Genetic study reveals ancestors of East Africa's Swahili people came from Iran
A genetic study on centuries-old DNA shows the ancestors of most of the Swahili people of East Africa, who established a rich civilization in the region, were from Iran.
Researchers in the US and UK said on Wednesday they examined the DNA of 80 people from five sites in Kenya and Tanzania dating to about 1250 to 1800 AD.
More than half of the genetic input in many of them traced to female ancestors from Africa's east coast while a significant contribution also came from Asia, of which about 90% came from men from Persia - modern Iran - and 10% from India.
After around 1500 AD, the bulk of the Asian genetic contribution shifted to Arabian sources, the study showed.
It may be, the researchers said, that the African women and their communities chose to form families with Persian princes or traders, reinforcing trade networks of African and Persian merchants.
The Swahili coast region stretches roughly from the Somali capital Mogadishu at the north to Tanzania's Kilwa island at the south and also includes parts of Kenya and Malawi and the Indian Ocean archipelagoes of Zanzibar and Comoros.
The medieval Swahili people in city-states such as Mombasa and Zanzibar exported goods from the African interior including ivory, gold, ebony and sandalwood, as well as slaves, to destinations across the Indian Ocean. They also were among the first practitioners of Islam among sub-Saharan people.
The genetic findings lend support to oral traditions of Swahili people that trace the origins of the medieval towns to the arrival of Persian merchants. “It’s easy to discount oral history as ‘just stories’, but it aligns pretty well with our results,” says team member Esther Brielle, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School.