The researchers claim that up to half of the DNA of the inhabitants of the Swahili regions came from Persia (90%) and India (10%).
The first DNA recovered from members of the medieval Swahili civilization has revealed that Africans and Asians intermingled along the East African coast more than a thousand years ago, a study has found.
For the study, an international team of researchers sequenced the DNA of 80 people who lived in different Swahili regions from 1250 to 1800 CE.
They said that from around 1000 CE, up to half of the DNA came from an overwhelming majority of male migrants from southwestern Asia – around 90% from Persia and 10% from India.
The other half was almost entirely made up of African women, according to the study published in the journal Nature.
After around 1500 CE, most of the Asian genetic contribution shifted to Arabic sources, the study showed.
The study’s authors said it confirmed ancient oral histories about the common ancestry of the Swahili people, as well as settling a “long-standing controversy” from colonial times over how much Africans contributed to civilization.
From the 7th century CE, the Swahili civilization included the coastal regions of Kenya, Tanzania, southern Somalia, northern Mozambique, Madagascar, and the Comoros and Zanzibar archipelagos.
The medieval Swahilis had African and Asian ancestry; according to a study of ancient DNA published in @Nature. The results suggest that mixing has been ongoing on the East African coast for over a millennium. https://t.co/YkPL47FqxZ pic.twitter.com/qtmprvoYkx
— Nature Portfolio (@NaturePortfolio) March 29, 2023
Millions of people today along these coasts identify as Swahili, and the language is one of the most widely spoken in the region.
This timeline is consistent with the Kilwa Chronicle, which has been handed down in Swahili oral histories for centuries and recounts the arrival of Persian migrants from around 1000 CE.
It was also from this time that Islam became a dominant religion in the region.
The authors pointed out that the study also showed that features of the Swahili civilization predate the arrivals from abroad.
“The Africanness of Swahili”
Chapurukha Kusimba, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who has worked on the subject for 40 years, told AFP the research was “the highlight of my career”.
Kusimba said colonial-era archaeologists seemed to believe that Africans “did not have the mental capacity” to build medieval Swahili infrastructure such as cemeteries, instead attributing it solely to foreign influence.
But more recent research has shown that 95% of materials recovered from Swahili archaeological sites are “homegrown”, including the architecture itself, Kusimba said.
He added that the latest study showed “the Africanness of the Swahili, without marginalizing the Persian and Indian connection”.
David Reich, co-author of the study and a geneticist at Harvard University, said in a statement that “ancient DNA allowed us to address a long-standing controversy that could not be tested without the data. genetics of those times and places”.
DNA evidence shows that the mixture was mainly composed of Persian men having children with African women.
This does not necessarily indicate “sexual exploitation” due to the matriarchal nature of Swahili societies, Kusimba said.
Reich said it was more likely that “Persian men allied and married into local merchant families and adopted local customs to enable them to be more successful traders.”
From around 1500 CE, ancestors increasingly came from Arabia, according to the study.