The craze of ancestry testing has swept the globe. Organizations like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have been on the receiving end of millions of spit samples for a time now. I sent mine in, you can believe. One of the most interesting parts of doing a test like this is learning your backstory. Not just of a family, but of an entire world. There was a whole global exchange that happened, something never seen before.
Now, I know these tests aren’t perfectly accurate and they might misrepresent ethnicities and countries. But my question is: What does our ancestry reveal about American history and identity? I mean Nigerian ancestry, in this case.
Before we get started, I just want to lay out a disclaimer; I am not a geneticist or DNA expert. Besides the science or validity of testing, I want to look more at context. How did Nigerian ancestry even get to America? And why is there so much Nigerian ancestry in so many black people? The focus today will not be about DNA itself, but about the story that ancestry tells about American history and identity. That’s because the story of my ancestry is the story of many people. Let’s take a look, shalt we?!
Sorry, that was oldschool.
How did Nigerian ancestry get to America?
Well, that one’s quite obvious isn’t it? Unless you’re living on an alternate time plane, we trust that most African heritage in the New World was brought under terms of slavery. Now, slavery was already being practiced in West Africa before Europeans showed up.
I only mention that because when the Portuguese arrived at what is now Nigeria, they initially set up contracts with local African leaders to trade slaves across the region. (BTW, where’d you think the name “Lagos” came from? Portuguese!) That is to say, traders already had a system set up with regional leaders. Soon after, they began to take some of those slaves for themselves to Brazil, and of course, England followed suit.
Nigerian ancestry (in America and elsewhere) comes mostly from a few groups, either Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, or Fulani, despite being home to over 250 ethnic groups. The Hausa are a very large group too, but they weren’t sent as much to the Americas. Throughout the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, most of those sent to the 13 Colonies (baby USA) were of Yoruba and Igbo origin. The Igbo captives, in particular, were known for being rebellious, violent, and even suicidal in revolt against slavery. This bad rep probably led to less of them being brought to the country over time. The ones that did make it were mostly held around the Mid-Atlantic colonies (Virginia, Maryland), according to records.
People of West African origin, including today’s Nigeria, would make a profound impact on the musical and culinary styles of the places they were sent to. In the United States, these manifested into ragtime, jazz, soul, funk, blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop, and more. Think of them as intensely Americanized versions of African music. Remember, Nigeria was not a country at the time of American colonialism and many West African cultures extended beyond their present borders.
It’s important to note that there have been a couple of waves of Nigerian immigration to the U.S., especially Igbo, since the times of abolition. One of those immigration spikes is happening right now, actually. Nigeria today is the most populous nation in Africa, and its ancestry is highly present in many black Americans, whether for recent or historical reasons. But there’s just one problem: Many black people have too much Nigerian ancestry.
Nigeria’s overrepresentation in black American DNA
So, there’s a bit of a mystery when it comes to black American ancestry — well, a lot actually, but let’s look at this one thing. I’m what most people call “mixed” or “light-skinned(ed),” but the African ancestry I do have is mostly Nigerian. By now we understand how arbitrary that is. I mean, how much of that is Yoruba, or Edo, or any of those other 250? The point is, this scenario seems to be similar for many Americans with African ancestry — at least those that have been here for several generations.
What happened was that most slaves from today’s Nigeria were sent to the Caribbean or South America. North America … not so much. Those brought to today’s U.S. were mostly from Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea) or Central Africa (the Congo, Angola, Cameroon), so the records say. If that’s true, then where did all these Nigerians come from?
There are a couple of theories and explanations for that. One is that Nigerian ancestry shows up more on DNA tests because a higher proportion of Nigerians partake in DNA studies compared to other African nations. So, that might boost your Nigeria score.
Another motive could stem from the abolition of Trans-Atlantic slave trading when it became illegal to capture and bring slaves from Africa anymore. That happened in 1808 in the USA. The weird part is that part of the pressure to do this, beside moral and economic, was to put a hold on the black population which actually outnumbered whites in the South. In order to get more black slaves later on, the U.S. had to import them from other New World colonies, particularly those in the Caribbean. This continued to happen even after all slavery was abolished in America.
It seems that there was a much higher death rate among the Senegambia slaves since they were among the first to arrive. It’s like the Europeans didn’t really know what they were doing yet, and so a lot of the slaves ended up dead. There were higher death rates in the Caribbean and South American slaves, but once brought to the U.S. they usually did a little better.
Many were probably second-generation and were already used to the hard life on plantations. It’s thought that they intermarried with the established black population or even outnumbered them in places, enough so that their gene pool would become dominant. In reality, it could be due to a mixture of reasons.
As a black-ish American, it is fascinating to me to learn more about my African heritage. There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to feel bad about. The idea that Nigerian ancestry is likely so dominant due to Caribbean slaves being brought into the States really demonstrates how linked together black people of the New World are. We don’t have our old languages, customs, or religions, but we do have our own new dialect, our own new customs, and a rich culture that has taken the world by storm!
As I said, I am mixed, so I’ll be going over the different white, black, and whatever else ancestry I have over the coming weeks / months. It is all a part of a quest to understand the history of this country. What shows up on our DNA tests, whether exact or not, reveals not only how America was made. It reveals how the world made America.
Thanks for reading! As always, take care out there. 😉
Further Reading and Resources
Abolishing African Slave Trade
Lots of Americans with Nigerian Ancestry
Overrepresentation of Nigerian Genes