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Kenyan anthropologist unlocks Swahili secrets and heritage with ancient DNA discovery and debunks myths

University of South Florida anthropologist, Prof Chapurukha Kusimba (right) on a boat beside longtime colleague Mohamed Mchulla Mohamed, curator emeritus of the National Museums of the Kenya. PHOTO/Chapurukha Kusimba, University of South Florida.

By PATRICK MAYOYO

newshub@eyewitness.africa

A new study brings peace and restores pride to millions of people who identify as Swahili by overturning false narratives and providing clarity to Swahili heritage.

DNA analysis, conducted at the Reich Laboratory at Harvard University, allowed scientists to estimate that people of African and Persian descent began to have children together around the turn of the second millennium. The descendants of those children dominated Swahili towns 500 years later and were recovered from the burial sites excavated by the team.

The study, published in the journal Nature, has shed new light on Swahili culture, long associated with archaeological research suggesting African ancestry for all coastal civilisations.

Archaeologists believe that the results, based on finds from excavations, including those directed by  Professor Stephanie Wynne-Jones from the University of York and Professor Jeffrey Fleisher at Rice University, confirm that relationships between Asian merchants and African traders were formed between the years 900 and 1100 in coastal towns in Kenya and Tanzania.

A Kenyan anthropologist, Prof Chapurukha Kusimba, of University of South Florida (USF), uncovered the first ancient DNA from the Swahili Civilization, prosperous trading states along the coast of East Africa dating back to the 7th century, according to Scitechdaily.

The University of South Florida (USF) says from Kenya to Mozambique, Prof Kusimba, dedicated 40 years to studying the ancestry of those who built the civilizations – a debate that many Swahilis feel robbed them of their heritage for centuries.

“This research has been my life’s work – this journey to recover the past of the Swahili and restore them to rightful citizenship,” Prof Kusimba said. “These findings bring out the African contributions, and indeed, the Africanness of the Swahili, without marginalizing the Persian and Indian connection.”

As part of his decades-long research, Kusimba, a Kenya native, spent time with the people of Swahili to gain their trust before receiving their approval to complete cemetery excavations. To respect the remains, Kusimba finished the sampling and re-burial process all in one season.

Working alongside Harvard geneticists David Reich and Esther Brielle and corresponding authors, Jeff Fleisher from Rice University and Stephanie Wynne-Jones from University of York, Prof Kusimba discovered the ancestry of the people analyzed was both African and Asian. The DNA revealed a pattern: the overwhelming majority of male-line ancestors came from Asia, while the female-line ancestors came from Africa.

The site of tombs along the Swahili Coast in East Africa where University of South Florida anthropologist Prof Chapurukha Kusimba and colleagues opened graves to study ancient DNA. PHOTO/ Chapurukha Kusimba, University of South Florida.

Despite their intermarrying, descendants spoke an African language, not an Asian one. This led researchers to conclude that African women had great influence on the formation of the culture. So much so, the villages were established prior to colonialism from Asia, making women the primary holders of economic and social power.

The findings challenge centuries-old narratives – constructed by other African natives – that suggest wealthier Swahilis did not have real ancestral connections to Asia and only claimed they did in order to minimize their African heritage to obtain higher social status and cultural affinities. Despite the vital role Swahilis played in trade between Africa and the rest of the Indian Ocean world for more than 2,500 years, Kusimba’s previous work from the 1990s documented the poor treatment of Swahili descendants as a result of the narratives.

Working alongside Harvard geneticists David Reich and Esther Brielle and corresponding authors, Jeff Fleisher from Rice University and Stephanie Wynne-Jones from University of York, Prof Kusimba discovered the ancestry of the people analyzed was both African and Asian. The DNA revealed a pattern: the overwhelming majority of male-line ancestors came from Asia, while the female-line ancestors came from Africa.

Despite their intermarrying, descendants spoke an African language, not an Asian one. This led researchers to conclude that African women had great influence on the formation of the culture. So much so, the villages were established prior to colonialism from Asia, making women the primary holders of economic and social power.

The findings challenge centuries-old narratives – constructed by other African natives – that suggest wealthier Swahilis did not have real ancestral connections to Asia and only claimed they did in order to minimize their African heritage to obtain higher social status and cultural affinities.

Despite the vital role Swahilis played in trade between Africa and the rest of the Indian Ocean world for more than 2,500 years, Kusimba’s previous work from the 1990s documented the poor treatment of Swahili descendants as a result of the narratives.

The study’s results prove Asian and African ancestors began intermarrying at least 1,000 years ago, long after Africans had established villages.

“Our results do not provide simple validation for the narratives previously advanced in archaeological, historical, or political circles,” Kusimba said. “Instead, they contradict and complicate those narratives.”

Professor Stephanie Wynne-Jones, co-author of the study from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: “We have long believed that cultural changes were associated with the adoption of Islam and this new research gives us a genetic timeframe that suggests that this is a reasonable assumption to make.

One of the sites along the East African coast visited by University of South Florida anthropologist, Prof Chapurukha Kusimba and colleagues.PHOTO/ Chapurukha Kusimba, University of South Florida.

“Merchants from Persia travelled to the African coast for trade, and would have stayed for long periods of time.  DNA from the burial sites we have been studying shows African and Persian ancestry. The Persian line came from men, suggesting they were forming relationships with African women.”

Some 500 years later we see ancestry coming from Arabia rather than Persia, probably related to shifting economic and political influences.

Jeffrey Fleisher, from Rice University, and one co-author of the study, said: “Oral histories of the Swahili who live in East Africa have often told us of their Persian ancestry, which for many years researchers have believed was a way for the Swahili people to use their Persian and other foreign trade links for political gain, but our data reveals that these oral records were correct, showing how important it is to take oral traditions seriously.”

Professor Wynne-Jones said: “This data must be seen as a catalyst for a new, less binary, approach to Swahili society. It shows that people were moving and establishing deep connections and families in the Indian Ocean region, and that Persian migrants would have been part of the cosmopolitan world created by coastal African societies.

“The research that has underpinned this study is part of a long-term commitment to exploring human experience and daily life on the coast.”

By challenging and overturning narratives imposed from the outside for political and economic ends, Prof Kusimba said, the research brings peace and restores pride to the millions of people who identify as Swahili today. Up until now, it has been difficult to determine how people who now identify as Swahili relate to people of the early modern Swahili culture.

Prof Kusimba plans to continue his research on the Swahili to gather more DNA and create a larger sample size to better analyze a broader, more socioeconomically diverse population.

The successful methods and collaboration between anthropologists and geneticists throughout this project suggest a possible resolution to longstanding questions around the heritage of other groups of people who founded ancient cities and civilizations, including ongoing disagreement among scholars around whether the ancient Egyptian civilization is African in origin.

“There is always tension between anthropology and genetics surrounding the interpretation of the material,” Prof Kusimba said. “But working with my colleagues from Harvard, Rice University and University of York to ensure that the anthropological explanation accommodated the genetic data analysis without being simplistic has been so rewarding.”

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