Famous people who may never have existed

Kunta Kinte

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, Alex Haley poignantly wrote: “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage.” His own ancestral hunger led him to Juffureh, Gambia, where his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte (depicted above) was purportedly born. Per Haley’s own description, Kinte lost his freedom in 1767 when he was enslaved by British captors. Bondage didn’t break his spirit, however. After arriving in America, Kinte repeatedly defied his oppressors, escaping multiple times.

Two hundred ten years after Kinte’s kidnapping, Roots the TV miniseries became an instant classic. According to CNN, the broadcast marked a watershed moment in American perceptions of slavery. It also deeply impacted Gambia, where an island was named after Kinte and his birthplace became a tourist attraction. These are effects are real, but there’s a really strong chance that Kinte isn’t.

You might already know that Haley’s Roots had a strained relationship with the truth and got pretty chummy with plagiarism, but it’s worse than you might think. As the Washington Post reported, journalist Mark Ottoway ripped Roots’ avowed historicity to shreds, dismissing Kinte’s backstory as highly implausible. Haley’s single source of information was a demonstrably unreliable villager. And at the time Kinte was supposedly enslaved, his village was already a British trading post where Gambians worked alongside, not against, slavers. Unless Haley’s chronology was way off, a real-life Kinte would have likely remained free. Whatever Haley hungered for, it wasn’t accuracy.