North African Ethnicity

Between the Mediterranean and the Sahara

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

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Moroccan, Western Saharan, Algerian, Libyan, Berber, Amazigh

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

North African Ethnicity

The North Africa region includes modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Western Sahara and Libya. These countries, along with Mauritania and Tunisia, are often referred to as the Maghreb. It's an area of stark contrast, with the hospitable Mediterranean coast to the north and the vast, harsh Sahara to the south. In fact, the majority of the population in this region lives within about 50 miles of the Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts.

North African History

Two significant geographic characteristics have helped define northwest Africa. The Atlas Mountains run 1,200 miles from southwest Morocco to the northeast, through northern Algeria into Tunis. They form a natural fence, holding back the second defining feature, the great Sahara Desert, which begins where their southern slopes end and dominates most of Western Sahara, Algeria and Libya. The mountains and the desert also demark cultural enclaves to some extent. The Atlas Mountains remain a bastion of Berber culture, and various nomadic groups still travel the deserts, while Arabic influences are found closer to the coast. With oceans on one side and the world’s largest desert to the other, the great movements of people in North Africa have typically been east to west.

North Africa has seen a long succession of empires come and go. The Phoenicians spread across the North African coast and into the Iberian Peninsula, establishing the city-state of Carthage in 650 B.C. The Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C. and incorporated parts of North Africa into the Republic. The Germanic Vandals ruled portions of North Africa until they were overthrown by the Byzantines. But the most lasting influence came with the Muslim conquests in the 7th century. By 709 A.D., North Africa was under Muslim rule, and the Iberian Peninsula fell in 711. The Arabs brought three lasting influences to the area: language, culture and Islam.

Other dynasties followed: the Berber Almoravids and Almohads, as well as the Ottomans. Eventually European powers set their sights on the coast: France and Spain in Morocco, France in Algeria, and Italy in Libya.

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The Berbers

As empires and armies came and went, the indigenous Berber people remained. Evidence of prehistoric people in North Africa goes back millennia. The Berbers, whose origin is unknown, have lived in North Africa for thousands of those years. The term Berber has come to refer to the indigenous peoples of North Africa, many of whom speak (or spoke) one of the Berber languages—but they are not a single ethnic group. They call themselves Amazigh or Imazighen (plural) which means, roughly, “free people” or “free men.” Many eventually converted to Islam, and they helped the Muslims take the Iberian Peninsula in 711. But many struggled to maintain a degree of independence. For example, the Berbers of Morocco revolted in 740 and later established their own empires and dynasties.

Arabs and Berbers make up the overwhelming majority of the population throughout the Maghreb today. The primary languages spoken in the region are local dialects of Arabic, followed by various Berber languages and dialects. Islam has been the dominant religious force since the Muslim conquests; however, this region has remained culturally diverse. The traditions of Berber groups have remained strong, especially in the harsher mountain and desert environments.


Migrations to and from this region

While migration to this region tended to be from east to west, both Arabic and Berber traders were heavily involved in the thriving trans-Saharan trade, which brought gold, ivory and slaves north and carried salt, cloth and Islam south. This may account for traces of West African genetic ethnicity in some North African individuals. The Berbers also occupied much of Spain and Portugal for almost 800 years. Even though they were expelled from Iberia in 1492, there are still traces of North African ancestry in people across Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands—and vice versa.

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