The largest and first ever ancient DNA study from the East African Coast that meaningfully restores the heritage of the Swahili people was published Thursday in London in the British Scientific journal, Nature.
The study, pushes back to more than 500 years of colonization of the region whose effects still persists.
The decade long study was conducted by a team of American researchers led by lead researcher Prof. David Reich of Havard Medical School.
The team includes Kenyan born Anthropology Prof. Chapurukha Kusimba from the University of South Florida, Jeffrey Fleisher of Rice University, and Stephanie Wynne- Jones at University of York along with Esther Brielle, a post-doctoral scientist at Havard Medical School genetics laboratory who came up with multiple findings.
The researchers who co-authored an Op-Ed titled “Entwined African and Asian Genetics Roots of the medieval peoples of the Swahili Coast” that has been carried by the New York Times newspaper in the US point out a surprise finding that Indians contributed in a central way to the Swahili peoples ancestry.
They show that around 1000AD, the initial stream of Asian migrants mixed with Africans at multiple locations along the East African coast, contributed to about half the people’s ancestry- a mixture of 90 per cent from Persian and 10 per cent Indians.
These findings coincide with the oldest Swahili oral story The Kilwa Chronicles, which tell of Persian (Shirazi) merchants or princes who contributed to the founding of Swahili communities.
It, too, disproves the opposite viewpoint prevailing in colonial times that Africans provided little contribution to Swahili towns.
Prof Reich wrote; “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.
The researchers reckon that mixing was highly sex specific, with predominant ancestry sources being male Persian individuals and predominantly African female individuals.
Their study was carried in Lamu, Mtwapa, Songo Mnara and Kilwa Kisiwani where present day communities have strong traditions of connection to the people of the medieval coastal towns.
They aver that Persian males allied and married into local trading families and adopted local customs to enable them become more successful traders.
The legacy of the medieval Swahili civilization is a source of extraordinary pride in East Africa as reflected in Kiswahili being the region’s lingua franca.
“The fact that their children passed down the language of their mothers, and that encounter with traditionally patriarchal Persian/Arabians and conversion to Islam did not change the Coast’s African matriarchal tradition and confirms that African women retained their culture and passed it down many generations.
“Findings of the study bring out the African contributions, and indeed the Africanness of the Swahili without marginalizing the Persian/Indian connection. These findings speak to the relatedness that we as human kind share with each other,” Prof Kusimba who has carried out archaeological research at the Kenyan Coast since 1986 reckons.
He added, results of this study are ground breaking and serve as a template for doing anthropologically led science.
It contextualizes the politics of research perfectly illustrating why we cannot oversimplify.
The interpretation of the genetic data in the paper serves as lesson that archaeologists and geneticists must find ways of working and listening to each without the former being subordinate to genetic analysis.
Prof Kusimba said the work shows how a DNA and anthropological research could work hand in hand and produce truly meaningful cutting edge results.
By Roseland Lumwamu