Message #68:
From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To:   "'Matthias Giessler'" 
Subject: Oral Tradition Tested Against Modern Scientific Evidence
Date: Tue, 04 Feb 97 11:32:00 MST
Encoding: 190 TEXT

[ Brought to you under the fair use doctrine...  -- SASIG Ed. ]

The Journal of NIH Research 01/01/97

Barking Up The Lemba Family Tree With DNA Polymorphisms David I. Lewin

Human molecular genetics, long a key to the understanding of inherited
disease and biological function, is now finding its way into the tool
kit of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians.

Geneticists are using natural variations (polymorphisms) in Y-chromosome
DNA to investigate the oral history of an African people--the Lemba of
South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Lemba, a Bantu-speaking population of
about 40,000 that is found in Mozambique as well, have a number of
unique cultural practices that distinguish them from the surrounding
peoples (such as the Venda in northern South Africa). According to their
oral history, the Lemba originally came from the north; and their
ancestors were traders and metalworkers--Jews or possibly Arabs--who
settled in southern Africa before the 10th century A.D. and perhaps as
early as the 6th century B.C. Evidence from studies by molecular
population geneticists suggests that this oral history probably rests on
fact: Many Lemba men carry Y-chromosome polymorphisms that are common in
the Middle East but not in Africa.

In Egypt, several thousand miles to the north, other researchers are
using genetic analysis of remains from a 2,000-year-old Egyptian
cemetery to investigate the spread of ancient Christianity. These
researchers are also analyzing DNA samples from the mummified remains of
Egypt's pharaohs to reconstruct the pharaohs' family ties. And Biblical
scholars are turning to similar molecular-genetic techniques to guide
the reassembly of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 2,000-year-old
parchment (animal-skin) documents that shed light on Jewish life and
beliefs around the time that Christianity began.

In the November issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, Amanda
Spurdle, now of La Trobe University in Bundoora, Australia, and Trefor
Jenkins of the South African Institute for Medical Research and the
University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, report
that at least half of the 49 Lemba men they studied carry Y chromosomes
bearing polymorphisms found typically in people of Semitic, rather than
African, descent. These researchers rule out the possibility that Lemba
ancestors came from India (whose people historically traded with eastern
Africa) by the absence in the Lemba population of a Y-chromosome
polymorphism commonly found among Indians. Spurdle and Jenkins also
report that the frequency of several other Y-chromosome variants among
the Lemba is more similar to that in Jewish populations than to that in
other groups of Africans. These findings, the researchers write, are
consistent with the oral history of the South African Lemba, who trace
their origin as a people to Jewish traders and metalworkers of the
pre-Christian era who were stranded in Africa after the fall of their

"[The Lemba] have an oral tradition that connects them to an ancient
city called Sena, but they don't know exactly where this city is," says
Tudor Parfitt, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the
University of London in England. Parfitt's own historical research
suggests that Sena was in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and
that the Semitic ancestors of the Lemba may have been Muslim traders who
ventured into the African interior about 1,000 years ago.

The tradition among South African Lemba that they are of ancient Jewish
descent is a long-standing one, but was undoubtedly influenced by
contact with British colonists shortly after the Lemba first arrived in
South Africa from the north during the mid-19th century, says Gina
Buijs, an anthropologist at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South
Africa. The colonials noted a number of Lemba customs, including ritual
slaughter of meat and male circumcision, and identified the Lemba as
essentially Jewish. The Lemba accepted this identification, says Buijs.
She recalls interviewing several very old Lemba men in 1987, who said
they knew that they were Jewish "because our parents told us." Political
factors during the apartheid era--including the South African Jews'
outspoken opposition to apartheid's racial restrictions--strengthened
the South African Lemba's emphasis on their possible Jewish links, Buijs
says. The Lemba living north of the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe and
Mozambique, who were unaffected by apartheid, identify their Semitic
forebears as Muslims, she says.

The self-identification of South African Lemba with the Jews has led the
Lemba to claim kinship with the Ethiopian Jews, a culturally distinct
group that has retained many Jewish customs despite being out of contact
with the rest of the Jewish community for more than 2,000 years. Over
the past two decades, the majority of Ethiopian Jews have fled their
homeland to resettle in Israel. A connection between the Lemba and
Ethiopian Jews appears unlikely, Jenkins says, because a small study by
other researchers found that Ethiopian Jewish men do not typically carry
the common Semitic polymorphisms on their Y chromosomes--and, in fact,
carry genetic polymorphisms rare or absent in both Negro and Caucasian

Neil Bradman of the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at University
College London, finds Jenkins' paper interesting, but he says that the
researchers should have placed more reliance on unique sequence
variations and less reliance on Y-chromosome polymorphisms that
represent complex chromosomal rearrangements--which are difficult to
interpret. "It will be very interesting to see whether the same
conclusions are drawn" when a more extensive set of DNA variants becomes
available for comparison between the Lemba and the European, African,
and Middle Eastern reference populations, he says.

Why study genetic polymorphisms in the Lemba and other ethnic groups?
"Genes provide a firmer foundation than language to map the movement of
peoples," says Scott Woodward of Brigham Young University (BYU) in
Provo, Utah. Woodward, a molecular geneticist, is attempting to
reconstruct population movements over the past 500 years in Peru on the
basis of a study of polymorphisms in mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA.
Woodward's Peruvian study involves analysis, so far, of samples from
1,500 modern individuals and of several dozen ancient samples.

Even before the widespread use of molecular markers, genetics helped
answer questions about the origin of specific peoples. Early in the 20th
century {when?}, researchers used data on the frequency of various blood
groups to demonstrate that European Gypsies had their origin in India,
Jenkins says. More recently, geneticists have used classical genetic
markers to confirm the African origin of the Siddis, a tribal group in
India living slightly inland from the former Portuguese colony of Goa.

Historians and archaeologists are drawing on molecular genetics as well.
For the past 17 years, historian and archaeologist Wilfred Griggs of BYU
has headed a multidisciplinary research team that is investigating
everyday life in pre-Christian and early Christian Egypt through
excavation of a cemetery in Fayum that was used for more than 1,000

As a result of his cemetery studies--particularly the study of pottery
and fabrics found with the corpses--"I have been able to determine
within a decade or two when the Christian religion arrived," says
Griggs. Genetic analysis of the bodies has not ruled out a massive
migration into the region as the cause of the change in religious
practice, and Woodward notes that there is preliminary evidence of
immigration associated with the rise of the new faith. "We are doing
work that would have been inconceivable 10 years ago, let alone 50 or
100 years ago," Griggs says.

Griggs and his BYU colleagues are also attempting to trace blood
relationships among the pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty--1570{end}1320
B.C.--the most famous of whom is King Tutankhamen. Historians know the
sequence of 18th Dynasty pharaohs, but not their relationships: Which of
Tutankhamen's predecessors was his father? Was kingship inherited, and
if so, did it pass through the paternal or maternal line? Many Egyptian
mummies were exhumed and reburied several times over the course of
several thousand years. "Right now, there is a fair amount of
uncertainty out there" whether each pharaoh is associated with the
correct mummy, Woodward says.

"I think that molecular genetics is the tool to sort out these
questions--whether we are looking at modern populations or ancient
populations," Woodward says.

Not every group wants to have its history or oral tradition tested
against modern scientific evidence. Several groups of Native Americans
have demanded the return of skeletons and other human remains found on
their tribal lands, refusing anthropologists the opportunity to analyze
even small samples of tissue or bone.

Are there limits on how deeply scholars can investigate what people hold
special or sacred? "These are real concerns," Woodward says. "There is a
source, somewhere, for these oral traditions; they didn't come out of
thin air--there is something that got them started," he says.
"Personally, I would like to know the answers." --david i. lewin