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African Lemba Tribe

African Lemba Tribe

The Lemba are a tribe of about 50,000 people living in South Africa and Zimbabwe who practice a religion that is strikingly similar to that of the Jews during Biblical times. Molecular genetics have provided the technology to compare genetic material of the Lemba people with that of modern Jewish people. The results show that the Lemba share several genetic characteristics with Jews including a particular marker on the Y-chromosome called the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who had 12 sons. Each of these sons became the leader of a tribe, collectively known as the twelve tribes of Israel. Historians date the origin of the twelve tribes to about 2,700 years ago. Over time, the twelve tribes became divided politically and geographically. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin lived in the southern part of Israel, while the other ten lived in the north. During the years 722721 b.c.e, the Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled the ten northern tribes. Historians agree that the ten tribes were likely scattered and assimilated into local cultures to the east. Many groups from locations as disparate as Japan, China, India, and Ethiopia have claimed to be ancestors of the lost tribes, however the actual fate of these people is largely a mystery.

The Lemba of South Africa follow religious traditions that share many similarities with that of the Jews. They practice circumcision and ritual slaughter, scorn intermarriage, and have many similar food taboos, such as not eating meat from pigs. They follow a lunar calendar and celebrate holidays timed with the phases of the moon. Though they speak Bantu, their traditions vary greatly from that of other Bantu people. In addition, their oral tradition states that they came from the Middle East: "We came from the north, from a place called Senna. We left Senna, we crossed Pusela, we came to Africa and there we rebuilt Senna." Although many different lines of evidence point to a connection between the Lemba and the Jews, validating the relationship was never possible until the development of genetic testing.

The modern Jews are traditionally divided into three groups, essentially based on the oral traditions of their families. The Cohanim are thought to be descended from Moses' brother Aaron, who was the high priest of the Hebrew temple. Because Jewish tradition follows a paternal line of inheritance, all modern Cohanim share a paternally inherited priestly ancestor. The other groups are the Leviim, descended from the ancient tribe of Levi, and the Israelites, all non-Cohen and non-Levite Jews. In 1997, genetic researchers found that there is a specific marker on the Y-chromosome, which paternally passes through the genome, called the Cohen Modal Haplotype. This set of genetic markers is found in nearly 50% of all Jewish men who identify themselves as Cohanim. It is found with nearly the same frequency in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Cohanim, even though these two major groups of Jews have been geographically separated for hundreds of years. The Cohen Modal Haplotype is only found in about 10% of the Levites and Israelites. It is nearly non-existent in non-Jewish populations.

In 1999 genetic data on the Lemba was collected by Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He and his collaborators took genetic samples from men of six Lemba clans whose geographic range was from South Africa to Zimbabwe. Of these six clans, the Buba are notable as being the priestly clan. The genetic material was analyzed for the genetic markers that have been found in the Jews. Similar to the general Jewish population, the Cohen Modal Haplotype was found in nearly 10% of all Lemba men. In addition, the Cohen Modal Haplotype was found in nearly half of the men in the Buba tribe.

Additional research by Parfitt identified a location in the Hadramaut region of Yemen as the Senna of the Lemba's oral history. In the past, Jewish communities thrived in Yemen. Parfitt found a town called Sena, which had been a vibrant community but had been almost completely abandoned nearly 1,000 years ago. The Lemba oral history stated that Senna was an extremely fertile place and that was irrigated as the result of a great dam. Parfitt found the remains of a dam in Sena and documented the rich history of the town. In addition, a valley called Wadi-al-Masila leads from Sena to a port city called Sayhut. Parfitt asserts that the Pusela of the Lemba oral tradition is the Masila valley near Sena. Under the right meteorological conditions, the winds could take a boat from Sayhut to South Africa in just over a week. Finally, the family names of the Lemba sound strikingly similar to names from the Hadramaut area.

While the Lemba cannot yet prove that they are one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the scientific and ethnographic evidence shows that the Lemba of South Africa share a common ancestor with the Jewish people, and more specifically with an ancient priest. This has important implications, both historical and legal. Israeli law upholds the "right of return" that guarantees citizenship for any Jew. Jewish law, however, establishes Jewish identity maternally. Given that the Lemba have established their genetic heritage paternally, and that they practice a form of Judaism that is quite different from that practiced in Israel, there may still be controversy over the status of the Lemba in Israeli courts.

see also DNA fingerprint; DNA sequences, unique; Genetic code; Y chromosome analysis.

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