave. Also, slaves were brought from not only "west" Africa but every part of Africa and the rest of the world. This is because slave owners did not care. They wanted cheap labor, period.

Originally Posted by Temporary Vox:


Because of what I've learned and what I've concluded, I question whether many African-Americans have any Hausa or Fulani heritage, and I wonder how many other stories like this there may be with other ethnic groups -- particularly the Ashanti.  Nevertheless, a fascinating piece, and hopefully more knowledge about our past is forthcoming. 

Why? Because you think that the Fulani and Hausa look more like white people than other Africans so they could not have been slaves?


You really need to turn off your television. The real world does not and never has worked like that.


People who needed slaves did not care about looks, they wanted cheap labor for their businesses. That is why slaves were brought to the Americas from all over the world and is also the reason why there was no mythical stereotype look for a slave. The stereotypical slave look propaganda was created to fight against the anti-slavery efforts of the abolitionists. It is also perpetuated to keep certain white liberals and independents from feeling even worse than they might already do about slavery. In their sick minds slavery is worse if it affects groups of people who they believe look good.

Last edited by MaynardJ

Vox congratulations on your results. I'm glad you took the test AND researched your family history. There are so many techological advances not only with genetics, but in  genealogy in general. I'm still working on my several family lineages. My DNA results on my maternal line came back to Balanta of Guinea-Bissau. Only 99.7% match for MTDNA. I'm thinking that there was at one time a Balanta 'super group' as there are also Balanta, slightly different DNA in Sierra Leone and Cape Verde. You can always send me an e-mail on this issue. Its one of my personal passions and I do quite a bit of research.

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