Tracing African Ancestry using DNA

This past season’s final episode of Dr. Henry Lewis Gate’s Finding Your Roots, featured Tonight Show band leader and drummer for The Roots Amir Questlove Thompson. Gates revealed that Thompson descends from Charles and Maggie Lewis who were born in modern-day Benin and arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1859 aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in America. Both were shipmates with Cudjo Lewis, whose biography, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was authored by Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and published this year.

Dr. Gates remarked during the show that of all the African American ancestries he’s traced, Thompson was the only person he’s traced back to named ancestors from a named place in Africa. Here’s why re-tracing our African roots is so hard for most of us.

There were two slave trades in America. The first was the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to America which started in 1619 and legally ended in 1808 (the clandestine Clotilda voyage that brought Cudjo, Charles and Maggie Lewis was illegal). It’s estimated that close to 400,000 enslaved Africans arrived in America this way. The second is the domestic slave trade within America which historians estimate was responsible for relocating up to one million enslaved people (over double the transatlantic slave trade) from the upper south to the lower south of the United States over many generations between the 1780s and the end of slavery in 1865.

Questlove Thompson descends from ancestors who were victims of the transatlantic slave trade, making his ability to trace back to African ancestry a rather straightforward effort. The majority of African Americans, like me, descend from ancestors who suffered under the domestic slave trade over generations, making our ability to trace back to Africa difficult, if not impossible. The scarcity of slave records coupled with the challenge of identifying slave owners — tracing the enslaved with only a first name, and tracing back to slave ships — creates a research brick wall for most African Americans ret-tracing back to Africa.

Advances in DNA testing however offer African Americans the intoxicating possibility of leapfrogging research brick walls created by slavery to connect to African roots by analyzing the family history etched within our DNA. Here are three ways I’ve used DNA testing to explore my African ancestry.

Examining DNA Admixture Results. My AncestryDNA test results offer me estimates on my ethnic admixture and the regions from which my African ancestors might have lived — modern day Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, and Togo. AncestryDNA also offers a feature which visualizes these results on a map. When I correlate this map with one of major African regions contributing to the transatlantic slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I’m able to estimate that most of my African ancestors were from the slave trading regions of Senegambia, Windward Coast, Benin and West Central Africa. This then lets me do the double click on each region to uncover the story behind my African ancestry.

The left chart is a map of major African regions contributing to the transatlantic slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries according to Audrey L. Brown, Ph.D., National Park Service. The right chart is a map of my African ancestry according to AncestryDNA.

For example my results show that I have ancestry from modern day Benin, which is where Questlove Thompson’s ancestors were from. Many Africans from Benin were sold into slavery by the Kingdom of Dahomey who ruled Benin for 300 years and who built its economy on the slave trade. The Dahomean Army at its peak was the most powerful military force in West Africa. We learned from Cudjo Lewis in Baracoon that the Dahomean army was led by women soldiers he called Mino who have been nicknamed by western historians Dahomey Amazons. They led regular raids and wars against neighboring tribes for captives to sell into slavery. My ancestors were likely victims of these raids.

Gezo, King of Dahomey. Image from Dahomey and the Dahomans, by Frederick E. Forbes, NYPL

Identifying African-born DNA Matches. One method I’ve come up with to identify African born DNA matches to me and my family is to build a list of modern day West African countries involved in the slave trade — Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria — then pull up my AncestryDNA match list, go to birth location, then search my list by plugging in the name of each country and examining the records.

Screenshot of AncestryDNA search feature

Through this method I’ve uncovered that I don’t have any African born matches, but my parents, both of whom I’ve DNA tested, have a few distant matches. My father for example shares a distant DNA connection (6.1 cMs) with an African-born woman from Cameroon. We likely share ancestors from the early 1700s born in modern day Cameroon during the slave trade. My branch of the family was sold into slavery while hers were not. I found my father’s match on Facebook who was very friendly and shared details on her family. She’s of the Moghamo Clan and particularly the Batibo tribe according to her paternal lineage and her mother’s family is from the Menemo Clan and Metta Tribe from Mbengwi, which she said is a very close village to her father. My ancestors were likely from these clans as well.

Exploring DNA Haplogroups. Haplogroup DNA tests reveal ancient or “deep” genealogical origins i.e. thousands of years ago rather than more recent ancestry. There are two test types — paternal and maternal. The paternal haplogroup test analyzes the DNA markers a father passes down to his son through the Y chromosome to identify ancestral clan. The maternal haplogroup test analyzes the DNA markers a mother passes down to her children through mitochondrial DNA to identify ancestral clan. Both my paternal and maternal haplogroups trace back to Europe, making me a genealogical unicorn of sorts, a black man with two European haplogroups. So my results have not been helpful for tracking back to African family origins. So I’ve tested other family members which has helped. For example, I recently Y-DNA tested cousins who are paternal direct descendants of my fifth great grandfather Britton Cumbo Sr., a free man of color born circa 1776–1794 and lived in Northampton County, North Carolina.

Here’s the earliest document I’ve uncovered on Britain [Britton] Cumbo Sr. and his family, an 1820 census record for a free colored household in Northampton County.

Their results came back haplogroup E-M2 which dates back 20,000 years to a common ancestor in Sub Saharan Africa. I was excited to see the results, confirming the African origins of our ancestry. As a follow up I have established a Cumbo Y-DNA project to encourage all direct paternal Cumbos with ancestry rooted in the U.S. South to Y-DNA test to better explore Cumbo family connections which can be found here — https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/cumbo-us-south/about

Questlove Thompson’s ability to re-trace back to African ancestors is extraordinarily rare. He essentially won the genealogical lottery. Of course getting an offer from Dr. Gates to lead the research on his behalf also helps. So where does that leave rest of us? I hope this blog provides a few helpful tips for genealogists interested in exploring African roots. But of course there are many others.

How are you using DNA testing to break down brick walls to re-trace your African Ancestry?

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