“I’m from Uganda”. “No..no, that can’t be, you look like you are from Rwanda”. “Yes, really I am”. “No, my friend, you look like my cousin back home in the village”.
I have come across conversations like this where it is quite normal for Africans to question both their own or others’ ethnicity and background. It has been typical to hear, “hey, that person looks Nigerian”, “He must be South African”, or “she is definitely Ethiopian”. Africa is widely considered as the place where humanity began, and certainly contains numerous ethnic groups with over 2,000 languages being spoken on the continent. However, there has not been any concrete scientific mapping on the history and migration of Africans until now, and this research can certainly makes the answers to questions on ethnicity and background a little less straightforward.
For over a decade, an on-going DNA analysis study by a team of scientists led by Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania, has tried to map African DNA to look at where different tribes originated from and the genetic history of the continent. Recent results have revealed a striking illustration of the genetic diversity across Africa.
The scientists gained data from African populations, African-American populations, as well as European populations. They identified 14 “ancestral clusters” of humanity, of which 9 are from Africa, highlighting Africa’s huge ethnic diversity. Some of the research showed that the Masai, who traditionally maintain their pastoral lifestyle, have interestingly been found to have mixed significantly with different populations from Ethiopia, but maintain quite different languages. The oldest African population was also found to be near the coastal border of Namibia and Angola, where indigenous San communities reside. From this community, modern migration took place throughout Africa and the rest of the world. African-Americans were also included in the study, and they were found to share about 71% of their ancestry with the Niger-Kordofanian language family from West Africa. 13% percent of their makeup was also European, and the rest was from other African groups.
These scientific results underscore the diversity of Africa’s population, and remind us once again that Africa is certainly not homogenous, and to avoid the colonial mindset of looking at Africans as one population. It also has other implications, as the data can contribute to research on the link between genetics and diseases. So the question is, what do you think about this study? Was it worthwhile, and does it bear any relevance?
I do however suggest that the next time somebody asks you where you come from, to pick up May’s issue of the journal of Science and check out your African genetic history.