The legacy of medieval Swahili civilization is a source of extraordinary pride in East Africa, as evidenced by the fact that its language is the official language of Kenya, Tanzania and even inland countries like Uganda and Rwanda, far from the Indian Ocean coast where the culture developed almost two millennia ago.
Its stone and coral-adorned cities stretched 3,200 kilometers from the coast, and its merchants played a central role in the lucrative trade between Africa and the lands across the ocean: Arabia , Persia, IndiaSoutheast Asia and China.
Self-government ended after Portuguese colonization in the 1500s, with control later passing to Omanis (1730-1964), Germans in Tanganyika (1884-1918), and British in Kenya and Uganda (1884-1963 ). After independence, the coastal peoples were absorbed into the modern nation states of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar.
So who were the Swahili and where did their ancestors come from?
Ironically, the history of Swahili origins has been shaped almost entirely by non-Swahili, a challenge shared with many other marginalized and colonized peoples who are modern descendants of past cultures with extraordinary achievements.
Working with a team of 42 colleagues, including 17 African academics and several members of the Swahili community, we have now published the earliest ancient DNA sequences of peoples of the Swahili civilization. Our results do not provide a simple validation of the narratives previously put forward in archaeological, historical or political circles. Instead, they contradict and complicate them all.
Colonization affected how history was told
Western archaeologists in the mid-20th century pointed to the links of medieval Swahili with Persia and Arabiasometimes suggesting that their impressive achievements could not have been achieved by Africans.
Postcolonial scholars, including one of us (Strength), rejected this view. Earlier scholars had inflated the significance of non-African influences by focusing on imported objects at Swahili sites. They minimized the vast majority of locally made materials and what they revealed on African industry and innovation.
But to consider Swahili heritage as predominantly African or non-African is too simplistic; In fact, both perspectives are by-products of colonialist prejudices.
The truth is that the colonization of the East African coast did not stop with the departure of the British in the middle of the 20th century. Many colonial institutions were inherited and perpetuated by Africans. As modern nation states were forming, with governments controlled by the peoples within, The Swahili people continued be undermined politically and economically, in some cases as much as they had been under foreign rule.
Decades of archaeological research in consultation with local people aimed to address the marginalization of ethnic Swahili communities. Our team consulted oral traditions and used ethnoarchaeology and systematic surveys, as well as targeted excavations of residential, industrial and cemetery sites. Working with local scholars and elders, we uncovered materials such as pottery, metal, and beads; food, home and industrial scraps; and imported items such as china, glass, glass beads and more. Together they revealed the complexity of daily Swahili life and the cosmopolitan heritage of the peoples of the Indian Ocean.
Ancient DNA analysis has always been one of the most exciting prospects. He offered the hope of using scientific methods to obtain answers to the question of how medieval people relate to earlier groups and to people today, providing a counterbalance to narratives imposed from outside. Until a few years ago, this kind of analysis was a dream. But because of a technological revolution in 2010the number of ancient humans with published genome-wide data has grown from nothing to more than 10,000 today.
Surprises in ancient DNA
We worked with local communities to determine best practices for handling human remains in accordance with traditional Muslim religious sensibilities. Cemetery excavations, sampling and reburial of human remains were done in a single season, rather than dragging on indefinitely.
Our team generated data from over 80 individuals, mostly elite individuals buried in the wealthy centers of Stone Towns. We will have to wait for future work to understand whether their genetic heritage differed from people without their high status.
Contrary to what we expected, the ancestry of the people we analyzed was not predominantly African or Asian. Instead, these origins were intertwined, each contributing about half of the DNA of the people we analyzed.
We found that the Asian ancestry of medieval individuals was largely from Persia (modern Iran) and that Asian and African ancestors began to mix at least 1,000 years ago. This image matches almost perfectly. Chronicle of Kilwathe oldest account told by the Swahili people themselves, and almost all previous scholars had rejected like some kind of fairy tale.
Another surprise was that, mixed with Persians, Indians made up a significant proportion of the early migrants. DNA patterns also suggest that after the transition to Omani control in the 18th century, Asian immigrants became increasingly Arab. Later, there were intermarriages 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 telling 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 find must reflect a story of Persian men traveling to the coast and having children with local women.
One of us (Reich) originally speculated that these patterns might reflect the forced marriage of Asian men to African women because similar genetic signatures in other populations are known to reflect stories so violent. But this theory ignores what is known about the culture, and there is a more likely explanation.
Traditional Swahili society is similar to many other East African Bantu cultures being essentially matriarchal – it places a great deal of economic and social power in the hands of women. In traditional Swahili societies, even today, the possession of stone houses often passes through the female line. And there is a long recorded history of female rulers, starting with Mwana Mkisi, ruler of Mombasa, as recorded by the Portuguese as early as the 1500s, to Sabani binti Ngumi, ruler of Mikindani in Tanzania until 1886 .
Our best guess is that Persian men allied and married into elite families and adopted local customs to enable them to be more successful traders. The fact that their children transmitted the language of their mothers, and that encounters with the traditionally patriarchal Persians and Arabs and conversion to Islam did not change the African matriarchal traditions of the coast, confirms that there is no It was not just a story of exploitation of African women. African women have retained essential aspects of their culture and passed it on to many generations.
How do these findings gleaned from ancient DNA restore Swahili heritage? Objective knowledge of the past has great potential to help marginalized peoples. By enabling the questioning and reversal of externally imposed narratives for political or economic gain, scientific research provides a significant and underappreciated tool for righting colonial wrongs.