Project 12: The New Genetics and the Search for African Identity

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout *

Fellow:  Sarah Abel
Supervision:  Prof. Myriam Cottias
Host Institution:  Centre International des Recherches sur les Esclavages, CNRS, Paris
Duration:  3 years – starting from 1 June 2012

This project explores the impact of genetic ‘ancestry’ information on the negotiation of ‘racial’ and ethnic identities in the Americas. Over the past two decades, advances in DNA ancestry testing techniques have led scientists and members of the public to turn to genetics in the hope of recuperating ancestral bonds of African kinship obliterated by the transatlantic slave trade, and of understanding the genetic legacy of enslaved Africans within contemporary American populations. Using diverse research methods this study will examines how genetic data are being used in the USA and Brazil to reconfigure notions of racial identity, and to create biosocial, digital and civic action networks that are connecting people throughout the Americas to ‘genetic’ regions and populations in the Old World. By analysing how genetic data are translated into the sociopolitical language of identity, and inscribed with personal meaning, the project also aims to highlight how national histories, racial politics, and the marketisation of science influence the links forged between genetics, ancestry and identity in different countries and cultures.

* Image Credit: Detail from Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image reference 1029, as shown on, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. For further information about Yarrow Mamout and this rare portrait, visit the Philadelphia Museum website.

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