An interesting study of African genetics published today has just confirmed what I've always suspected: that, contrary to widespread claims, many African Americans have little or no "Indian" blood running in their veins.
Since I've been living in this country, I'm yet to meet an African American who hasn't told me that they have some kind of Indian stemma in their ancestry. Here in Georgia, I have met many African Americans (including dark-skinned ones) who have proudly told me that their great grandparents (whose pictures they have allegedly seen) are American Indians!
Well, the genetic study found that "There was 'very little' evidence for American Indian genes among African-Americans."
According to the study, "about 71 percent of African-Americans can trace their ancestry to western African origins." This is, of course, an all-too-obvious historical and phenotypic fact. The earliest African presence in the Americas is decidedly directly traceable to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
By all historical accounts, this inhuman trade took place primarily in West Africa and specifically around what is today Nigeria. So it's not surprising that 71 percent of African Americans trace their ancestral provenance to West Africa.
What is surprising to me, though, is that, according to the study, only between 13 percent and 15 percent of African Americans have a European ancestry. I thought the figure should be a little higher than that. In fact, previous studies had suggested that a little over 20 percent of Black Americans have a European ancestry. Well, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. We live and learn.
Of course, as the study itself confirms, there a few African Americans who may trace their roots to parts of Africa other than West Africa. For instance, it's a historical fact that a sizable number of Africans were also enslaved from such central African countries as Angola and the Congo. And there were a few black South Africans who emigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, not as slaves but as indentured servants.
It is these disparate black African populations that have fused, over many centuries, to constitute the bulk of what we call African Americans today.
Having said that, I have often been amused by the farcical, self-hating my-grandparents-were-Indian fiction that many African Americans cherish about their ancestral origins. But just why did the myth of an Indian origin for African Americans, absurd as it is, start and spread?
Well, my sense is that the narrative about the consanguinity of African Americans with Indians is less about historical facticity than it is about a rhetorical strategy to achieve two inter-related goals: to run away from the shame that identification with "primitive" Africa inspired in early America and to share in the symbolic capital that comes with being identified as the original inhabitant of the United States.
Well, my attitude is: if the fable of an Indian ancestry helps our estranged cousins negotiate their complex identities in America's ethnic cauldron, no one should begrudge them. After all, most collective identities are the products of grand fictions that have been sanctified over several years.
For example, the Hausa people have their exotic Bayyagida myth of origin, which says that they are descended from some ancient Iraqi adventurer. The Yoruba have their Lamurudu/Oduduwa fiction, which traces their ancestral roots to Egypt.
My own people in Borgu cherish their Kisra myth of origin, which says we are descended from some Arab infidel who fled Mecca to Borno and then to what is today Borgu after purportedly rebelling against the prophet of Islam. And, of course, the Igbo, not wanting to be left out, have recently embraced a myth of origin that locates their provenance to Israel. Ibo (Igbo), they say, is the corruption of Hebrew.
Although all extant scientific evidence points to Africa as the birthplace of humanity, black Africans are enamored of myths of origins that locate their provenance to places other than Africa.
Perhaps, African Americans are also enacting their own version of this black African self-hatred by tracing their ancestral origins to American Indians.
Below is the full Associated Press story, originally titled "Africans have world's greatest genetic variation":
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON – Africans have more genetic variation than anyone else on Earth, according to a new study that helps narrow the location where humans first evolved, probably near the South Africa-Namibia border.
The largest study of African genetics ever undertaken also found that nearly three-fourths of African-Americans can trace their ancestry to West Africa. The new analysis published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science.
"Given the fact that modern humans arose in Africa, they have had time to accumulate dramatic changes" in their genes, explained lead researcher Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania.
People have been adapting to very diverse environmental niches in Africa, she explained in a briefing.
Over 10 years, Tishkoff and an international team of researchers trekked across Africa collecting samples to compare the genes of various peoples. Often working in primitive conditions, the researchers sometimes had to resort to using a car battery to power their equipment, Tishkoff explained.
The reason for their work? Very little was known about the genetic variation in Africans, knowledge that is vital to understanding why diseases have a greater impact in some groups than others and in designing ways to counter those illnesses.
Scott M. Williams of Vanderbilt University noted that constructing patterns of disease variations can help determine which genes predispose a group to a particular illness.
This study "provides a critical piece in the puzzle," he said. For example, there are clear differences in prevalence of diseases such as hypertension and prostate cancer across populations, Williams said.
"The human genome describes the complexity of our species," added Muntaser Ibrahim of the department of molecular biology at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. "Now we have spectacular insight into the history of the African population ... the oldest history of mankind.
"Everybody's history is part of African history because everybody came out of Africa," Ibrahim said.
Christopher Ehret of the department of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, compared genetic variation among people to variations in language.
There are an estimated 2,000 distinct language groups in Africa broken into a few broad categories, often but not always following gene flow.
Movement of a language usually involves arrival of new people, Ehret noted, bringing along their genes. But sometimes language is brought by a small "but advantaged" group which can impose their language without significant gene flow.
Overall, the researchers were able to study and compare the genetics of 121 African groups, 60 non-African populations and four African-American groups.
The so-called "Cape-colored" population of South Africa has highest levels of mixed ancestry on the globe, a blend of African, European, East Asian and South Indian, Tishkoff said.
"This will be a great population for study of diseases" that are more common in one group than another, she said.
The study also found that about 71 percent of African-Americans can trace their ancestry to western African origins. They also have between 13 percent and 15 percent European ancestry and a smaller amount of other African origins. There was "very little" evidence for American Indian genes among African-Americans, Tishkoff said.
Ehret added that only about 20 percent of the Africans brought to North America made the trip directly, while most of the rest went first to the West Indies.
And, he added, some local African-American populations, such as the residents of the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina, can trace their origins to specific regions such as Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the Advanced Computing Center for Research and Education at Vanderbilt University, the L.S.B. Leakey and Wenner Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard and Burroughs Wellcome foundations.