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24 September 2014
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Long lost roots of Black Britons revealed by groundbreaking BBC TWO documentary

A unique genetic study, undertaken for the BBC documentary Motherland: A Genetic Journey (BBC TWO, 14 February at 9.00pm), has finally provided the evidence to answer questions that historians and genealogists have been wrestling with for centuries.

For the first time since the enslavement of their African ancestors and the eradication of their ethnic identities, advances in DNA analysis have now made it possible for individuals to discover from which African region or population group their families originated.

In an historic first, a Bristol woman who took part in the study was even able to track down African relatives living on a tiny island off the coast of Cameroon.

The vast majority of the UK's African-Caribbean community are descended from the millions of Africans taken from their families and homes to work as slaves on the Caribbean sugar plantations.

The study, the most comprehensive attempt so far to investigate the specific roots of the descendants of slaves, took anonymous DNA samples via a buccal swab from 229 volunteers (109 men and 120 women). The only criterion for all volunteers was that they had four African-Caribbean grandparents.

As well as individual ancestral profiles, the Motherland study also quantifies, for the first time, one of the most sensitive genetic legacies of the transatlantic slave trade: the extent to which African slaves were made pregnant by European slave-owners.

Today, the study reveals more than one in four British African-Caribbeans have white male ancestry on their direct fatherline.

Analysis showed that 27% of British African-Caribbean men have a Y chromosome (passed directly from father to son) that traces back to Europe not Africa. In sharp contrast only around 2% of British African-Caribbeans have mitochrondrial DNA that traces to Europe, rather than Africa, on their motherline (passed from mother to child).

Dr Mark Jobling, from the University of Leicester, who analysed the Y chromosome, said of his findings: "[Slavery] was a power relationship between two populations and in that power relationship it was European men who where having sex with African women."

Dr Mark Jobling, (Department of Genetics, The University of Leicester); Dr Peter Forster (The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University); and Dr Mark Shriver (Department of Anthropological Genomics, Penn State University) respectively analysed the Y chromosome, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA.

The autosomal study, investigating DNA inherited from all an individual's ancestors, demonstrated that on average more than one in seven (13%) ancestors of today's Black Britons of Caribbean descent would be of European origin.

As part of his analysis Dr Mark Shriver, of Penn State University, also examined the link between ancestry and pigmentation. He concludes that although African ancestry can be a rough guide to how light or dark a person is, appearances can be deceptive.

After in-depth research into his own origins, he discovered that although he looks like a white North American, he is, in fact, 25% African.

The feature-length documentary, Motherland: A Genetic Journey, is directed by award-winning film maker Archie Baron.

It follows the emotional journeys of three members of the group of genetic volunteers as they investigate their ancestry.

Mark, a music industry PR from South London travels to Niger, the second poorest country in the world, to meet the Kanuri people and reclaim a Kanuri name.

Beaula, a youth worker from Bristol, discovers that her ancestry lies in the tiny island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea. Here she experiences an historic meeting with her blood relatives.

In contrast, Jacqueline, a Peterborough schoolteacher, explores her roots in Jamaica and discovers that a significant proportion of her ancestry is European.

"The Motherland project had two ambitious objectives", comments Baron, "firstly and monumentally, to see what genetics could finally reveal about the ancestry of British African Caribbeans. Secondly, to see whether genetics could reconnect individuals to contemporary population groups.

"The results of the three year project were more than we could have hoped for. Armed by science, people have for the first time reconnected themselves to their lost ancestry in ways that, 25 years ago, Alex Haley, author of Roots, could scarcely have imagined would ever be possible."

Notes to Editors

Motherland: A Genetic Journey is a Takeaway Media Production for BBC TWO, directed by Archie Baron and produced by Tabitha Jackson.

Executive Producer for Takeaway Media is Neil Cameron. The BBC TWO Executive Producer is Krishan Arora.

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