A University of South Florida anthropologist has discovered the first ancient DNA from the Swahili civilization, which included thriving trading states along the coast of East Africa dating back to the seventh century.
From Kenya to Mozambique, Chapurukha Kosimba, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, has devoted 40 years to studying the ancestors of those who built civilizations–a debate that many Swahili feel has robbed them of their heritage for centuries.
“This research has been the work of my life – this journey to reclaim the Swahili past and return them to a proper citizenship,” said Kosimba. “These findings highlight the African and, indeed, African contributions of Swahili, without marginalizing the Persian and Indian relationship.”
Posted in natureThe study examines the DNA of 80 individuals from 800 years ago – making it the first ancient DNA to be discovered from the Swahili civilization.
As part of his decades-long research, Kusimba, a native of Kenya, spent time with the Swahili people to gain their trust before obtaining their consent to complete the excavation of the tombs. To respect the remains, Cosimba finished the sampling and reburial in one season.
Working alongside Harvard geneticists David Reich and Esther Brill and corresponding authors, Jeff Fleischer of Rice University and Stephanie Wyn Jones of York University, Cosimba discovered that the ancestry of the people analyzed was both African and Asian. The DNA revealed a pattern: the vast majority of male ancestors came from Asia, while female ancestors came from Africa.
Despite their intermarriage, their descendants spoke an African language, not an Asian language. This led researchers to conclude that African women had a significant impact on the formation of culture. So much so, that villages were established prior to colonization from Asia, making women the primary owners of economic and social power.
The findings challenge ancient narratives – created by other African indigenous people – that suggest that the wealthier Swahili had no true ancestral ties to Asia and only claimed that they did so in order to minimize their African heritage to gain higher social status and cultural affinity. Although the Swahili played a vital role in trade between Africa and the rest of the Indian Ocean for more than 2,500 years, Cossimba’s earlier work from the 1990s documented the following: Mistreatment From the descendants of Swahili as a result of the narrative.
The results of the study prove that Asian and African ancestors began intermarrying at least 1,000 years ago, long after Africans established villages.
“Our findings do not provide simple corroboration of accounts previously presented in archaeological, historical or political circles,” Cosimba said. Instead, they contradict and complicate these narratives.”
By challenging and upending narratives imposed from outside for political and economic purposes, Kusimba said, the quest brings peace and restores pride to the millions of people who identify as Swahili today. Until now, it has been difficult to determine how the people who now identify as Swahili relate to people of early modern Swahili culture.
Kosimba plans to continue his research on the Swahili language to collect more DNA and create a larger sample size to better analyze a broader and more socioeconomically diverse population. Successful methods and collaborations between anthropologists and geneticists throughout this project suggest a possible solution to long-standing questions about the heritage of other groups of people who founded ancient cities and civilizations, including an ongoing dispute among scholars about whether ancient Egyptian civilization was African in origin.
“There is always a tension between anthropology and genetics over the interpretation of matter,” Cosimba said. “But working with colleagues from Harvard University, Rice University, and York University to make sure that the anthropological interpretation fits the analysis of genetic data without being oversimplified has been very rewarding.”
David Reich, The Intertwining African and Asian Genetic Roots of the Medieval Peoples of the Swahili Coast, nature (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05754-w. www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-05754-w
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