A long-awaited breakthrough has been achieved in the quest to uncover the ancestry of the Swahili Civilization. Chapurukha Kusimba, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, has finally uncovered the first-ever ancient DNA from the Swahili Civilization. Kusimba’s dedication to the study of the ancestry of those who built the civilization has spanned 40 years, covering a debate that many Swahilis feel has robbed them of their heritage for centuries.
The DNA samples of 80 individuals dating back as long as 800 years ago were examined, making it the first ancient DNA from the Swahili Civilization to be analyzed. Kusimba spent years with the people of Swahili to gain their trust before receiving approval to complete cemetery excavations. To respect the remains, Kusimba finished the sampling and re-burial process all in one season.
The results of the DNA analysis revealed a blend of both African and Asian heritage in the ancestry of the people tested. The vast majority of male-line ancestors came from Asia, while female-line ancestors came from Africa. The descendants of the Swahili Civilization spoke an African language, despite intermarrying with people of Asian ancestry. Researchers concluded that African women had a significant influence on shaping the culture, to the extent that the villages were established prior to the arrival of colonialism from Asia, resulting in women becoming the primary holders of economic and social power.
Kusimba’s findings challenge centuries-old narratives, which suggest that wealthy Swahilis only claimed to have ancestral connections to Asia to downplay their African heritage and attain higher social status and cultural affinities. These false narratives have resulted in poor treatment of Swahili descendants, as documented by Kusimba’s previous work in the 1990s.
The study’s results bring out the African contributions and Africanness of the Swahili without marginalizing the Persian and Indian connection. Kusimba believes that by challenging and overturning narratives imposed from outside sources for political and economic gain, this research brings a sense of peace and restores pride to the millions of people who identify as Swahili today.
Moving forward, Kusimba plans to continue his research on Swahili to gather more DNA and create a larger sample size, enabling a more extensive analysis of a broader, more socioeconomically diverse population. The successful collaboration between anthropologists and geneticists throughout this project suggests that this approach may offer a possible resolution to longstanding questions around the heritage of other groups of people who founded ancient cities and civilizations.