Tracing African Ancestry: Pitfalls and Challenges

by Sierraeye

On 29 April 2022, President Julius Maada Bio welcomed home and conferred Sierra Leonean citizenship on 59 African Americans who traced their origin to Sierra Leone through DNA. All 59 conducted their DNA tests via African Ancestry Inc. According to their website, African Ancestry Inc. is ‘the world leader in tracing maternal and paternal lineages of African descent having helped more than 1,000,000 people re-connect with the roots of their family tree. With the industry’s largest and most comprehensive database of over 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples, African Ancestry determines specific countries and specific ethnic groups of origin with an unrivaled level of detail, accuracy and confidence.’


Ever since Alex Haley’s book and film, “Roots,” which tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African captured and sold into slavery in Africa and transported to North America, African Americans have been keen to trace their ancestry and find out where on the continent their ancestors came from. Using many different companies, millions of African Americans spit saliva in a DNA kit and send it off for testing. According to an article in the New York Times on Nov. 19, 2018, titled ‘Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t’ ‘Testing companies analyze hundreds of thousands of particular genetic sequences and use those snippets as clues to all sorts of information. Scientists have determined specific locations in the DNA code that provide hints about where your ancestors came from, because people from the same geographical place share certain genetic similarities. The tests can also reveal your biological relatives, and how closely you’re related, by evaluating how much of your and their DNA patterns overlap. In addition, DNA analysis can identify some of the hereditary disorders you may be predisposed to or may pass on to your children.’


DNA profiling has been around since 1984 when it was discovered by the British geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys. However, its use then was focused more on paternity testing and solving criminal cases. It was not until May 2000 that Family Tree DNA, a commercial genetic testing company in Houston, Texas, began offering the first genetic genealogy tests to the public. It was not until the mid to late 2000s that it started booming amongst African Americans. Companies such as African Ancestry Inc, ConnectMyDNA and 23andMetook use robust marketing strategies to move things up a notch. In 2008, Time Magazine named retail DNA testing as the invention of the year, noting that ‘(W)e are at the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information. In the past, only élite researchers had access to their genetic fingerprints, but now personal genotyping is available to anyone who orders the service online and mails in a spit sample.’


DNA ancestry testing has immense benefits. Everybody deserves to know their roots. Ancestry testing provides an opportunity beyond the wall of slavery and presents an excellent opportunity to provide deep ancestry information. African Ancestry says its DNA testing tells deep stories of our ancestral lineage: the family, the accomplishments, the resilience.


Despite these benefits and its huge promises in 2008, DNA ancestry testing for African Americans has many limitations. They do not and cannot tell the full and complicated ancestry story. It is not just about testing; it is also about history. Sadly, the trans-Atlantic slave trade poses a significant problem that other ethnic groups do not have. Slave ships that brought Africans to the Americas did not have passenger lists. Africans were treated more like cargo than passengers. In most cases, the only records they had were records of their sale. According to Tony Burroughs, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Genealogy in Chicago and a former professor at Chicago State University, ‘Their names were stripped from them, their language was stripped from them, their history was stripped from them. And all this was done to exploit them — to literally dehumanize them.’ Without these details, it makes it harder to trace their roots beyond the shores of the USA.


After doing the DNA testing, there is a need to fuse scientific and historical analysis. Scientists need a solid database to help them to match the samples. In most cases, these databases are limited. Limited sample databases mean test results may be subject to misinterpretation. Many parts of the continent are also undersampled and not diversified. African Ancestry Inc claims to have the largest and most comprehensive database of over 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples. These claims have been disputed. Its records do not cover the entire continent. It admits its tests have a 92% and 65% chance of getting an African test result, respectively and states that very ‘few of us are 100% African. In fact, the average Black person descended from enslaved people has 75% African ancestry and 25% European ancestry.’ A limited database that doesn’t represent the full diversity of Africa leads to a lot of assumptions and inferences. Even if they had a proper database, these tests sometimes return false positives and negatives.


Many have pointed out that ethnicity is a complex concept and have bolstered the point that it is not rooted in genetics as it is in sociopolitical and cultural constructs. It is hard to make a clear-cut connection between DNA and African racial/ethnic identity and determine precisely where ancestors lived or what ethnic identity they held. No DNA test can assign anyone to an African ethnic group or one country. Long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Arabian slave trade started as early as AD 650 and saw millions of Africans shipped to Arabia. The trans-Atlantic slave trade took place from the 16th-19th centuries, with the Portuguese buying enslaved West Africans as early as 1562.


At this time, most countries today in Africa didn’t exist as we know them today. Even with the boundaries today, people move from one region to another. Some tribes are nomadic. There have also been a lot of intermarriages and migration. There are significant numbers of people in Sierra Leone who are of Yoruba or Igbo descent. The Tuaregs and Fulas are very nomadic. The Bambara, Mandes and Madingoes are in several countries. It is hard to pinpoint one country or one tribe. Some tribes that existed then are either extinct or have been absorbed into others. It is doubtful whether there are historians in the west who have studied these migration patterns or fully understand them in the absence of any documentation. Our bloodlines have mixed over the years and no single African ethnic group has a monopoly on a genetic signature. Since most people have multiple ethnic and ancestral backgrounds, this means DNA tests most likely won’t be able to capture the whole breadth of their stories. As a result, ancestry testing companies do not match people to one geographical area or region; they assign precise percentages.


In addition, there are limits to how much DNA we can pass down. DNA inheritance is random. At most, only half of someone’s DNA can be passed down. Beyond your parents, on average, we have about 25% of your genetic information coming from each grandparent and 12.5 from our great-grandparents. The further down you, the less DNA you get from your ancestors. It will be hard to trace much DNA from your ancestors, nine or ten generations down. There is also the phenomenon known as Genetic recombination. Your chromosomes aren’t purely from one grandparent or the other one. Chromosomes get mixed and matched before they are passed on. The amount of DNA that a brother and sister receive from each grandparent will slightly vary. Imagine tracing the ancestry from Africans shipped as slaves 400 years ago.


African Ancestry has what it calls an ‘unprecedented partnership’ with the Sierra Leone government through the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs and its facilitating agency, the Monuments and Relics Commission, to offer citizenship to those who trace their roots to Sierra Leone. Details of this partnership have not been made public and it is doubtful whether Sierra Leone does any retesting or simply takes the findings of African Ancestry as final. We may have adopted the philosophy of Jamaican reggae musician Peter Tosh who, in his song, ‘African,’ stated ‘Don’t care where you come from, As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African, No mind your nationality, You have got the identity of an African.’







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