Geographic and Temporal Diversity in Dental Morphology Reflects a History of Admixture, Isolation, and Drift in African Americans

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OBJECTIVES: While genetic studies have documented variation in admixture proportions in contemporary African Americans across the US, relatively little is known about the socio-historical roots of this variation. Our goal in this study is to use dental morphology to explore the socio-historical correlates of admixture, localized gene flow, and drift in African Americans.

METHODS: Our data are ordinally-graded dental morphological traits scored in 196 Africans, 335 Europeans and European Americans, 291 pre-Spanish-contact Native Americans, and 722 African Americans. The African American data derived from contemporary and historic samples. We eliminated from analysis individuals and traits with greater than 20% missing data. We summarized the major axes of trait variation using principal component analysis (PCA), estimated biological distance, constructed multidimensional scaling (MDS) plots of the distances, and measured the correlation between geographic and biological distance.

RESULTS: In the PCA, African American groups clustered between Africans and Europeans on PC 1, reflecting admixture between the groups. PC 2 separated African American samples, possibly reflecting movement, isolation, and drift. MDS analyses confirmed the existence of sizable biological distances between African American samples, especially between contemporary and past African American samples. We found no relationship between biological and geographic distances.

DISCUSSION: We demonstrate that admixture and drift can be inferred from multi-variable analyses of patterns of dental morphology in admixed populations. Localized gene flow has not affected patterns of trait variation in African Americans, but long-range movement, isolation, and drift have. We connect patterns of dental trait variation to efforts to flee oppression during the Great Migration, and the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws.