Linguistics and population genetics (DNA): Reconstructing the origins of Latin America’s Black populations

Linguistics and population genetics (DNA):
 Reconstructing the origins of Latin America’s Black populations
Armin Schwegler / University of California, Irvine

Less than a quarter century ago, reconstructing the precise sub-Saharan origins of descendants of African slaves in the Americas seemed like an impossible task.  This was so for at least two reasons: (1) historical records of the transatlantic slave trade were haphazard, and (2) slaves had originated from so many parts of West Africa that specific speech communities in the New World were a priori thought to be the result of heavy ethno-linguistic mixing.

This talk traces how, contrary to expectations, the past 25 years of research have dramatically reversed the former situation, so much so that today some Black speech communities (e.g., El Palenque de San Basilio, Colombia) can be traced to highly specific locations in Africa.

Key to this discovery of “Africa roots” has been a multidisciplinary approach that combines the decipherment of (secret) ritual languages (e.g., “Palo Monte”, Cuba), etymological and comparative linguistic analysis, as well as population genetic (DNA) research.   A main goal of this talk is to demonstrate how this multi-pronged approach to the origins question has led to the discovery of highly specific African roots.