Ancient DNA is restoring the origin story of the Swahili people of the East African coast

Narratives imposed from the outside for political or economic ends, scientific research provides a meaningful, and underappreciated tool for righting colonial wrongs.
By: The Conversation
Africa Day Best Dressed Female {CCA} Infomatiqu
Africa Day Best Dressed Female {CCA} Infomatiqu
HOUSTON - April 1, 2023 - PRLog -- By: Chapurukha Kusimba, University of South Florida, David Reich, Harvard University

We worked with local communities to determine the best practices for treating human remains in line with traditional Muslim religious sensitivities. Cemetery excavations, sampling and reburial of human remains were carried out in one season, rather than dragging on indefinitely.

Our team generated data from more than 80 people, mostly elite individuals buried in the rich centers of the stone towns. We will need to wait for future work to understand whether their genetic inheritance differed from people without their high status.

Contradicting what we had expected, the ancestry of the people we analyzed was not largely African or Asian. Instead, these backgrounds were intertwined, each contributing about half of the DNA of the people we analyzed.

We found that Asian ancestry in the medieval individuals came largely from Persia (modern-day Iran), and that Asians and African ancestors began mixing at least 1,000 years ago. This picture is almost a perfect match to the Kilwa Chronicle, the oldest narrative told by the Swahili people themselves, and one almost all earlier scholars had dismissed as a kind of fairy tale.

Another surprise was that, mixed in with the Persians, Indians were a significant proportion of the earliest migrants. Patterns in the DNA also suggest that, after the transition to Omani control in the 18th century, Asian immigrants became increasingly Arabian. Later, there was intermarriage with people whose DNA was similar to others in Africa. As a result, some modern people who identify as Swahili have inherited relatively little DNA from medieval peoples like those we analyzed, while others have more.

One of the most revealing patterns our genetic analysis identified was that the overwhelming majority of male-line ancestors came from Asia, while female-line ancestors came from Africa. This finding must reflect a history of Persian males traveling to the coast and having children with local women.

One of us (Reich) initially hypothesized that these patterns might reflect Asian men forcibly marrying African women because similar genetic signatures in other populations are known to reflect such violent histories.

Traditional Swahili society is similar to many other East African Bantu cultures in being substantially matriarchal – it places much economic and social power in the hands of women. And there is a long recorded history of female rulers, beginning with Mwana Mkisi, ruler of Mombasa.


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Source:The Conversation
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