Posted by on September 12, 2013 in DNA, Science

The AncestryDNA science team presented the results of their latest research today at the Smithsonian Institute’s symposium on The African Diaspora in Washington D.C. Using unique proprietary DNA samples and a variety of statistical approaches, our science team has been able to separate West Africa into six separate population groups based on genetic data.  This advancement will provide a finer-resolution genetic ethnicity estimate for individuals with West African ancestry.

West African ethnicity

AncestryDNA’s six new ethnicity regions of West Africa include Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast/Ghana, Benin/Togo, Nigeria, and Cameroon/Congo, each of which has a distinct set of tribal affiliations.  The division of West Africa into these groups marks the first time that West African genetic ethnicity estimates can achieve this level of detail, bringing AncestryDNA’s total number of reported genetic ethnicity regions in Africa to ten.

The announcement of the new genetic ethnicity regions were presented at The African Diaspora event earlier today by Dr. Jake Byrnes, population genomics senior analyst on the AncestryDNA science team.  Although these new ethnicity updates will not be made available to all AncestryDNA users for a few more months, we wanted to give the inside scoop on Jake’s Smithsonian presentation detailing the West African ethnicity update as well as additional research findings on the genetics of African Americans.

It can be extremely difficult to research one’s African ancestry using historical records alone, as most African American individuals in the U.S. are unable to find detailed records of their ancestors before the 1870s. Our AncestryDNA test can help family historians use genetics to pick up where the paper trail ends.

AncestryDNA leverages a unique proprietary collection of DNA samples from individuals with well-documented family trees to conduct innovative research in population genetics, human evolution, and migration. The science behind AncestryDNA is continually evolving and improving. During this ongoing process, the science team demonstrated that genetic data reliably shows population structure in Western Africa.  What this means is that the DNA of individuals from Western Africa clusters into a number of distinct groups. As a result, AncestryDNA can now more finely define genetic ethnicity regions in Western Africa. (See the visual representations below.)

 Caption: The graph on the left depicts the distinct genetic clusters of individuals from West Africa. Each point is an individual with deep ancestry in West Africa from our proprietary sample database. The color of each point corresponds to the country (shown in the map on the right) where a majority of that individual’s ancestors lived. The x and y axes indicate two primary axes of genetic differentiation (called principal components, or PCs) as inferred from sample DNA. Points closer together on the plot are more similar genetically. Comparison of the graph on the left and the map on the right reveals the similarity of the genetic and geographic structure.

Caption: The graph on the left depicts the distinct genetic clusters of individuals from West Africa. Each point is an individual with deep ancestry in West Africa from our proprietary sample database. The color of each point corresponds to the country (shown in the map on the right) where a majority of that individual’s ancestors lived. The x and y axes indicate two primary axes of genetic differentiation (called principal components, or PCs) as inferred from sample DNA. Points closer together on the plot are more similar genetically. Comparison of the graph on the left and the map on the right reveals the similarity of the genetic and geographic structure.

Population structure such as this is not new, and even exists in the U.S today.  Here’s an example from the 2010 census data.  Each point is an individual, colored by their self-reported ethnicity.

West African ethnicity 3

You’ll notice that people of similar backgrounds tend to stay and live in the same general geographic areas.  Imagine now if we could roll this map back in time to see where an individual’s ancestors immigrated to the U.S.!

The AncestryDNA science team is looking toward a future where we could reveal, in the absence of a family tree, the most probable locations where one’s ancestors lived – both in the U.S. and abroad.  To do this, the science team hopes to harness the power of collectively analyzing family trees of individuals with similar genetic profiles.

Though this project is still in its infancy, the science team has made some progress. First, we looked at the birth locations of individuals in the trees of all African Americans. Then, we looked for locations where, relative to all African Americans, there appeared to be an over-representation of birth locations in trees of individuals with a particular West African ancestry.  For individuals with Senegalese genetic ethnicity, we found what seems to be an over-representation of birth locations in South Carolina and Georgia in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

This might be an example where the genetics matches up with history.  In the 18th century, plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia knew little about rice cultivation and preferred to import slaves from Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Senegal (the Windward Coast), where rice is a commonly grown crop. It is thought by some scholars that the Gullah people, who today live in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, descend from slaves imported from the Windward Coast to work specifically on rice plantations.

Providing more detailed ethnicity estimates for West African populations is crucial for American family historians.  Approximately 85-90% of today’s African Americans are descendants of enslaved Africans brought to America between 150 and 450 years ago – leaving many African Americans without a known family history prior to this time. AncestryDNA’s new West African ethnicity update will help to link African American individuals to specific locations in West Africa. In the future, more detailed analyses of genetic data and family trees have the potential to reveal important historical stories.

West African ethnicity 4

Thanks to the science team’s findings of genetic structure in West Africa, the new African ethnicity regions will be a breakthrough for many African Americans and may even reunite the origins of disrupted families.  But more is to come, as we are only scratching the surface of what is possible.

About Julie Granka

Julie has been a population geneticist at AncestryDNA since May 2013. Before that, Julie received her Ph.D. in Biology and M.S. in Statistics from Stanford University, where she studied genetic data from human populations and developed computational tools to answer questions about population history and evolution. She also spent time collecting and studying DNA using spit-collection tubes like the ones in an AncestryDNA kit. Julie likes to spend her non-computer time enjoying the outdoors – hiking, biking, running, swimming, camping, and picnicking. But if she’s inside, she’s baking, drawing, and painting.



Wow, this is what me and my father have been hoping for. Awesome!

September 12, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Sounds great!!! When will this feature take effect?

September 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm
    Julie Granka 

    Within the coming months AncestryDNA customers will start to see the fruits of our research incorporated into their ethnicity results.

    September 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Great work, guys!!!! Very excited.

September 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Wow! Can’t wait to see the results. @Nia from The Genetic Genealogist the next 1 to 3 months. 6,000 lucky random people (i’m not one) got their sneak preview 9/12. See:

September 14, 2013 at 1:36 am

Could this advance help resolve the origination location of E-V13?

September 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm
    Julie Granka 

    Thank you for your interest! This advance in our genetic ethnicity estimates only relates to autosomal DNA — not to Y or mitochondrial DNA.

    September 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm
Quinn Hopkins 

Will the updated information be added automatically to previous DNA tests?

September 28, 2013 at 9:51 pm
    Julie Granka 

    It will. All AncestryDNA customers will receive their new ethnicity results with these updates without having to take the test again.

    September 30, 2013 at 8:11 pm
anthony parker 

I’ve asked if they will have a raw data upload like Familytreedna has where you can upload raw data from 23andme to them,and they said there are no plans right now. That makes me upset,I would love to have my maternal grandparents 23andme looked at by Ancestrydna since they are the only ones with this new west African breakdown. I promised my grandparents when they did 23andme that they wouldn’t do any more tests (and spitting,even with an assistant collection kit,was rough for them).

October 13, 2013 at 11:50 pm
Unraveling the Science Behind Ethnicity Estimation 

[…] after generation.  Similarly, chance movements of humans across the world allow us to see DNA evidence of this […]

October 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm
LaKisha David 

Wow. I just want to say THANK YOU! …and keep up the good work. Seriously, please keep it up. There’s some real healing going on from your work. Thank you.

November 23, 2013 at 10:45 am
Asar Imhotep 

I had my test done through another company and it narrowed it down to Mozambique. It looks like your test doesn’t cover that area. Are there plans to expand to that other area where Africans were taken and enslaved in the Americas?

January 18, 2014 at 12:37 am
Should white americans recognize/embrace their African ancestry? - Ancestry research, historical records, genetic analysis, sharing data, locating family - Page 31 - City-Data Forum 

[…] them 2.0 ethnicity results) they posted a blog claiming a big improvement in African DNA testing: AncestryDNA Makes Scientific Breakthrough in West African Ethnicity I had heard rumors of Native American, so thought I might find a bit of that. In my tests I came […]

January 18, 2014 at 6:20 am
rickey bobbitt 

thanks to I was able to know,
my west and east african roots.

January 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Hi Julia,
I have received my results from my DNA test, and I have a question regarding the findings. I was excited to know that West Africa especially the Ivory Coast was where the highest concentration of my genetics found. The other region in West Asia was a bit of a surprise but not entirely, because I have always felt a kindred spirit with the culture of Turkish people. I like the style of clothing, music, etc. I also have some European genes, which was not a surprise. What I would like to know is how did the emigration occur? I live in the Texas in the U.S. thank you for all of the research that you are doing, it really helps in knowing where one is from.
Thanks again,

January 29, 2014 at 8:31 pm
    Julie Granka 

    Hi Wanda, thanks again for your interest! I’d suggest looking through the detailed region descriptions on your results pages, as they main help to reveal some interesting history about your possible ancestors from that region.

    March 18, 2014 at 6:47 pm
jordans for women 

thank you for share!

April 26, 2014 at 6:26 am
jordan sc-1 

thanks for share!

May 9, 2014 at 1:12 am

As more research becomes available, will existing DNA results be updated to match the new data?

May 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

I also had a significant amount of ethnicity correlated with Ghana. Are the results dealing with Ghana/ Ivory Coast related mainly to Akan tribes/peoples? Would it be possible to tell the self proclaimed ethnicity of the Individuals tested?

June 9, 2014 at 10:00 pm
michael kors hamilton satchel 

thanks for share!

June 17, 2014 at 12:30 pm

In the results is South Mali the region were my ancestor came from. Now I hope to find somebody who shares DNA and I hope to find the tribe.

July 31, 2014 at 12:53 pm
Sam J 

So If you all ready taken the DNA test will they go back to add the new info to you chart? if so I can not wate to mines.

November 24, 2014 at 6:58 pm
Francesca Abbey 

My great grandmother Lila told me the story of our heritage so many times that it stayed on my mind all these years. What she also told me was that her African mother was a princess in Dahomey. So I had to find out who was king in Dahomey at the time her mother was a little girl. She had to be the daughter of either Ahosu Ghezo, (king is Ahosu in the Fon language) who was king of Dahomey from 1818 to 1858 or Ahosu Glele, who was king of Dahomey from 1858 to 1889. I’m figuring the young girl might have been born around 1856, give or take a few years.

January 3, 2015 at 11:55 pm
Eva S. 

Very interesting article. Will you be able to do more detailed work for Native Americans, too, sometime in the future? I have a relative that has been told that he has Native American in his blood, but your estimation will be too general to really pinpoint whether it is North American or South America. It seems there should be a way to be more specific in regard to Native American heritage, and I hope you will some day consider this as your next project. :-)

January 5, 2015 at 4:03 am

This is a great tool for those who are at a loss as to where to turn next. Do you have plans to do more research for slaves who were sent to the Caribbean?

February 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm
Jerome Pritchett 

My interest are the African slaves sent to the Caribbean. Will there be further research on that?

February 24, 2015 at 5:46 am

This is excellent. What Ancestry’s science team is striving to do here is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with my overall family history research. I look forward to the next phase of updates regarding this pertinent project.

March 10, 2015 at 5:06 am

I was surprised and fascinated to learn that I have trace ancestry from Senegal and 6% Native American. Given all this amazing work on African ancestries, I am wondering why there is so little detail about Native American ancestry? I’m hoping that a breakdown of the North and South American continents will soon be possible too. Thanks.

May 14, 2015 at 4:30 am

I just found out my Father is <1% Mali. This is all new to me. I am excited but wondering many generations this would go back?

May 19, 2015 at 1:56 am
Kenyan Summers 

I am so excited about seeing my roots. My DNA result was so worth the price and the wait (which was about 2 weeks).

May 27, 2015 at 6:18 pm

Howdy, I am white. Have white parents and grandparents, etc… My DNA ethnicity revealed 1% Senegalese. My grandmother is from South Carolina and mentioned a couple times having “negro” in her family history. What is the chance that this Senegalese is accurate? Or not accurate?

July 21, 2015 at 6:14 am
Beth W 

I am a White presenting person with only knowledge of northern european ancestry. So far, out of 6 relatives on my mother’s side, I am the only one who has had 12% Iberian Peninsula and 2% Mali DNA results, the rest european. What does this mean? How can I begin to trace what side of my family our ancestors with African DNA came from?

August 19, 2015 at 4:40 am

all of this is not real you people are trying to divide us with your fake history and genetics you don’t know african people because you aren’t african

August 28, 2015 at 5:51 pm
rickey bobbitt 

I would like to say I am happy to find my roots,
in africa and I am proud to be a desendant,
of ghana west africa.
rickey bobbitt.

January 26, 2016 at 3:25 am
Sirius moore 

Government should be left responsible for the funding of this project, especially since they also funded off of the oppression of our Ancestors, & haven’t been held accountable for their hand in the confusion of our people.

April 26, 2016 at 11:55 am

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