As a scientist at Ancestry®, I love telling people about how AncestryDNA® can help African American customers trace their ancestors back to Africa—and also trace the movements of later generations in America.
One of my favorite memories of talking about AncestryDNA was a meeting we had a couple of years ago with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
They shared my enthusiasm about what we could help African Americans learn not only about their African roots but also about their family history in the U.S.
This combination of knowledge about one’s family in more recent times as well as ancestors in the more distant past is what makes AncestryDNA such a powerful tool for discovery.
What AncestryDNA® Can Reveal About Your African Roots
We have to look relatively far back in time to trace the roots of most African Americans to the continent of Africa. To do this, we rely on DNA, comparing customers’ DNA to the DNA of people with long histories from 70 specific regions of the world, 12 of which are in Africa.
If part of someone’s DNA is most similar to the DNA of people from one of the dozen regions of Africa we look at (like Somalia), then they have ancestors that were most likely linked to people from that African region (Somalia, in this case).
As of September 2020, the 12 regions in Africa to which we can trace customers’ heritage through DNA are:
• Northern Africa
• Khoisan, Aka & Mbuti Peoples
• Benin & Togo
• Southern Bantu Peoples
• Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu Peoples
• Ethiopia & Eritrea
• Ivory Coast & Ghana
• Eastern Bantu Peoples
As you might guess, more customers find they have genetic ties to people from certain regions in Africa than to others.
For example, the two most common regions in Africa that African Americans have in their AncestryDNA test results are:
- • Nigeria
- • Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu Peoples
The two least common regions are Somalia and Southern Bantu peoples.
It’s also worth noting that over the years we have increased the number of regions to which customers can trace their African roots—as more and more people have taken the AncestryDNA test. And as technology has improved, we’ve increased the precision of the AncestryDNA test results.
Insights Into More Recent Ancestors
In addition to tracing customers’ heritage back many hundreds of years to specific regions of Africa, Ancestry can also reveal where more recent ancestors lived at different times in the New World.
To trace this more recent history, Ancestry uses its patented Genetic Communities™ technology. This technology compares the DNA of customers in the AncestryDNA database, looking for groups of people who share more DNA with each other than they do with other people outside of the group.
Groups who share more DNA with each other likely came from the same place (the same part of a country or even the same county) within the last 200-300 years.
For African American customers, this Genetic Communities™ technology has meant that AncestryDNA has been able to identify 94 African American and Afro-Caribbean groups, or communities, across the U.S. and the Caribbean.
As of 2020, over 1 million AncestryDNA customers are part of these groups.
Each of these communities has a shared history tied to a specific region. For instance if a customer’s AncestryDNA test shows that they are part of the Macon, Georgia, African Americans community, it means they have genetic ties to a group with roots in central Georgia.
While most of the African American communities tell the stories of African American families from the 1800s on, a couple (Early North Carolina African Americans and Early Virginia African Americans) can trace their formation back to the 1700s.
This predates most records that include African Americans in Virginia and North Carolina and can thus give customers whose AncestryDNA test results link them to these communities an idea of where their African American ancestors were living in the 1700s.
In addition to where their mostly more recent ancestors lived, AncestryDNA can also reveal how members of the group, or community, moved over time.
The South Carolina African American community is a great example. In the time period of 1925 to 1950, members of that community moved from south to north.
Although this community was identified purely based on shared DNA, this movement of people aligns with what we know of history. During this time period, many African Americans moved from the south to the north in what has become known as the Great Migration.
What this Genetic Communities™ technology reveals about the movements of groups over time is astonishing. If we did not know about the Great Migration, we could infer it from our data.
A Richer Family Story
AncestryDNA can give African American customers a more complete picture of their family stories. They can trace their roots to people from specific regions in Africa, find connections to African American ancestors in more modern times, and even connect to living relatives through DNA matches.
And they can continue to build on their discoveries through building a family tree. For example they can perhaps find the names of their enslaved ancestors or their African American ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
If you’re African American and looking to learn more about your family stories, to find and honor those who came before you, I’m proud to say Ancestry is a great place to start.
Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Scientific Communications at Ancestry, is a science communicator and educator with a passion for genetics.