Family History - West Africa

If you are consulting this section, it is either because your ancestors were transported to North America in the transatlantic slave trade, or because they have immigrated to North America rather recently. In the former case, you will also want to consult my notes on the transatlantic slave trade.


Early and Late Middle Ages: Western Africa south of the Sahara is divided into two east-west stretching ecological zones. To the north, the Sahel encompasses the semi-arid region stretching from Lake Chad to Senegal. Between this and the coast lies the region of dense forests. These regions have had distinctly different cultural and historical fates but are historically connected. (Thus, you may want to consult the Sahel page.

For most of the study period, the southern forests have been dominated by city-states that fought one another but retained their independence. The Sahelian empires and forest city-states are linked in two ways:

  • Forest state folklore tells of repeated immigrations from the Sahel. Additionally, some city-states, like those of the Hausas of Nigeria and Niger were economically and geographically intermediate between the forest states of the coastal region and the sahelian empires.

  • The Transsaharan Slave Trade: From before the beginning of the study period, captives (mostly POWs) from the forest kingdoms of Western Africa have been traded north by Sahelian merchants. Typically, they were destined for some form of bondage in the Mediterranean region. In many ways, the trade resembled the transatlantic slave trade that replaced it, but it occurred on a much smaller scale.

    Thus, the forest nations of West Africa were mostly the point of origin for genes travelling elsewhere - north to the Mediterranean or, later, across the Atlantic to the New World. The region is not marked by large internal migrations.