The epidemiology of bone loss in populations of African heritage is still poorly known. We compared a convenience sample of 47 African-American (AA) residents of Rochester, Minnesota (32 women, 15 men) and 66 recent immigrants from Somalia (all women) with 684 white subjects (349 women, 335 men) previously recruited from an age-stratified random sample of community residents. Areal bone mineral density (BMD, g/cm(2)) and volumetric bone mineral apparent density (BMAD, g/cm(3)) were determined for lumbar spine and proximal femur using the Hologic QDR 2000 for white subjects and the QDR 4500 for the others; the instruments were cross-calibrated from data on 20 volunteers. Lumbar spine BMD was 18% higher in AA ( p<0.001) and 4% lower in Somali ( p = 0.147) than white women. Femoral neck BMD was 27% higher in AA women but also 11% greater in Somali women (both p<0.001) compared with whites. Lumbar spine BMD was 6% higher ( p = 0.132) and femoral neck BMD 21% higher ( p<0.001) in AA than white men. No Somali men were studied. After correcting for bone size differences, both lumbar spine ( p<0.01) and femoral neck BMAD ( p<0.001) were greater for Somali than white women, but the difference between Somali and AA women persisted. Lumbar spine and femoral neck BMAD values also remained significantly greater for AA women (both p<0.001) and men ( p<0.05; p<0.001) compared with whites. Weight was associated with BMAD at both skeletal sites in all groups, but adjustment for differences in weight did not reduce the discrepancy in BMAD values between Somali and AA women or between the latter group and whites. This heterogeneity among different ethnic groups of African heritage may provide an opportunity for research to better explain race-specific differences in bone metabolism.