The Kenya Forum | DNA study demonstrates Africans' key role in Swahili civilization - The Kenya Forum

April 4, 2023


Africans played a key role in Swahili civilization ground-breaking DNA study published in the British scientific journal Nature suggests.

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DNA study demonstrates Africans’ key role in Swahili civilization

DNA study demonstrates Africans’ key role in Swahili civilization

Photo courtesy Harvard Medical School

A fascinating DNA-based study just published in the British scientific journal Nature, has brought to light the central role of Africans in the development of the Swahili civilization from 1250 to 1800 CE (between 220 and 775 years ago), and in doing so helping to restore the heritage of Swahili people.

Based on the study of the sequenced DNA of 80 people who lived in Swahili areas at that time, a team of international researchers led by Kenya-born anthropologist Professor Chapurukha Kusimba from the University of Florida, found that from about 1000 CE as much as half of the DNA was from male migrants from southwest Asia, of which 90 per cent originated from Persia and 10 per cent from India. The other half of the DNA collected was almost entirely from African women.

DNA study of Swahili societies was largest study ever conducted in Africa

The study is the largest ever conducted in the African continent and drew from human remains from Manda and Fa in Lamu county, Mtwapa in Kilifi county, Makwasinyi in Taita Taveta county, Songo Mnara, Kilwa Kisiwani and Lindi in Tanzania.

The study goes some way in restoring the heritage of the Swahili people that had been in some measure ignored during some 500 years of colonization.

The authors of the research say the study confirms ancient oral histories that tell of a shared ancestry of the Swahili people whilst at the same time debunking colonial attitudes as to how much Africans contributed to the Swahili civilization.

Study findings consistent with oral traditions

The study suggests that the timeline of the development of the Swahili civilization is consistent with the Kilwa Chronicle, the oldest Swahii oral story, which tells of the Persian migrants that came to the area from about 1000CE that was passed on from one generation to the next over the centuries in Swahili oral histories.

From about the seventh century CE, the Swahili civilization was spread along the costal regions of modern-day Kenya, Tanzania, Southern Somalia, northern Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros islands and Zanzibar.

Understanding the “Africanness” of Swahili civilisation

Professor Kusimba said that colonial-era archaeologists had not believed that Africans had the “mental capacity” to have built medieval structures, suggesting the ability to do so came with migrants.

However, the early development of the Swahili civilization predates the influx of Persian migrants.

Research has since revealed that the vast majority (approximately 95 per cent) of finds from archaeological sites were developed by the Swahili people, not imported, albeit with Persian and Indian influence.

“Findings of the study bring out African contributions, and indeed, the Africanness of the Swahili, without marginalizing their Persian and Indian connections”, said Professor Kusimba.

The finding of certain hallmarks of civilisation in Africa is not unique; the continent has lengthily been known for its exhibition of early tool use and evidence of communal gatherings. What is interesting, in this development, is the rediscovery, or reattachment perhaps, of African peoples role in shaping Swahili culture.

Africans important role in building Swahili society: inter-marriage

The researchers believe that intermarriages during the period were highly sex-specific, the predominant ancestry sources being Persian males and African females. The Persian males in all likelihood married into local trading families and adopted local customs. The children, meanwhile, passed down the language of their mothers, and through it their culture, in the African matriarchal tradition.

Professor David Reich of Harvard Medical School, one of the American researchers said, “These findings contradict and complicate narratives previously advanced in archaeological, historical and political circles, contributing in a meaningful way to reclaiming heritage for the Swahili themselves.”


If you are interested in the part East Africa has played in the development of the human race and its various expressions of civilisation, read

‘New research on apes and early humans explains why we stand upright’.

‘Oldest human stone tools found in Kenya’ 


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