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Africa North DNA in Europe

People with primarily European ancestry are often surprised to find North African DNA in their ethnicity results.  In this post, learn a little bit about how you might have inherited DNA from Northern Africa even though you have no known recent ancestors from the area.

Plus, find out why it’s not remnants of “ancient DNA”, as some would quickly assume.

Do you have a trace amount of North African in your ethnicity results?

If you found a small amount of Africa North DNA in your ethnicity estimates, and have no known recent African ancestry, it’s really not that surprising. 

As it turns out, 20% of modern-day natives to the Iberian Peninsula region, which includes Portugal, Spain, and parts of France, have Africa North DNA. 

The closest distance between Spain (in Europe) and Morocco (in Africa) is only about nine miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, so it should come as no shock that there has been human movement across this small stretch of water for millennium.

Morocco is so close to Spain, and the British-controlled area of Gibraltar that you can see distant African mountains, even on a cloudy day. 

There are even people who say that when they climb to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar (shown below), their cellphone switches to roaming with an Moroccan cellular provider, and if they weather is clear, you can make out headlights of individual cars at night in the Spanish city of Ceuta, located on the coast of Africa.

The Rock of Gibraltar
This is a view of the Rock of Gibraltar, located in the British territory of Gibraltar on the coast of Spain. Photo credit: SJ Grant, CC by 2.0
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Aren’t all humans originally from Africa?

Most of the genome of modern humans originates in Africa.  Our African ancestors began to leave the continent about 80,000-100,000 years ago and slowly populated the world. 

Their exact path, and the exact timeline is still being disputed by scientists – and I’m staying out of the debate.  What I can say for sure is that it’s true that we do all descend from the original human inhabitants of Africa.

When it comes to these modern autosomal DNA tests, however, like the one offered by Ancestry DNA, this very, very, very ancient DNA is exceptionally unlikely to show up.  When we look at our ethnicity report, we are seeing ethnicites from a thousand years ago at most, which is about 30 generations. 

We will not show ethnicities in our autosomal ethnicity estimates from ancestors from 3,000 generations ago. 

If you consider the fact that it only takes about 5-7 generations for an ethnicity from a close ancestor to no longer show up in your results, it is not very statistically likely to inherit intact DNA segments  from 3,000 generations ago large enough to trigger a 1-2% percentage of a particular ethnicity on a simple autosomal DNA test.

Note:  If someone can show me a strong model that supports the opposite conclusion, I would be interested in seeing it

The conclusion that I draw is that if you have a small “trace” amount of Africa North DNA, and you have no known recent African ancestors, you should consider one of the following possibilities:

  • You actually do have an ancestor with North African ancestry within the past 1,000 years
  • It is statistical “noise” – i.e. an error

The larger the percentage of Africa North, the less likely it is that it can just be attributed to noise, and the higher the possibility that your Africa North percentage is actually from a relatively recent ancestor who had at least some North African ancestry. 

Millions of Americans who identify as European-American have African ancestry.  While the exact number of people who would show this ancestry on an autosomal DNA test is impossible to know, estimates range from 3-6 million. 

If you want to read more about this, this study of the genetic ancestry of the United States is very enlightening.

If all of my ancestors are European, how did I get Africa North in my DNA results?

The answer to this question, simply put, is that if you have Africa North on your ethnicity results, then it is likely that all of your ancestors were not European.  It may be the case that all of your known ancestors, or all of your recent ancestors as far back as you can trace, were of primarily European descent. 

Depending on how small of an Africa North percentage shows up in your results, you may or may not ever be able to really know how you inherited your African DNA.

The most likely scenario (read: easiest to explain and most plausible) for a person with primarily European ancestry to have inherited Africa North DNA would be from an ancestor who lived on the Iberian Peninsula

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain and Portugal are located, finds itself so close to North Africa that you can see the coast of either continent easily from either shore.

As it turns out, there has been extensive contact between the cultures of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula for thousands of years. 

In fact, the Berbers, which is the name of the ethnic group that lives in North Africa, occupied the Iberian Peninsula for almost 800 years.  The cultural (genetic) entanglement was so extensive that Spanish has about 4,000 words that have their origin in Arabic. 

As a Spanish-speaker, I can personally verify that there are dozens upon dozens of words that I know that are almost identical in Arabic.

Iberians were exceptionally good at making their way around the continent of Europe, and likely brought their North African DNA with them.  Many people with Iberian ancestry, like people in my own family, will often find that they have a small amount of Africa North DNA, too. 

The most likely explanation is that these ethnicites were inherited together, either from a single ancestors or from numerous ancestors, all with a similar genetic makeup.


I hope that this post helped you understand a bit more about North African DNA in Europe, and how it might have ended up in your DNA results.  If you have any questions about something that you read here, or would just like to share your story, I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by!

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