Motherland Anywhere

The DNA of Ginjan People - by Gary Baddeley

I spent the weekend discussing some new information on my wife’s ancestry. Last year we both sent in a vial of saliva to the leading DNA research company 23andMe. We chose 23andMe for a variety of reasons, mostly because their database is the largest available and because they allow integration with many different specialist DNA research companies such as DNAFit and Athletigen, both of whom offer to take your 23andMe personal DNA report and analyze it to help customers “understand how their DNA affects their response to exercise and nutrition changes, to change the way we train and eat.”

My own DNA report really wasn’t much of a surprise: I’m 97% European. Breaking that down further, my ancestry is 51.4% British/Irish and 32.9% Broadly Northwestern European. No surprises there. In fact the only surprise, which has been a constant source of fun ever since, is that I have more Neanderthal gene variants than 95% of other 23andMe customers.

However, 23andMe’s ancestry report was frustratingly vague when it came to my wife, who is African-American. While it was quite definitive that she has 100% fewer Neanderthal gene variants than other 23andMe customers (not surprising – Neanderthals weren’t in Africa), so far as her African ancestry is concerned all that she discovered was that she’s 83% West African.

23andMe Ancestry composition report


A first cousin had spent some time researching family history and traced at least one ancestor back to Senegal; later research led to Ghana, but her search for something definitive as to her roots was still pending. As an aside, my father in law’s 23andMe report generated much excitement as he was found to have an ancient Y chromosome that’s supposedly 340,000 years old (see this story about another African American man with this Y chromosome).

Luckily, however, the DNA analysis business is vibrant and several new players have emerged, including DNA Land, a non-profit run by academics affiliated with Columbia University and the NY Genome Center. My wife shared her 23andMe data with DNA Land and eagerly awaited the new report. She received it over the weekend; it contained much more detail and quite a few surprises (yes, she’s part pygmy). The report agreed with 23andMe that she is genetically 83% African, but DNA Land only associates her with West Africa 70% (East Africa 9.2%, Aka 3.7%).  The biggest surprise was that her DNA suggests most of her ancestors lived in what is now modern-day Nigeria (Lower Niger Valley). You can see the chart below.


DNA Land Ancestry composition report


The discussion flowed over from the weekend into Ginjan Bros weekly staff meeting where we started discussing the origins of Ginjan. Mohammed and Rahim Diallo, the company founders (the brothers in Ginjan Bros.) grew up in Guinea where ginger was a staple in their diet, often in the form of the traditional ginger juice common in Guinea, locally known as “Ginjan” (spelling varies – Ginjan is our proprietary version). Ginger drinks weren’t (and still aren’t) something you’d go to the shops to purchase; rather they were made at home and in restaurants with each family hewing to a traditional formulation handed down as part of an oral tradition over many generations. Because of this, the taste of ginger juice varies widely from village to village and house to house. So far as Mohammed and Rahim were concerned, though, their mom’s juice was by far the best and it’s her formula that formed the basis of our company’s flagship product today, GINJAN.

While Guineans may think that ginger juice is original to their country, in actual fact there are many variations throughout West Africa, where ginger root is widely cultivated and is a dominant spice in local cuisine. Ginger juice can be found throughout villages and cities in creatively recycled vegetable-oil bottles. It’s often called ginger beer, but it’s non-alcoholic.

West African ginger is extra strong, so some formulations will have your eyes watering, while others go very heavy on the sugar. Ultimately it’s a matter of taste and that varies from country to country, village to village, and in all honesty person to person. One thing we’ve found, though, is that Ginjan Bros. GINJAN is consistently popular with people from countries with a strong tradition of ginger consumption (Africa, Asia, the Caribbean) as well as those from countries where ginger is imported (Europe, North America).

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