Peoples and Cultures
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A reader, Fatima Osman, writes in response to the topic of the Somali Bantu people.
"Bantu Somalis ... are characterized by having darker skin, and kinkier hair than Somalis, which have light or caramel skin. In fact, skin colour differences are sometimes the only way to differentiate Somalis from Somali Bantus."
It is helpful to have Fatima's personal assessment from her experience. She comments on an additional aspect beyond what I addressed on the peoples of the Horn of Africa. In my original article, I did not compare the skin colour range of the Bantu and the Somali groups.
My own perception is that there is a wide range of variation in physical characteristics among the various peoples of Eastern Africa. My views are not based just on research, but on personal observation and acquaintance over the decades I have lived in East Africa, relating to peoples of virtually all ethnic groups in several countries.
Just for clarity, I would also like to note that nothing on my website ever indicates that any group is superior to any other. In any discussions of physical or cultural characteristics, my approach is primarily descriptive. I do not know of any basis for objective moral comparison between various cultures or physical appearances.
One interesting and puzzling tendency occurs when people read about or discuss matters of ethnic differentiation. People tend to categorize groups by absolute distinction, then rank those as better or worse. And of course, it is their own identity group by which others are judged as better or worse!
But these categories or classifications are largely arbitrary, as we can see from how different categories are from one country or region to another.
People tend to ignore or deny the complex history of constant movement and settlement in an area, using simplified terms and categories to claim advantage for their particular social, ethnic or language group. They go back only so far in history for their comparisons.
In reality, as far as we can go back in history all over the world, the universal pattern is movement and resettlement. So everybody came from somewhere else at some point in their history.
An additional problem in looking at human social and genetic groups is that people people read into things their own concepts, fears or expectations, which may have nothing to do with the actual discussion a writer is undertaking.
History indicates all humans in every place have a rich mix of genetic and cultural heritage. People and peoples are as we find them. We can only begin to probe that in various ways.
There is a wide range of physical types among the peoples of Eastern Africa. Fatima also pointed out in her email to me the truth that the primary thing the various peoples of the Horn of Africa have in common is that they all live in Eastern Africa!
The many varied groups that moved in and settled in that region over the millennia have all contributed various physical, cultural and linguistic characteristics to the various similarities and differences among the different people there today.
What's In a Name?
One thing certain is that a name in itself does not tell us much about the history, heritage or genetic makeup of any individual or group of individuals. Even less, the region they live in tells us little about the total makeup and factors going into the characteristics of any group of humans, large or small — nor does it tell us much about how they might be related to other similar individuals or groups!
Human culture and genetics is just too complicated, and the history of humanity consists of ongoing movement from one place to another, with waves and waves of peoples from various places moving into various other places, merging, absorbing, diverging, expanding, receding, etc. It all becomes very complicated. This is the state of all peoples of the whole world.
When we speak of the features of a particular GROUP of peoples, of course, we speak in generalities. Fatima is right, some Somalis are "caramel" coloured, as she puts it. Some may be light-skinned. On the other hand, I have known some quite dark Somalis. In Limuru, Kenya, for instance, the Somali family who ran the mill in that Kikuyu town were darker than the Kikuyu people of the area.
All groups of peoples have darker and lighter individuals, within a certain range. Some social or lineage groups exhibit a wider range of colour variation than others. So variation is a characteristic of all human groups.
In fact, I have known Somalis of varying skin colour and physical features. The neighbouring Oromo peoples I have seen generally are darker than Somalis. However, it is commonly considered that the Nilotic peoples are the darkest of the peoples of Eastern Africa, as well as Central Africa.
The Somali tend to be darker as a group than the Semitic-speaking peoples in Eritrea or Ethiopia. But that also seems to involve a difference in the balance of the various shades of melanin all of us share. Thus it is not so much a question of simply darker or lighter, but what shades or combinations of the melanins that give skin its colour.
Some individuals and peoples tend more to red, some to brown, some to yellow, some to black, some towards white, some more grey-brown. Some peoples have even been described as pink! These are all expressions of the amazing variety and beauty distributed among the Human Race!
Genetic and Cultural Streams
The underlying fact, however, is that the Somalis, the various Bantu tribes and others in Eastern Africa are like all the other peoples of the world — there is a variation for 2 primary reasons:
(1) because all peoples of the world share a common rich genetic origin, with certian new characteristics being generated along the line of human prehistory, and recorded in DNA
(2) because all peoples are a combination of various groups that developed over time, who have become remixed over the long eras of human history and pre-history, coming to live together and intermarrying as they migrated.
The truth is that an individual can easily join another genetic stream, as can a whole family or clan. Cultural traits are more stable through history. But even culture is dynamic and can change radically in response to major social and climatalogical events. Similarly, whole cultures can merge into larger eclectic streams of culture.
But linguistic characteristics are the most stable and constant and thus more traceable as historical markers. "Race" becomes irrelvant and totally local and very general as rough reference points.
The Bantu lineages, of course, also range in colour. The Kikuyu people of Central Kenya, for instance, the largest Bantu-speaking people of all of East Africa, range from very light to very dark. Among the Kikyuyu there are three distinct legends of origin, indicating the merger of different migration groups that came to settle in the same region.
The Kikuyu also vary considerably in height, indicating their varied origins. The Kikuyu also exhibit a wide range of features, including some similar to "Bushmen," or San, who used to be numerous in the area. (Only a couple of distinct San peoples, the Hadza and Sandawe, still live in the region, in northern Tanzania.)
This seems to reflect the absorption of the ancient San peoples, whom Kikuyu legends call the "Athi," or "Earth People" (so called from living in depressions or caves in the earth). The name Athi may have also referred to Southern Cushites, who also tend to be shorter people, but tend to be darker.
Incidentally, the Kikuyu have also absorbed some people of Somali origin over the years. Further, during the Maasai civil wars in the early 1900s, whole clans of Maasai were given shelter by the Kikuyu in the highlands of Kenya. These Maasai clans are now integrated into the Kikuyu people. Various Kikuyu scholars have commented on these events in various publications in the 1970s to 1990s.
San features are more prominent among the Zulu people of Southern Africa, and perhaps somewhat less prominent among the related Xhosa. These ethnic clusters and other Nguni peoples have a much longer and more intimate historical relationship with the San peoples. So much so that these cultures have borrowed into their Bantu languages Khoisan vocabulary and even a set of the unusual "click" consonants foreign to all other languages in Africa.
Somalis are likewise a varied people. They have different features from the Oromo and some other Cushitic-speaking peoples. I was also struck by the fact that the president of the Somali Interim government in the early 2000s looked more like an Indian than a traditional Somali or Arab.
Some Somalis are intermarried to some degree with Arabs. This is one source of lighter colour and more "Caucasian" features. This Arab heritage is a link developed in the recent centuries since the Somalis adopted Islam, primarily in the various forms preached by wandering Yemeni Sufi preachers.
Some Somali lineages even claim to have been originally Arab, but according to scholars who have investigated the history and traditions, this appears to be due to various commercial or military alliances, which did involve some intermarriage, and conversion to Islam from the 1700s or so. With the Somalis, genealogy is very important, as with other Cushite and Semitic peoples. But we find that they, like the Arabs, "borrow" genealogies or lineage information, to enhance their perceived social standing.
Some Somali lineages have also apparently intermarried with the Oromo, who tend to be quite dark, and other Somali clans have intermarried some with other peoples of the region. These various alliances are complex and very hard to map.
Language, Culture and Physique
Language is the primary characteristic in common among all the peoples that consider themselves Somali. However, there are several mutually unintelligible languages in the Somali family. Additionally, there is a distinction between language heritage and physical genetic heritage.
Distinct again are the many variations in cultural characteristics, which are the most varied aspect of human society and the easiest to change. So language does not always correlate with physical type or cultural patterns.
Among the Somali peoples, extreme atomization and enmity between tribes, clans and families is a common feature dividing the Somali-speaking cluster of peoples. They are divided into hundreds of regional and local alliances. These divisions seem to indicate the differences in their societal patterns and concept of identity.
Somali and Bantu
The differences between the "Somali Bantu" and the Somali themselves comprise only one small part of the broader extensive differences found among the peoples in the broader Somali cultural sphere. The Somali Bantu, of course, have varied origins, so they vary among themselves, as do virtually all peoples of the world.
The largest single segment of the "Somali Bantu" came from Tanzania, and still speak a language related to the Bantu languages of Northern Tanzania. They also appear to retain their genetic stream from those Bantu ancestors. The western sources would be less prominent, but could also be Bantu.
It is likely, however, that the western African individuals among the old Somali slaves were not Bantu-speaking but from Sudanic or Atlantic language groups. These peoples are quite dark, while the East Africa Bantu tend to be lighter skinned. These have all become assimilated, as usually happens in such a situation, into one large general pool of "Gosha" or related groups.
The physical features of the Somali are also somewhat interestingly more similar to the Semitic-speaking Amhara and Tigrinya. There is also some similarity with the Northern Cushitic peoples, whose language is more closely related to the ancient Egyptians. This group is represented in the Beja and related tribes a little farther north of the Somalis. The Beja do tend to be lighter skinned, though they are a genetic mix of various origins from tribe to tribe.
The ethnic and genetic mix of the Horn of Africa is fascinating and complex. Actually, it is difficult to draw definitive generalities, due to the richness of these variations.
Physical Features and Colour
In my article Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa I also discuss a reader's question about the difference in physical features of various peoples of Eastern Africa. I comment there on the rich variety of genetic background.
In response to my original article, a reader named Amun confirms my observations from his own perspective, commenting that we "know quite well that African people are phenotypically polytypic just as Europeans are, only to a greater degree."
I also agree with Amun that it is important to caution people about simplistic approaches. That is why the first two sections of that article deal with this matter, pointing out that the word "race" is a very fluid, general and undefined term and concept. But what is meant by phenotypic diversity?
This generally means that the population groups that now live in the African continent exhibit great diversity from one to the other. The focus is not on the variation within any one population group, but the variation among different population groups.
Amun rightly emphasizes the variety of the gene pool, going on to tell us:
"Black people have a greater margin of genetic variability than white people, which is attributable to DNA and environmental and dietary factors." While across the whole population of Africa this would be true, what exactly does this imply?
A 2009 genetic study of 121 population groups in Africa indicates that no one group of these represents the full range of genetic diversity found among all the populations of Africa. Sarah Tishkoff, leader of the scientific team conducting the study states:
"In the past, [geneticists] studied just a few Africans, and suggested they were representative of the continent, but we've found that no population is representative of all of this diversity"
Obsession with Colour
Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project, comments on the diversity of African populations. While pointing out that the various populations are genetically quite different from one another, he also states:
"Much has been made of skin color as a defining racial characteristic. Yet most human variation is found among individuals within populations, and less than 10 percent serves to distinguish between racial groups" [Deep Ancestry (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006, p 150)].Wells also makes this point in another way:
"Two Africans sampled from the same village could have Y-chromosone or mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] lineages that are more divergent from each other than either is to a non-African"[Ibid].
The focus on colour appeared in the comments of the reader Amun mentioned above. Although Amun supports my comments in the original article, he then proceeds to introduce a comparison to European peoples, though my article never dealt with that, but focused on the peoples of the Horn of Africa. Further, my specific focus was an original question from an African reader asking why Somalis and Ethiopians look different from other Africans.
Amun introduces a racial bias, blurring the question by referring to "Black People." He seems to be focused on skin colour. This association of "race" with color and color with ethnicity perpetuates racist categories that misdirect our focus and skew the picture of common human history, genetics and ethnicity. We are discussing ethnicity here, which entails genetic heritage and cltural/social history.
This preoccupation with skin color is unfortunately confirmed when he changes the subject to "race mixing" between "black folk" and "white people." Skin colour is a superficial way to categorize people, and there are several different genetic mechanisms that affect the colour of skin in a population group. I have not discussed this question directly, because for one thing, the term "race mixing" assumes racist catetgories I repudiate. In the final analysis, there is one race, the human race.
However, we do know that in the historic period, peoples of various origins migrated back into Africa and have contributed to the diversity of the gene pool in Africa. (See my article Genetics Out of Africa.)
Amun also states that "Europeans are considered homogeneous and monolithic." This is news to me. I can't imagine where he heard anyone claiming that.
The Tishkoff team, from the University of Pennsylvania, conducted their study over a 10-year period, making it the most extensive DNA study so far. The BBC article reporting on the findings comments:
They collected over 3,000 samples, and identified 14 "ancestral population clusters". These are groups of populations with common genetic ancestry, who share ethnicity and similarities in both their culture and the properties of their languages.
Muntaser Ibrahim, a researcher from the University of Khartoum, who was also involved in the study, comments:
"This is a spectacular insight into the history of African populations and therefore the history of mankind."
The Pennsylvania team compared 100 genetic markers across those 121 population groups. The results fill in much of the detail in our understanding of genetic changes that have occurred in the populations now present in Africa. This sheds further light on the whole human genetic picture.
In the past on occasion some bigoted writers in both Europe and Africa, even in Asia, often focusing on skin colour, have made the outlandish claim that some people somewhere were pure and unmixed with any other people. This is not relevant to our question, and there is no historical or biological basis to such claims.
All people came from the same genetic stock, according to the growing DNA evidence. (As you might suspect, then, I believe we ought to exercise the same judgement on "racism" wherever it occurs, no matter what "race" is expressing those racist views.)
Our human DNA has been distributed, diversified into different sub-types, and recombined at various levels in innumerable and unclassifiable ways. This is what makes concepts of heritage, history, culture and ethnicity so fascinating! It may sound trite, but the old saw is nevertheless true, that there is in reality only one race, the Human Race.
In dealing with human ethnicity, we deal with the same factors and analyze them the same way for any human ethnicity. It is a mistake in popular usage to consider race as equivalent to skin color. But skin tone is one of the visible characteristics that physically distinguish various groups of humans. However, in my research I focus primarily on cultural and linguistic features.
Skin colour is virtually irrelevant. Ethnicity and group identity derive largely from social and cultural factors, based on Shared Significant Experiences that lead to a shared Worldview — a concept of the World and Reality.
All groups of people have ways of distinguishing varying tones of skin color. My Kikuyu friends in Kenya, for instance, are all the time referring to other Kikuyus as the light one, the red one or the dark one, just as they might refer to the tall one or the fat one. They use the same word for all light or white shades, likewise for dark or black.
A correspondent also comments:
"The ancient Egyptians were black Africans whose population would resemble any West Indian island today."
This comment made me wonder if this reader had ever actually seen a person of Egyptian (Coptic) genetic heritage. I think the Copts in Egypt, direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, would differ with this correspondent's assessment.
Copts I know and have seen in Egypt are apparently unmixed with the Arab invaders, since they retain their Christian religion and Coptic culture, though over the centuries they adopted the Arabic language. They are not "black Africans." (Those Copts who converted or intermarried with the Arabs are also light-skinned, of course.) It seems the farther south you go in Egypt, the darker the peoples become.
Millennia have passed for people to mix and migrate, not only in Egypt and the Horn of Africa, but all over the world. I note that this correspondent does make this concession, "True, some were [light skinned], albeit in the minority."
There is minimal evidence to go on, and that is interpreted differently by different persons, concerning the ancient peoples. Ancient authors seem to have always made a distinction between the people of Egypt, of Nubia and of Kush. Further, we know that the ancient term "Cush" was used to refer also to the southern and western Arabian peninsula. Scholars continue to sort real-history from mythical and legendary references, with differing opinions.
As I point out, we all come from the same stream, and genetic studies indicate the oldest current version of this universal human genetic stream is found among the Bushmen in Southern Africa. They are neither black nor white. But we are all genetically compatible.
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Genetics Out of Africa
How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
The Oromo: What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
Our Genetic Journey – Reviewing The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
Shared Significant Experiences: Culture and Experience
The Somali Peoples
The Somali Bantu
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya — Ethnicites, Languages and Politics
What is a "People Group"
Yemenis in Southern Africa: How Nguni South African and Yemeni Arab Genes Combined in Central Africa
For More on Genetics and Africa:
Africa's Genetic Secrets Unlocked
Blood of the Isles Website on British Genetics by Bryan Sykes
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey — See the book on Amazon
The Language of Life by Francis S. Collins (New book on the role of DNA, human populations and heritable characteristics affecting health)
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes (UK Title: Blood of the Isles)
Initial comments written in email exchanges with readers 31 July 2006 and 22 November 2006
Finalized as an article 09 March 2008
Revised 9 August 2010
Last edited 25 February 2022
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008, 2021 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.