Senegal Ethnicity

At the Far Western Edge of Africa

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

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Senegalese, Gambian

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Senegal Ethnicity

Polynesians speak a related group of languages called Malayo-Polynesian, which comes from a Proto-Austronesian language spoken in Southeast Asia millennia ago. One interesting difference between Polynesia and Melanesia is the wider diversity in languages among the islands of Melanesia. Melanesia is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, while Polynesia typically has one language per island group.

History of Senegal

Archeological findings indicate that the Senegal area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. For the last millennium at least, trade routes have helped shape the area. Trans-Saharan trade flowing to and from the interior of Africa helped establish and maintain the Ghana, Mali, and Wolof (or Jolof) Empires, each of which bordered or included portions of modern-day Senegal. Trade and conquest brought wealth, Islam and people into the region—and sometimes pushed people out.

Portuguese traders reached the estuary of the Senegal River in the mid-1400s. Over the next four centuries the direction of trade shifted. Instead of heading inland, toward the Sahara, it began to flow outward, toward the European traders on the Atlantic Coast. As colonial powers began to push farther inland themselves in the 19th century, they eventually brought an end to local kingdoms and actually furthered the spread of Islam, which became a way of uniting against the European invaders.

Slave raiding and trading were major sources of revenue for the region’s kings, and the island of Gorée (just a mile off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar) became the largest slave-trading center in Africa. Controlled at various times by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, the island served as a warehouse where, over a 200-year period, millions of slaves were taken from their homeland. The island, with its House of Slaves museum and memorial, is now a pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora from the slave trade.

The French took control of Senegal in the 19th century, while the Gambia became a British colony. Senegal gained independence in 1960; the Gambia, in 1965.

Migrations and ethnic groups in the Senegal region

Senegal’s current population is believed to be a mixture of peoples who moved into the region from the north and the east. Despite its relatively small size, the area is home to several ethnic groups. Today, the predominant population groups are the Wolof (43%), the Fula (23%) and the Serer (14%). Others include the Jola and the Mandinka.


Many believe the Wolof (or Jolof) people migrated into Senegal from the northeast sometime around the 11th century. By 1350, they had established their own empire, a federation of several Wolof kingdoms, or states. The Wolof Empire came to an end when the French took control of the interior during the 19th century. Most Wolof identify themselves as Muslim. Their culture once had a three-tiered caste system—freeborn, of slave descent, and artisans—though this has broken down somewhat in recent times. The Wolof language has become the lingua franca of Senegal.

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Historically, the Fula (Fulani, Fulbe, Peul) were a nomadic people known for keeping cattle. Some evidence suggests that their presence in West Africa goes back centuries, possibly including North African and Middle Eastern ancestry. They spread outward from Senegal, through western and central Africa and east to the Sudan. They are also strongly linked to Islam, and some Fulani led jihads in West Africa as late as the 19th century. In modern Senegal, they primarily live in the Fouta Toro area, in the northeastern part of the country; and near Casamance, south of the Gambia.


Some scholars believe that the Serer people have the oldest roots in the region, and Serer oral traditions claim their original ancestors came from the Upper Nile area. The Serer people resisted Islam for centuries, and some still practice their traditional religion of Fat Rog (or Fat Roog). Many also speak one of the Serer languages, and most occupy the west-central part of modern Senegal. Although the Serer are a minority in the country, Senegal’s first and second presidents were Serers. Senegalese wrestling also has roots in Serer forms of wrestling, which was once used to train warriors for combat.


The Mandinka are a minority population in Senegal, but a significant one because of their experience with the slave trade. The Mandinka group is a branch of the Mandé peoples, who came south into the areas of Senegal and Mali and were instrumental in founding the Ghana and Mali Empires. During the slave trade era, up to one third of the Mandinka people were enslaved and shipped to the New World. (Mandinka make up more than 40% of the population in neighboring Gambia.)

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