CU Boulder professor maps pre-colonial African kingdom

The work could help further information on people's ancestry and genealogy

University of Colorado History professor, Henry Lovejoy, created maps of ancient African kingdoms to track from where and when people were taken on slave ships to the Americas.
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A research project from a University of Colorado Boulder professor could help trace the path of African cultures that came to the Americas through slave ships, as well as provide more answers on genealogy and genetics for those of African descent.

Henry Lovejoy, an assistant professor of African and digital history, mapped data from pre-colonial Africa and slave ships using quantum GIS. The 21 maps are the first for the kingdom of Oyo, which would presently be in southwestern Nigeria and parts of Benin and Togo.

The kingdom of Oyo was a Yoruba empire that was established around the 13th century, and it was one of the largest and most influential West African states. There are still about 20 million Yoruba speakers in Nigeria today.

Using this technology, Lovejoy said researchers may one day be able to “get a really good sense of when and where people came from within Africa,” which would let them “follow migrations and be able to really unpack the influence they had.”

This series of maps are the “preliminary stages of a big experiment,” he said, which started in 2012.

Lovejoy looks at primary resources that come from inland Africa to see what conflict is taking place in the area. He then matches that data with slave ship data.

While Slave Voyages, a database on the transatlantic slave trade, uses slave ships to collect data on arrival to Africa and departure to other countries, Lovejoy’s project looks at what’s happening on land.

“What I’m arguing is that if there’s a lot of conflict happening in this region, the people boarding those slave ships likely came from that conflict region,” he said. The kingdom of Oyo had a cavalry that allowed it to dominate the forested savanna, and they would trade slaves with Europeans to get goods.

While looking at this data, he said he found it hard to conceptualize all of the groups, so he started de-fragmenting maps from secondary sources, putting them together and looking at the broader picture. He used quauntum GIS, which lets you analyze geospatial data, to see how this data shifted over time.

He’s now working with LISA, the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis at CU Boulder, to apply statistical formulas to see how conflicts generated over time. The lab will also analyze the probability of origins to help them understand certain data.

Lovejoy said he hopes to scale the project, possibly creating an online system to crowdsource data on conflict in pre-colonial Africa.

E. Ethelbert Miller, formerly the director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center who now works as a poet and activist in Washington, D.C., said people naturally want to know where they come from, but looking back at Africa can get complicated.

“When you deal with Africa, we still see them as being on continent and not all the tribes, all the languages that are spoken,” he said.

People also sometimes take a “Garden of Eden approach.”

“Everything was great until white people came, not realizing that there were conflicts between tribes,” Miller said. “That’s, at times, a painful story because it’s easier to point a finger at Europeans.”

Fatimah Jackson, a biology professor at Howard University, said she thinks the work is inspirational.

“It makes us realize that people were not just sitting around waiting to be captured, they were living their lives and were a part of civilization,” she said. “Enslavement wrecked havoc with all of that. It’s important for us to realize what was the true history.”

Besides helping people find out more about their ancestors, it could also help improve medical treatment, Jackson said.

Precision medicine gears medical care to the precise genetics of a patient, she said, which is a “great idea if you’ve got the database and the background to explain the variation that you see in that individual patient.”

For those of African descent, that reference database is lacking.

“So you come across these genetic variations in a patient without having the experiential knowledge of what medicines work best for them,” she said. “The more that we know about a patient the better we can tailor medicine specifically to their genetics.”

Lovejoy became interested in this work in a roundabout way. He went to Cuba to learn how to play hand drums and found batá drums, which are known as “talking drums” because they recreate the tones of the Yoruba language.

“So I got really interested in that, and it led me to want to understand where this tradition came from within Africa,” he said. While writing his dissertation on the migration to Cuba from Africa, he had trouble figuring out where people came from in the continent, given its numerous kingdoms and subgroups.

He looked at the major areas that underwent a large collapse, and found that the Oyo empire collapsed in the 1800s, spurring a large migration that greatly influenced culture in parts of the Americas.

This work, Lovejoy said, is important as people deal with prejudice throughout the Americas. By better understanding the migrations, people can improve their understanding of where different aspects of their culture came from.

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