Sex of markets and the birth of Swahili

Sex has inordinately defined the interaction of Africans and the outside world with sex tourism being viewed as a modern concept.

However, history is also written in sex as new research reveals wealthy male traders from present-day Iran might have cemented their business ties with communities on East Africa’s coastline by marrying into the African tribes, a relationship that gave birth to Swahili.

Fresh revelations from DNA analysis on medieval sites along the East African Coast show a strong bias in ancestry patterns with nearly all East African ancestry coming from women while most of the Asian ancestry was traceable to men from Persia—present-day Iran.

And from this once obscure East African coastal dialect, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognized language enabling communication for over 200 million people today.

According to historians, Swahili culture emerged on or around 1000 years ago largely driven by years of booming trade along East Africa’s coast stretching from Southern Somalia all the way to Mozambique.

Present day island of Zanzibar, which remains a popular tourist destination with clear waters, and white sandy beaches also carries with it layers of history of a dark past when the archipelago was the hub of slave trade. An awful number of captured men and women were sold to buyers in the Middle East. 

“It’s mind-blowing for me,” notes Diyendo Massilani, an ancient-DNA specialist at Yale School of Medicine, Connecticut, US, who was not involved in the research that was published in March in Nature1, a British weekly scientific journal.

“People from Asia and people from Africa come together and build a new culture, a new society,” he explained.

In the study, archaeologists excavated ancient settlements such as Kilwa, an island town off the coast of Tanzania, and contrasted the area’s mosques and homes with the fairly temporary structures found further inland, and concluded that the stone urban centres borrowed heavily from the technologies brought in by the tradesmen from the Middle East.

Read also: Kamala confronts ghosts of slave trade

In the survey, DNA samples from over 50 people, who were buried in Swahili coastal towns in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as in inland burial locations in Kenya between 1250 and 1800 were analyzed.

Interestingly, the results showed that nearly all the sampled DNA material from East Africa seemed to come from women whereas most of the Asian ancestry was traceable to men from Iran.

“The idea that Swahili civilization is essentially an Arab civilization took root in writings by virtually of all the Europeans who passed through the area,” notes Chapurukha Kusimba, an anthropological archaeologist from the University of South Florida who co-led the groundbreaking research.

David Reich, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who co-led the research, said ancient trading routes linking Africa, the Middle East, and Asia shed light on the diverse origin of the Swahili people.

The Indian Ocean trading system was anchored by strong southwest monsoon winds blowing between May and October that enabled merchant vessels to move from India or the Arabian Peninsula to the eastern African coast, and later the northeast monsoon winds starting November to March that facilitated their return voyage in the same year.

According to the study findings, the political and administrative independence of ancient Swahili towns, however, waned in the sixteenth century as powerful merchants from Portugal asserted their dominance along the Indian Ocean coastal belt.

But as fate would have it, in the early 1700s, the influence of the Portuguese eased, giving in to the Sultanates of Oman who significantly raised the profile of Zanzibar as a regional business centre, including the trade in slaves.

In the nineteenth century, an expanding overseas trade, including that of enslaved people led to large-scale population movements from central regions of Africa and settlers from Yemen.

In the 1850s, Britain and other European powers set foot on East African Coast, leading to the settlement of Europeans, and the arrival of labourers from India, who were later very instrumental in building the Kenya Uganda railway to open the hinterland for trade, triggering further interactions with non-coastal eastern African communities.

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