Do the Lemba and the Falasha have Jewish DNA?
Genetics and Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa Presented at SAfA 2004
From high antiquity to recent history6, one of the more bizarre episodes in the attempt to link genetics and linguistics is the case of the Lemba in Southern Africa7 (Hendrickx 1991; Spurdle & Jenkins 1996; Thomas et al. 2000). If you believe the many websites, the Lemba are a black Southern African Bantu speaking group who have Jewish Ancestry. They purportedly observe customs such as not eating pork, male circumcision, and keeping one day a week holy. According to their oral history, they came to Africa from “Sena in the north by boat”. The original group, which is said to have been almost entirely male, made its way to the coasts of Eastern Africa. If the Lemba do indeed have Jewish ancestry then one might expect to find a similarity between the Y chromosomes of Lemba men and those of Jewish men living in other parts of the world.
Needless, to say, this has stimulated the ‘lost tribes of Israel’ lobby. Tudor Parfitt, a lecturer in Jewish Studies has made a miniature media career through a book and television programme, Journey to the Vanished City: Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel (Parfitt 1997). In this bold essay into the unknown the brave hero ventures into South Africa and lo and behold uncovers the Lemba. This was linked to a study that compared the Y chromosomes of around 136 Lemba to those of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, Yemeni and non-Lemba Bantu speakers (Thomas et al. 2000). Researchers found evidence of Semitic origin in the Lemba, although it was not clear whether this origin was Jewish or Arab, or a mixture of both. The study also found that the Lemba carry the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH) at a frequency similar to that found in Jewish populations. The CMH has been suggested as a signature for the ancient Hebrew population. Non-Lemba Bantu speakers in the study did not carry the CMH. The researchers concluded that the Lemba most likely have a mixture of Jewish, Arab and Bantu origins, although the CMH present in Lemba men could have an exclusively Jewish origin. It is therefore claimed that the genetic evidence is therefore consistent with the Lemba oral tradition of a Jewish origin. Wilson & Goldstein (2000) even go so far as to refer to them as a ‘Bantu-Semitic Hybrid Population’.
The whole story has more than a whiff of Wilbur Smith. These ‘traditions’ are almost entirely spurious and do not date from the earliest records of the Lemba, but are an example of reinvention spurred by the interests of outsiders. The Lemba only now claim to be of Jewish origin because they have told this is the case, just as they now wear skull-caps and shawls in conformity with this spurious tradition. It seems very likely that even the claim that there is ‘Semitic’ DNA would be difficult to support and the likelihood that the frequency of CMH is really similar to modern day Jewish populations unlikely in the extreme. Bizarrely, the Lemba are now also claiming to have built Great Zimbabwe. Assuming the genetics result reflect anything at all, it is probably intermarriage with Arab traders in the past few centuries. It is noticeable that the Lemba have no language of their own and indeed no linguistic trace remains of their supposed Jewish forbears. Nonetheless, as quoted in Thomas et al. (2000), the Lemba are now writing books about themselves, recounting traditions of apparent Jewish origin. Search websites on Bantu genetics and this is the main topic they want to discuss; Judaic websites have begun to elaborate an entire mythology of the lost Jewish populations of sub-Saharan Africa8. Ruwitah (1997) has indeed pointed to this reinvention but to no good effect. By some irony, a series of studies of the Falasha, the ‘Black Jews’ of Ethiopia, who have always claimed to be Orthodox Jews and who were certainly practising Jewish religion when first encountered by outsiders, show no Jewish genetic traits at all (Lucotte & Smets 1999).
6 It is hard not to be reminded of Karl Marx’ observation “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, so to speak, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Opening sentences of ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’.
7 See an uncritical review at http://www.bioethics.umn.edu/genetics_and_identity/case.html#lemba.
8 See http://dickinsg.intrasun.tcnj.edu/diaspora/part1/pwrpnt/Judaism/sld013.htm