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November 1, 2000


Jewish ancestry for an African tribe:
From Yemen to Zimbabwe

By Dorothy C. Wertz, PhD

Deep in sub-Saharan Africa stands an imposing ruined fortress called Great Zimbabwe. The Lemba, a tribe of 50,000 people living in the area, claim that it was built by their Jewish ancestors who migrated from the city of Senna in Yemen.

The Lemba resemble the Bantu tribes in the area, but follow some traditional Jewish practices. They avoid eating pork or meat from pig-like animals like the hippopotamus. Other Lemba practices that adhere to Jewish religious tradition include male circumcision, observing a holy day every week, wearing prayer shawls and claiming priestly descent from the Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses.

The Lemba find no contradiction in practicing Christianity and Judaism at the same time. (Neither did the early Christian community in Jerusalem.)

In addition to this rich cultural legacy, the Lembas may also maintain genetic ties to their Jewish ancestors.

For instance, Jewish traders from Yemen followed the east coast of Africa, speaking Swahili (the language of trade) and carrying their traditions. Cultural transmission from coastal Africa has been traced historically, according to geneticist Steve Jones of the Galton Laboratory at the University College London.

Recent DNA evidence supports the Lemba claim of Jewish ancestry, illustrating the importance of oral tradition.

David B. Goldstein of Oxford University found that more than half of the senior Lemba group - called the Buba Clan, after their original Jewish ancestor, Buba - carry the distinctively "priestly" Y chromosome signature of Jewish priests.

DNA most commonly compared in geneology studies:

Mitochondrial DNA:

Responsible for providing the cell with power, mitochondria are transmitted generation to generation by women only to both sons and daughters. As a result, this method requires an unbroken chain of maternal lineage.


The Y chromosome is especially useful in tracing lineage, because unlike the 22 autosomal chromosomes, it generally exists as a single copy in males and, thus, does not recombine with the chromosomes of the other parent.

Non-coding genomic DNA:

Comparison of this non-protein-coding DNA in the genome can reveal familial markers not tied to disease.

Like the original Hebrews, the Lemba have 12 clans. Almost one in ten Lemba men carry the priestly signature, as compared to 53 percent of the Buba clan. These proportions are about the same as those generally found in Jewish populations. The signatures are found rarely, if at all, in non-Jewish groups.

Another part of the puzzle - the location of the Lemba ancestral town of Senna - may also have been resolved.

Dr. Tudor Parfitt of London's School of Oriental and African Studies found evidence of a town by that name in Yemen, whose inhabitants fled after an irrigation dam burst. A ship from coastal Yemen could have reached southern Africa in about nine days.

The new findings point to the strength of oral tradition, as in Biblical studies. It appears that genetic studies can be combined with archaeology and anthropology in order to present a more complete picture of ancestry.

For more information on the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe:

Jones, Steve. In the Blood. London Harper-Collins, 1996.

Parfitt, Tudor. Journey to the Vanished City. London, Phoenix, 1999.

Related articles in GeneLetter:
The DNA Ancestree (Wertz DC, GeneLetter, September 2000)
The Neanderthals: Human ancestors or plain old relatives?
(Wertz DC, GeneLetter, September 2000)
Kennewick Man: Native American ancestor or "proto-caucasian"? (Wertz DC, GeneLetter, October 2000)

Wertz, DC, GeneLetter 1(10), November 2000.

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