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?!
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. 😉
Hey y’all! I just wanted to share this video I thought was interesting. It shows some of the hard reality of racism in America, but … It also shows how the majority of people, like anywhere one travels, are decent people. Even in America’s “most racist town.” Enjoy, and let me know what you think.
Realm? What are we, crossing through the wardrobe of Narnia? It sounds a bit fancy, but Biogeographic (or Zoogeographic) Realms are a way that scientists have divided the world to connect its main biological and geographic features. The continents in all their glory can be a confusing and misrepresentative way to look at the world. We’ve discussed if Bio-Realms might be a better way to divide our planet before. Here, I want to go deeper into one realm in particular, including some of its main physical and cultural features. Don’t mind me, I just love geography–and biogeography, apparently.
The Nearctic Realm is a part of the wider “Arctic” Biogeographical Realm that stretches across much of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s Ne-arctic, as in “New,” because it’s in the New World. That is, the world that was unknown by Eurasians and Africans up until a recent point. That is, the Americas. Put together with the Palearctic (“Old World” Arctic), they can be called the Holarctic (or the whole Arctic!). The Nearctic happens to coincide with what most people think of when they picture “North America.” It includes everything in that continent starting from the Arctic — including Greenland — and goes down until we reach the tropics. In the Southwest, this cutoff is somewhere in the middle of Mexico, while in the Southeast, the cutoff is Central Florida.
Since we’re talking about the limitations of the realm, let’s look at the political geography. Only two countries take up the bulk of the Nearctic:
the United States
A good chunk of Mexico is in the Nearctic, though most of the country probably isn’t (it depends on definitions). Nearctic Mexico would be the deserts, shrublands, and temperate mountains in the north. The Kingdom of Denmark sneaks its way in by way of the massive constituent country, Greenland. France also has a piece by way of a tiny territory off the coast of Newfoundland called St. Pierre & Miquelon. Otherwise, that’s it!
Geography of the Nearctic
The Nearctic is known for having large, somewhat continuous biome types. Some major ones to remember are the Arctic tundra, Boreal forests / taiga, the Great Plains, the Nearctic (or North American) deserts, and the Eastern temperate forests. Much of those forests have been heavily urbanized or used for agriculture, but there are still some trees if you look. Oh, it’s not that bad.
The realm is home to tons of lakes, big and small, with the largest (Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, etc.) being in the Great Lakes region. There are also some seriously long rivers here too, with some notable mentions being the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Yukon, and the Rio Grande.
Major mountain systems include the famous Rockies, the Pacific Ranges (or Cordillera), the East and West Sierra Madres, and the Appalachians. They are all very extensive too. The Rockies stretch from the Southwest United States up into Northern Canada. The Pacific Ranges basically run up the entire Pacific Coast. Depending on definition, the Appalachians go from the hills of Mississippi to the rocky shores of Newfoundland. Another big one is the Arctic Cordillera, a set of rugged mountains that stretch from Northern Labrador and Quebec all the way up to Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.
There are a couple of biomes that stand out from the rest of the realm. The Pacific Northwest is home to the biggest — or longest — temperate rainforest in the world. On the other end, Appalachia is home to pockets of temperate rain and cloud forests. A large section of the Gulf Coast, especially around Louisiana, is home to vast wetlands and swamps called bayous.
Another distinct area is Greenland’s Arctic desert (that’s right, they can be cold). That biome is a dry, snowy wilderness covered in snow year-round. Since we’re in the “Ne-Arctic,” the weather is just about everything but tropical. As we saw, it ranges from moist forests to dry prairies and arid deserts. Mediterranean climate is common in the matorraland chaparralshrublands of the West. Parts of the southeastern Nearctic aren’t quite tropical, but do have a humid subtropical climate. The main ecoregions include subtropical forests, temperate mixed and conifer forests, boreal forests, temperate and subtropical grasslands and plains, tundra, Mediterranean wood and shrublands, deserts, and even mangroves off the coast of Northwestern Mexico.
Ecology of the Nearctic
The Nearctic is home to many plants and animals. Some of the common big fauna are antelope (pronghorns), bison, wolves, foxes, bobcats, lynx, cougars (or mountain lions), deer, bighorn sheep, moose, bears, and musk oxen. There are also tons of rodents like rabbits, gophers, and squirrels, as well as beavers and porcupines. Armadillos, peccaries, and opossums came from further south. There are lots of bovids (cows) and horses too, but those were mostly introduced later. Camels, horses, and even a kind of cheetah were native to this region but endemic species have all died out.
Alligators are common in some parts, as are many other reptiles, amphibians, and everything else. Major birds are crows, cardinals, turkeys, and hummingbirds, as well as many owls, hawks, eagles, ducks, geese, condors, and pelicans. Different berries and flowers, as well as specialized desert, tundra, and temperate zone plants are also found here. See this article for some interesting flora in North America.
Let’s Get Some Culture … of the Nearctic
As I mentioned before, one of the cool things about Bio-Realms is how they kind of coincide with human cultural interactions too. The dominating cultures in this realm tend to be this “Neo-Anglo” culture of the North American variety (it’s quite different from Neo-Anglo culture in the Caribbean, for example), and a Latin American culture, also of the North American variety. Neo-Anglo culture is strongest throughout, especially in much of the U.S. and Canada. Still, Latino culture is strong in the Southwest of the region. This is mostly in Mexico (duh!), but also in bordering U.S. states and several urban areas throughout the realm.
“Neo-Franco” culture is strong in some areas like Canada, especially in Quebec province. It also has some influence in parts of Louisiana or St. Pierre & Miquelon, of course. Besides being a part of the same three countries, these areas are heavily influential in each other’s history and contemporary identities. They receive many immigrants amongst one another and share languages, slang, music, and cuisine across borders.
Indigenous cultures are also still around, though much subtler than in the Neotropical Realm. Their cultures are more visible in the Western United States and Mexico or rural Canada. This is also true of the Arctic where the many Inuit peoples have a distinct culture and identity. Match that with Greenland where there’s this funky mix of Inuit and Danish cultural cues.
We’ve come to the end of the Nearctic Realm, but there’s so much more to explore. What other cultural ties do the people of this realm share? Are there any other cool animals, plants, or geographic features you can think of in this realm? Had you heard about the Nearctic before? Tell us in the comments!
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