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Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I'm originally from Somalia and I get asked by many people about my identity.  Especially why we Somalians and Ethiopians look slightly different than other Africans.  Sadly I do not know much other than the fact that I am African and of the black race.  Perhaps some information on the history of these ethnicities will help.

The question you ask actually involves some very complex factors.  Initially what I will do is give some background context for the factors involved.  Forgive me if at first some of these comments seem too detailed or far from your question.

First a note on some of the background I bring to this question.  When I lived in Kenya, I knew several Kenya Somalis and Somali people from Somalia.  Many people of the Somali language or clan groups live in Ethiopia.  I have also visited Djibouti, where the Somali Issa clan are dominant.

I have visited Ethiopia on several occasions also, as well as Eritrea, and have studied extensively the backgrounds of the Amhara and Tigrinya and related peoples.  Perhaps my articles on their ethnicity will be helpful:
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya - Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
The Amhara

Race and Skin Color
Here is a basic principle that underlies such questions.  Centuries of systematic investigation and analysis of information about the world's peoples, informs us that there is no consistent relationship of skin color to "race."  Further, the concept of "race" is very vague and is not a technical category with a standard definition.  Further, geneticists have discovered that there are different sets of genes controlling skin color that are triggered for other reasons in different populations.

There are some general informal categories, sometimes called "race," that help us classify various peoples of the world, but they are not strictly defined, and are used differently by different writers.  The terms and categories used do not relate clearly to definite physical types.

This is one reason you will sometimes hear it said that there is only one race, the Human Race.  All humans now living on Earth apparently share the same full gene pool.  There is no simple relationship of physical features (physiognomy) or genetic structure to any clear groupings of peoples.  We can of course perceive some general patterns, and these are the basis of our broad distinctions between various individuals and population groups.

These characteristics are simply part of their visual identity.  Such visible differences are the basis of broad designations and categories we may use to identify different populations, associated often with a geographical region. But the edges of the categories are rough.  (See The Rough Edges of Ethnicity.)  Thus in general most peoples traditionally living in the African continent have black skin, and have some general features traditionally referred to as "Negroid."

In other parts of the world this is the common reference point for awareness of people from Africa. Many people are also unaware how big and varied the African continent is!  Some other groups, like the Somalis and some peoples of Ethiopia, are noticeably different in appearance. The differences appear to have their roots in pre-history.

In the past physical features has been one basis on which some have tried to categorize groups of humans.  A major problem with this and some other approaches is that the categories are used for discriminatory and exploitative or repressive purposes.

Common Genetic Stream
Findings in Archaeology and Genetic studies continue to indicate Africa as the point of origin of the human race. However, recent genetic studies have shown that the human group with oldest sequence of genes is another African group of atypical appearance. The oldest genetic stream of humanity is found among the "Bushmen" of Southern and Central Africa, more properly known as the San (or Khoi-San) people.  These genetic studies include a comparative study of select peoples of all continents and physical types.

Since the mapping of the human genome in recent years, DNA samples from around the world have been compared.  This has enabled specialists to establish a clear geographical chain of origin, descent and migration for human populations worldwide.  Spencer Wells has written up the historical conclusions from this comparative DNA study, which reads like an exciting novel:
The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey.  Read my review essay on this book and its subject.

A direct line of descent can be discerned in a sequence of chronological mutations discovered on the Y chromosome.  Sequential patterns of change are similarly discernible on the mitochondrial DNA of the cell nucleus (from the mother's heritage).  The physical differences associated with some of these gene changes over thousands of years are expressed as differences in appearance and body type between different human populations.  Sometimes these observed differences are the basis of a naÔve categorization referred to as "race."  Yet these superficial differences occur among humans whose DNA is 99.6% identical! [Francis S. Collins, The Language of Life (NY: Harper, 2010) p 146]

Visual Continuum
Among the broad human "races," there exists a continuum of physical features and skin color.  There are no clear-cut categories by either skin color, hair or eye color, head shape or size, height, body size, leg length or other feature.  Only general groupings and greater tendencies in various groups.

Traditional terms (developed in Europe) for identifying broad human groupings, like Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid, are too general and inadequate to account for the variety we find among humans.  Findings since those early prescientific classifications help us appreciate and enjoy the rich variety we share in our human family.

Skin colour is not directly tied to any certain facial features.  Skin colour distinctions, like "white" and "black," are also very general and inexact (where is the border between very white and moderately white, or more white than the neighbour, etc) and are useful only for relative distinctions.  Terms vary from region to region and country to country, depending on the features in focus locally.  There are black peoples in Southern India and the Indian Ocean Islands with so-called "Caucasian" features.  In general this group/cluster of people is called Dravidian.  Examples of Dravidian peoples are groups in India speaking languages like Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

Peoples called Melanesian in the South Pacific are also black, and have features somewhat similar to Negroid Africans, but they don't really look like Africans.  The peoples of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya, for instance, are Melanesian.  Likewise in this group are those called Australian Aborigines ("Originals").  Indians at the southern tip of South America also have "robust" features, but have light-coloured skin.

Thus there are peoples who are black that do not fit into the classic group of physical features traditionally referred to as "Negroid."  The geography-based designation "African" is generally used in popular speech to refer to the broad majority of black peoples of Africa who generally fit the popular traditional classification of physical features called Negroid.

Ethnicities in Northeastern Africa
Now when we come to the Horn of Africa, there are basically three groupings of peoples involved in the ethnic mix of Ethiopians and Somalis:
Cushites, Semites and Bantu or Nilo-Saharan.  The best way to group these various peoples is by language, since languages can be more objectively organized and the relationship between various languages has been well-established over the last two centuries.

Each of these broad groups also includes complex sub-groups that complicate the language and ethnic picture in North-Eastern Africa.  The primary way groups of ethnicities in the Horn of Africa seem to relate is by language, more than by physical type.

My articles about the Beja and Oromo peoples in the region also provides some historical information and discusses how different ethnicities intermarry and how new peoples emerge.  The Beja are a group of basically Cushite peoples who have mixed in various ways with Semitic peoples, the Sabeans and Arabs, as well as with other types of Cushites.

The term Oromo refers to a large grouping of languages and peoples in the Horn of Africa and southward deep into Kenya.  These languages are Cushitic and are related distantly to the Somali/Maay group.  The Oromo peoples are generally very dark, like the Somalis, but are shorter and have more "African" (Negroid) features, perhaps due to more intermarrying with Bantu or Nilotic groups.
The Oromo: What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?

A related Cushite group is the Afar, on the Red Sea coast of Ethiopia and Eritrea.  They seem to be generally a lighter color, with skin tones that may be perceived as brown.  Their language is in the same broad group as the Oromo and Somali families.

Mythical and historical elements merge in the oral traditions of the region. For more historical and cultural information, see my article about the Afar:
Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History

Migrations and Ethnic Overlays
Among the peoples of the Horn of Africa, like every other place in the world, various groups of humans have migrated in and out over the millennia, and intermarried in various ways.  They have exchanged culture and language.  Some Cushite peoples have migrated west towards the center of the Africa continent, like the Tutsi in the Lakes Area, according to some analyses.

Meanwhile Nilotic peoples from the North have migrated south to mix with Cushite and Bantu peoples.  You can read about some of these in the following article:
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima - Cultural Background in Rwanda

The Bantu peoples (named for their related languages) in Eastern Africa and Somalia seem to have migrated from the center of the continent from around the time of Christ.  Historical linguistics leads to the conclusion that they had made it into what is now Southern Somalia perhaps by 200 AD.  Related to this migration are the "Somali Bantu," Gosha, Mushungulu and related groups in the inland Horn, as well as the Barawa (Brava) of the Somali coast and related Swahili groups on the coast of East Africa from Kenya to Mozambique.

Incidentally, the Swahili groups tend to be lighter skinned due to their origin from the intermarrying of Arab men with African (Bantu) women along the east coast of Africa.  See more in my article on the Swahili peoples.

Somali Race and Ethnicity
Among groups in the Horn of Africa, you have noted that the Somalis and "Ethiopians" look different from other African peoples.  It is actually unclear why the Somali peoples look more Caucasian, even though they have dark skin like the Oromo Cushites or Bantu Africans.  There seems to be no generally accepted explanation among scholars.

Some Somali clans claim descent from Arab tribes.  This is perhaps one source for the more "Caucasian" features we find among the Somali groups, even with their black skin. This appears to be due to intermarrying since the contact with Islam.  Some Somali clans even claim origins in Arab clans across the Red Seas.  This probably represents the common practice of borrowing or adopting genealogies, related to trading and military alliances.  Additionally, military and even commercial alliances are often sealed by intermarriage, a common cultural feature all over the world.

Ethiopian Race and Ethnicity
As for the "Ethiopians," you are probably referring to the Amhara, Tigrinya (mostly Eritrea) and Tigray peoples associated with the ancient kingdoms of Axum and Abyssinia.  They constitute a minority of the population of Ethiopia, being outnumbered by the Oromo cluster of peoples of the country, but have been politically dominant for centuries.*

These large, dominant ethnic groups of the Ethiopian highlands (including Eritrea) are speakers of a group of Semitic languages, brought to the area from the Arabian peninsula, likely by the Sabean peoples.  This group is referred to in various ancient texts, including the Old Testament and the Quran.  The name appears to be a form of the name Sheba.

The identity of ancient Sheba is uncertain, and is associated with the term Cush also.  The languages of the region were mixed from ancient times with Semitic and Cushitic. (For instance, the ancient Chaldeans, in the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates River in the Persian Gulf, who later took over the Babylonian Empire from the Assyrians, are thought to have been Cushitic.)

Arabic and Hebrew are closely related to the Amharic and Tigrinya languages, in the same Semitic family.  The Gurage language group of Ethiopia also shares affinities with Amharic and Tigrinya, though the Gurage peoples are not of a uniform phenotype.

See the related articles at the end of this article.

The Sabeans were one base of the peoples in the Horn of Africa now speaking Semitic languages.  Other racial or genetic contributions to this stock are from the Cushite peoples.  These are classified into Eastern and Northern Cushites.  The Oromo and Somali are classified in the Eastern group.

The Beja are the only remaining Northern Cushite group there now.  Peoples speaking Cushitic languages have varying shades of skin tone, from black to shades of brown.

Egyptian and Nubian
The ancient Egyptians also spoke a language broadly related to the Cushite and Semitic languages in the broader Afro-Asiatic family.  Some recent authors have presented the view that ancient Egyptians were "black Africans," despite the common depictions on hieroglyphs.  Some people seem to invest their emotions or self-identity heavily in the color of the skin, but that is just one feature that may helps us recognize and describe human populations.

It appears to me that the Egyptians were lighter skinned, like the Semitic Phoenicians, Hebrews, other Canaanites and the Arabs.  Their descendants are primarily identified in the Coptic Egyptians (mostly Christian) who now speak Arabic.

In addition, we can add the Nubian mix.  Traditionally farther west around the White Nile and up into Egyptian territory we find the Nubian peoples, whose speech is classified as Sudanic.  Nubian peoples were in ancient "Upper Egypt" and at one time became the ruling dynasty in all Egypt (the "Black Pharaohs").

Their influence, if not direct rule, would have included much of what has traditionally been understood as "Cush," usually thought to include Ethiopia and parts of Sudan.  It is possible they also contributed to the genetic mix of the Horn area.  The ancient Empire of MeroŽ on the Upper Nile was a Nubian Kingdom.

These Semitic-speaking peoples migrating into the Horn of Africa apparently intermarried with the various Cushites groups already living in the area and migrating in later.  This Semitic strain of genetics seems to account somewhat for their more "Caucasian" features.  Skin color varies.

Thus African peoples from Bantu-speaking and Nilotic background, as well as some Cushites, have a known different origin in historic times from the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Ethiopian highlands.  It is less clear why the Somali group have more European-like features, though they have darker skins.

Rich Mix
In conclusion, the short summary of all this is that various groups of peoples from different "racial" and linguistic origins have migrated in and out of the Horn of Africa, and have intermarried in various ways.  The broad shared human gene pool has been mixed and mingled richly in the Horn of Africa!  This gives us the dynamic, rich, complex and sometimes volatile mix of ethnicities and the range of ethnicity and language that is difficult to relate directly to any clear racial category.

These various genetic and geographic origins in various mixes account somewhat for the differences we currently observe in their features, as well as in their cultures.  This is different only in degree from the general story of humanity all over the world.

The fascinating thing is that the farther back into genetic history we have been able to go (through recent DNA comparative study) the more similar we find the human stream to be, back to a single genetic grouping in central or eastern Africa.
* Figures from the 2007 Ethiopia census report the following percentages:  2007 Ethiopia census;  Amhara 26.89% of the population, Tigray 6.07% of the population [Total 32.86%];  Oromo 34.49% of the population -- "List of ethnic groups in Ethiopia," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_Ethiopia (Some sources report the Oromo cluster as high as 40% of the population.)

Also related
Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History
The Amhara
Appreciating Differences
The Beja
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Genetics Out of Africa
How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity
Models of Assimilation
Peoples and Languages
The Oromo:  What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
Our Genetic Journey - Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues:  Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
The Subtlety of Assimilation
The Swahili Peoples
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya - Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima - Cultural Background in Rwanda
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
Ancient African Empires
Ancient Ethnic Migrations (ca. 1520-1660)
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)
MeroŽ Ė Wikipedia
Nubians: Who Are the Nubians?
Out of Africa's Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer (US Title: The Real Eve:  Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa)


First written as an email reply to a question from a reader 25 January 2006
Finalized as an article and posted on Thoughts and Resources 27 January 2006
Rewritten 29 June 2010
Last edited 14 March 2015

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006, 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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