Genetic landscape of Gullah African Americans

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2021 Aug;175(4):905-919. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.24333. Epub 2021 May 19.


Objectives: Gullah African Americans are descendants of formerly enslaved Africans living in the Sea Islands along the coast of the southeastern U.S., from North Carolina to Florida. Their relatively high numbers and geographic isolation were conducive to the development and preservation of a unique culture that retains deep African features. Although historical evidence supports a West-Central African ancestry for the Gullah, linguistic and cultural evidence of a connection to Sierra Leone has led to the suggestion of this country/region as their ancestral home. This study sought to elucidate the genetic structure and ancestry of the Gullah.

Materials and methods: We leveraged whole-genome genotype data from Gullah, African Americans from Jackson, Mississippi, African populations from Sierra Leone, and population reference panels from Africa and Europe to infer population structure, ancestry proportions, and global estimates of admixture.

Results: Relative to non-Gullah African Americans from the Southeast US, the Gullah exhibited higher mean African ancestry, lower European admixture, a similarly small Native American contribution, and increased male-biased European admixture. A slightly tighter bottleneck in the Gullah 13 generations ago suggests a largely shared demographic history with non-Gullah African Americans. Despite a slightly higher relatedness to populations from Sierra Leone, our data demonstrate that the Gullah are genetically related to many West African populations.

Discussion: This study confirms that subtle differences in African American population structure exist at finer regional levels. Such observations can help to inform medical genetics research in African Americans, and guide the interpretation of genetic data used by African Americans seeking to explore ancestral identities.

Keywords: West Africa; admixture; ancestry; demography; slavery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Black People* / genetics
  • Black or African American* / genetics
  • Europe
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Male