The story begins in The Gambia, West Africa in 1750 with the birth of a boy to Mandika villagers Binta and Omoro. In a solemn and poignant naming ceremony 8 days later, Omoro decides to call his son Kunta Kinte. Fifteen years pass and the young Kunta, now a goat-herder like his father, finally reaches the age of manhood. At a seemingly random time, he and others his age are gathered together by their fathers and are taken away from the village to learn hunting and fighting skills, Mandinka warrior philosophies, and the beliefs of Islam under the tutelage of the village's teachers. As part of their self-defense training, Kunta meets and arrogantly takes on a very tall and very skilled wrestler named Okiyu. The wrestler is intrigued by Kunta's spirit and determination and eventually takes him under his wing to offer him advice through various analogies that were designed to make Kunta think before he acted.
In a later portion of the training, Kunta is sent out to hunt and capture a bird with no weapons available to help him. While stumbling along trying to capture his target, he inadvertently barrels through a traveling family's encampment and trips over a young woman named Fanta, sending the meal that she was preparing for her father, scattered all over the ground. Kunta continues after his prey while ignoring her and is chased down by Fanta's father, who eventually grabs him and drags him back to the camp. He then forces Kunta to apologize to his daughter for his carelessness while Kunta watches his prey escape. As Kunta straightens up the mess he made he and Fanta briefly make eye contact, showing interest in each other, but Kunta then heads off to continue on his hunting assignment.
Hs next attempt at the bird succeeds, however after capturing it and heading back to his training group, he stumbles upon a horrible sight - a group of tribesman tied up with rope and being lead through the trees by white men and a few unknown natives. He had heard rumors about this and hides as best he could as they pass nearby. When his bird threatens to give away his position, he is forced to let it go and watches in fear and amazement as one of the white men stops, turns around, and fires a musket at the bird, causing an explosion so loud that everything nearby flees. Once the man is gone, Kunta runs back to the group to warn them about what he saw. This prompts the teachers to reiterate the rules that they must follow in order to avoid capture.
The manhood training eventually concludes with a ritual circumcision, after which the teens return to the village with great fanfare, now recognized by all as men. However their return is tempered by news and an eye-witness account from Kunta Kinte himself, of slavers in the area.
The story shifts to Kunta's readjustment to village life and his new role in it. But his glorious return is cut short when he forgets the advice of his teachers and ventures away from the village alone. At the urging of his grandmother, who knows that her daughter (Kunta's mother) is having difficulty adjusting to her baby becoming a man, Kunta had decided to make a drum for his younger brother to appease his mother and needs a log to do so. So he heads off alone on what would normally be a rather quick and easy task. And this mistake costs him his freedom, as he is spotted, targeted, captured, and finally herded with nearly 150 other young men and women, onto the slave ship Lord Ligonier. They are chained lying down on wooden bunks in the ship's hold in what was designated as "loose pack" configuration - which supposedly allows a better survival rate with less slaves per bunk than "tight pack", where the latter allows more slaves to be shipped (but results in more deaths).
On board, the horrors of the ocean passage from West Africa to America begin to become unbearable for nearly all involved. The dire situation of the captives, who are not only growing sicker by the day, but are dying as well, has prompted the strongest of them to plot escape despite being forced to overcome the hurdle of differences in ethnicities and languages spoken amongst them. And the normally pious Captain begins to falter as well, as he harbors a deep-seated guilt over his participation in this trade assignment that can only be relieved by liquor, the delegation of the tending of his human cargo to his experienced first mate, and his belief that the captives' eventual exposure to and salvation within Christianity, will ultimately justify their capture and bondage.