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Origins and Affiliations of the Swahili East African People

Curatorial Section


Research Discipline

Physical Anthropology


1997 - 2012

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Who are the Swahili? Many avenues of research indicate that the cultural, technological, and biological ties of the famous trading peoples of the East African coast are more complex than previously imagined.

Location Information

Coastal Kenya

Time Period Studied

1000 CE to present

  • Chapurukha Kusimba, Field Museum, Chicago
  • Sibel Barut Kusimba, Northern Illinois University
  • Janet Monge, Penn Museum
  • Page Selinsky, Penn Museum
  • Laura Scheinfeldt, Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington
  • Joseph Lorenz, Central Washington University
Project Overview

The Swahili peoples of coastal East Africa, with a complex amalgam of Islamic and African as well as circum-Indian Ocean influences, are a mix of cultures and peoples and probably have been for centuries. Sorting out the biological affinities of the Swahili has been a challenge since there are both cultural and political issues that are directly related to these issues. Kusimba and colleagues, including Janet Monge on the skeletal analyses, continue working on these relationships expanding the biological database with more excavated skeletal materials and the addition of DNA from living inhabitants of many coastal and hinterland towns and villages. This research extends beyond the skeletal materials with many issues addressing not only the biological associations but also the cultural and technological origins and expansions of the Swahili sphere of influence.

Preliminary work on the biological affinities of the Swahili include the analysis of skeletal remains from coastal Swahili sites including adjacent islands like the archaeological site of Shanga located on one of the Lamu archipelago islands and from the coastal town of Mtwapa just north of Mombasa on the mainland Kenya coast. To test the affinities of these skeletal peoples, skeletal samples from regions adjacent to the coastal sites were also studied and aDNA extracted. One of these areas is located just outside of the boundaries of the Tsavo East National Park, in the Taita Hills.

Kenya is a very geographically and ethnically diverse country including in the culture, language, and biology of the peoples. It is no surprise then that the skeletal peoples from the Swahili coastal sites share most biological/skeletal affinities with their neighbors in the adjacent hinterlands. aDNA confirms this skeletal affiliation with one surprising result. One of the skeletons analyzed, from an ancestral rockshelter shrine in the Taita Hills, has an mtDNA profile never before seen in human global samples. What conclusion can we draw? Perhaps that in just the last 100 years or so, much of the diversity of East Africa has been reduced and/or lost, a pattern that might apply to other populations as well.


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