Malian Ethnicity

From the Sudanian Savannahs to the Sahara Desert

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the Mali region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Malian, Guinean

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Malian History

Mali’s modern boundaries were drawn in 1890, when French Sudan was created, and united two very different regions: the Sudanian savannas in the south and the Sahara Desert to the north. These manmade borders make modern Mali a multi-ethnic country of diverse peoples as well, but geography has always played a key role in Mali’s history and people. The savannas at the edge of the desert made the area a natural locus for trans-Saharan trade, which connected western Africa with Europe and Asia in precolonial times. For centuries, Mali was a fabled land of gold, scholarship and empires.

A Land of Empires

Historically, parts of Mali fell within three great West African empires: the Ghana, the Mali, and the Songhai.

Ghana Empire

The modern country of Ghana (which actually lies miles to the southeast of modern-day Mali) takes its name from the ancient empire of Ghana. Founded by the Soninke people, the Ghana Empire lay between the Senegal and Niger rivers and dominated trans-Saharan trade from about 700 to 1100 A.D. Ghana was rich in gold, and gold, salt, ivory and slaves all moved along the trade routes. Ghana also amassed wealth by taxing commodities that passed through its territory. Muslim traders from North Africa introduced Islam to the region, and today, more than 90% of Malians identify themselves as Muslim.

Mali Empire

After Ghana’s decline, the Mali Empire, founded by Sundiata Keita in about 1230 A.D., rose to take its place. Like Ghana, Mali had gold mines, and the empire’s wealth also came from trade, which included gold, salt and agricultural products from the fertile lands around the upper Niger River. Islam’s influence grew as the empire’s royalty adopted the religion, and at its height, the Mali Empire was a center of Muslim scholarship, with a famous university at Timbuktu. Arab writers told of Mali’s fabulous wealth, and Mali began to appear on European maps in the 14th century.

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Songhai Empire

The Mali Empire was supplanted by the Songhai (or Songhay) Empire in the 15th century after the Songhai people rebelled against Mali. Led by Sonni Ali, who came to power in roughly 1464, the Songhai began expanding their holdings, taking Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne (or Djenne). By about 1530 the Songhai Empire had become the largest empire in West Africa and ruled an area larger than Europe. Like the empires before them, their strength and wealth lay in gold and trans-Saharan trade.

After the Empires

As empires expanded and contracted, conquest and trade resulted in migrations to and from regions throughout western Africa. With the dissolution of the Ghana Empire, Soninke people dispersed through what is now Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Traders from Mali extended their reach south into the areas of modern-day Ghana and Ivory Coast. As the Songhai Empire collapsed, and as trade shifted toward the Atlantic Coast, many migrated in that direction.

The Mali Empire was originally founded and ruled by kings from the Malinké, or Mandinka, people, a branch of the Mandé ethnic group. Later, between 1500 and 1900 during the height of the slave trade, up to one-third of the Mandinka were enslaved and shipped to the New World. As a result, many African Americans in the United States are descended from Mandinka ancestors.

Ethnic Groups of Modern Mali

Half of Mali’s population today belongs to the Mandé ethnic group—comprising the Bambara, Malinké and Soninke. The Fula (Fulani, Fulbe, Peul) account for 17% of Mali’s modern population. Historically, the Fula were nomads, known for keeping cattle. Some evidence suggests their presence in West Africa goes back centuries and possibly includes North African and Middle Eastern ancestry. They are also strongly linked to Islam, and some Fulani led jihads in West Africa as late as the 19th century.

Voltaic ethnic groups, named for the Volta River Basin, account for another 12% of Mali’s population. Another important group is the Tauregs, a Berber people who live primarily in the north and have traditionally been nomadic herders. (“Berber” is the name given to the indigenous people of North Africa.)

While each group has its own language, most Malians can speak a dialect of Bambara.

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