The oldest tribes in Africa

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It is commonly believed that human lives evolved out of Africa millions of years ago. Many indigenous African tribes are direct descendants of some of the earliest modern human (Homo sapiens) groups and have unique DNA markers.

These tribes also have unique genetic features as well as languages that are not closely related to any others that exist today. Additionally, these tribes have been able to maintain their cultural traditions for thousands of years despite European colonisation in nearby regions. Remarkably, all of the tribes on this list are still around and practising their ancient traditions.

READ ALSO: Weird traditions around the world

  1. The Bushmen/San of Namibia Tribe

The San tribe, one of the most intriguing people in this world, are the region’s earliest inhabitants (it is estimated that they have been living here for the last 30,000+ years) and are still settled in many parts of Southern Africa.

The San people are the first people of Africa. This means the San are descendants of the first people who ever lived here before black or white people migrated into the African region.

Archaeologists and geneticists agree, that the San are the descendants of the original Homo sapiens groupings, who occupied Southern Africa, for at least 150 000 years.

According to genetic studies and geneticists: That one of the oldest gene patterns found in some modern humans, is that of the Khoe-San, and it dates back around 80 0000 years.

What does this mean?

That a large percentage of humans on earth, are all descendants from this original gene type. The only exception is that of Tanzania’s Hadzabe hunter/gatherers, and the genetic descendants from the Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic groupings.

“From about 25 000 years ago, there is evidence of cultural practices that were still being followed until recently by southern African hunter-gatherers – such as the making of ostrich eggshell beads, shell ornaments, the bow and arrow and rock art.

The migration of homo sapiens out of Africa, took place about 40 000 years ago, coinciding with the possible acceleration of our language skills. Each group of people who left Africa took with them, new language families. At that time all humans were hunters and gatherers.

There is a debate between palaeontologists and linguists about when humans developed to the point that our ancestors were able to pronounce more sounds and with rapid brain development we were able to move into more abstract thought, as represented in our tools and art forms. This is when we start to see the spread of rock art in Southern Africa.

Khoe-San people and their descendants were hunter/gatherers until the ancestors of the Khoekhoe acquired domesticated animal stock somewhere prior to 2500 years ago.

The Khoekhoe seem to have migrated into South Africa about 2000 years ago either from Namibia or Botswana, bringing with them sheepherding culture, and different social organisation than that common amongst hunter/gatherers. Typically, hunter/gatherer groups were small, without complex political leadership or any military capacity.

There have been three major waves of genetic, cultural and technological immigration into South Africa: Khoekhoe herders, Bantu speaking agro-pastoralists, and European colonial agro-pastoralists. Each group brought major changes to the lives of the San peoples.

As noted above, the Khoekhoe migrated into the country about 2 500–2000 years ago, occupying coastal areas, the southern Cape, and the major rivers, such as the Orange River (called Garib). They may have made friends with the San hunters in some cases, but the San also appear to have withdrawn to the mountains and deserts of Southern Africa.

In the Garib River area, archaeologists believe that the San were friends with Einikhoe (possibly from the N|u word Kx’ain, river, drink. Kx’ainikhoen). Later, after the European occupation of the Cape, there was a conflict with neighbouring people.

This included violence between San groups and others such as the Namakhoe, Orakhoe, Oorlams and Griquas. The San at this time were driven further out of the river areas into remoter areas with less water.

The first Bantu-speaking agriculturalists moved into Southern Africa about 1 800 years ago, with the major migration of agro-pastoralists happening about 800 years ago. The term Bantu developed negative connotations during apartheid.

The term is used here to identify a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Over the following centuries, there was extensive interaction between the San and the various Khoe and Bantu-speaking immigrants. South Africa’s dominant cultures and languages are all shaped by this contact.

Genetically many South Africans have DNA that demonstrates intermarriage with aboriginal peoples. Culturally, some Coloured, Griqua, Zulu, Swati and Xhosa South Africans still identify with their aboriginal Khoe-San roots”.

San superstitions and sayings:

  • When the termites begin to strengthen the points of the termite mounts: The rains will come early and it will rain hard. Soon after the flying termites will appear, and it is time to feast. (“flying ants” / termites is a once a year delicacy to the San).
  • Seeing a meteorite in the night sky: The Mother Moon is shedding a tear, for a hard day will come soon for one of the San.
  • Honey Guide Bird: Always leave some of the young bee honeycombs for it, otherwise it will not show you the way again.
  • Praying Mantis: Placing a mantis on the forehead of a boy child at birth, will bring him luck in hunting.
  • Killing a mantis brings bad luck.
  • Hitting a child or other person does not teach them anything, but will only bring pain to you and the other.
  • Do not make a campfire near rhino, for it might charge through it at night, looking for his stolen fire.
  • A hunter with a loud voice will sleep hungry at night.

The Maasai Tribe

The Maasai are an indigenous ethnic group in Africa of semi-nomadic people settled in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinct traditions, customs and dress and their residence near the many national game parks of East Africa, the Maasai are among the foremost African ethnic groups and are known internationally because of their links to the national parks and reserves.

Language – Maa, a language derived from Nilo-Saharan, related to Dinka and Nuer. They also speak the official languages of Tanzania and Kenya. Swahili and English.

Population – The Maasai population is now estimated at 900 000

Although the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments have established programs to encourage the Maasai to leave behind their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the Maasai people have carried on their age-old customs. However, this is changing, albeit slowly.

Maasai History

According to the tribe’s own oral history, the Maasai originated north of Lake Turkana (north-west Kenya) in the lower Nile Valley. They began migrating south in the 15th century and arrived in the long trunk of land stretching across central Tanzania and Northern Kenya during the 17th and 18 century. The Maasai territory reached its most dominant size in the 19 century when it covered most of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Dodoma and Mount Marsabit.

At this time the Maasai raided cattle far across the east at Tanga Coast in Tanzania. They used shields and spears but were most feared for throwing orinka (clubs) which could be expertly thrown from up to 70 paces (approximately 100 meters).

The report of concentrated Maasai warriors told of their moving to Kenya in 1852, after depopulating the Wakuafi Wilderness in southeastern Kenya, the Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast.

The result of this migration led to the Maasai now being the southernmost Nilotic speakers.

The Maasai ‘Emutai’ of 1883-1902 came after the time of expanding. This period was scarred by epidemics of smallpox, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and rinderpest. An estimated 90 per cent of cattle and half of wild species perished from rinderpest. This drastic period coincided with drought. The rains neglected the lands completely in 1897 and 1898.

Commencing with a 1904 treaty and followed by another treaty in 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were cut down by 60 per cent when the British evicted them to allow space for settler ranches thus confining the Maasai people to present-day Narok and Kajiado districts.

Maasai in Tanzania was forced out from their fertile lands between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and most of their fertile mountainous regions near the Ngorongoro in the 1940s. More land was claimed to create national parks and wildlife reserves. Masai Mara, Samburu, Ngorongoro, Amboseli, Nairobi National Park, the Serengeti, Lake Nakuru, Manyara and Tarangire.

Maasai are a traditionalist and have resisted the urging of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more modern lifestyle. The Maasai have rightfully demanded pasturing and grazing rights to several of the national parks in both Tanzania and Kenya.

The Maasai tribe stood firm against slavery and lived alongside most of the land’s wild animals with an aversion to eating birds and game. Maasai land now boasts East Africa’s finest nature and wildlife areas.

Maasai Shelter Tribe

The Maasai, historically a nomadic people, have traditionally relied on readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their unusual and interesting housing. The traditional Maasai house was designed for people on the move and thus their houses were very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (houses) are either circular or loaf-shaped and are made by women.

Their villages are enveloped in a circular Enkang (fence) built by the men and this protects their cattle at night from wild animals.

Maasai Culture

Maasai society is firmly patriarchal in nature, with elder Maasai men sometimes joined by retired elders, determining the most major matters for the Maasai tribes. The Maasai people are monotheistic, and their God is named Engai or Enkai.

For Maasai people living a traditional way of life, the end of life is virtual without a formal funeral ceremony, and the dead are left out in the fields for scavengers. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs only since it is believed by the Maasai that burial is harmful to the soil.

Traditional Maasai people’s lifestyle concentrates on their cattle which make up the primary source of food. Amongst the Maasai and several other African ethnic groups, the measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of children and cattle. So the more the better.

A man who has plenty of cattle but not many children are considered to be poor and vice versa. A Maasai myth says that God afforded them all the cattle on earth, resulting in the belief that rustling from other tribes is a matter of claiming what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has now become much less common.

Maasai Music and Dance

Traditionally, the Maasai music comprises rhythms rendered by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies, all the while the olaranyani (song leader) sings the melody. The olaranyani is usually the person who can best sing that song. The olaranyani starts singing the namba of a song and the group responds with one unanimous call in acknowledgement. Women recite lullabies, hum songs and sing music that praises their sons.

One elision to the vocal creation of Maasai music is the function of the horn of the Greater Kudu to summon morans (initiates) for the Eunoto ceremony (a coming of age ceremony). The ceremony usually lasts ten or more days. And the singing and dancing around the manyattas involve flirting. Young men will line and chant and the women stand in front of them and sing in counterpoint to them. Contemporary Hip Hop musicians from northern Tanzania are now incorporating traditional Maasai rhythms, chants and beats into their music.

The Berbers Tribe

The Berbers (or Imazighen) are the native inhabitants of North Africa, west of Egypt, especially contemporary Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The ancestors of the Berbers lived around 2000 BC, in tribal relations in the northern Sahara, from Morocco and the Canary Islands in the West to western Egypt in the East. The traditional Berbers were nomads who lived from trade. For about 8000 years, the tribes began to merge, and so one nation emerged: the Berbers.

The Berbers do not call themselves ‘Berbers’. The word originates from the Greek word ‘barbaroi’, which means barbaric, but also means ‘those who can’t speak our language’.

The name was used in ancient times by the Greeks to indicate the population of North Africa. The Berbers call themselves Amazigh (singular) or Imazighen (plural), which means ‘free people’. The Berbers can be distinguished into three main groups, each of these groups has its own region: Riffi, Tamazight and Soussi.

Handcraft

Because there are a lot of Berber tribes, the culture and traditions within the communities can vary widely. Traditionally, the men take care of the livestock and search for water and nutritious soil.

The women take care of the family and make handcrafted things. For personal use, but also to sell on the souks (local markets). The Berber women are very skilled in making colourful tapestries (kilims), blankets and clothes. Using different types of wool, impressive patterns are created. The colours in the carpets were painted naturally, using saffron, wild mint, pomegranate and henna

Spirit of trade

The Berbers are truly inspired by the spirit of trade since they have been the transporters of the Sahara for centuries. They travelled extreme long distances to transport home-made products, such as jewellery, but also spices and textiles. The Berbers have evolved from shepherds and local craftsmen to real merchants. But they didn’t travel alone: they were always accompanied by their flock of camels, the only animal that’s suited for the extreme temperatures of the desert.

The Sandawe Tribe

Population: 40,000

Location: Northcentral Tanzania

History: The Sandawe are descendants of the original San people who first populated Africa.

Culture: Traditionally hunter/gatherers, it is mainly the old men who remember this way of life. Few wild animals remain in the area. People still collect honey, but hunting and tracking skills are being lost.

Many have adopted some agricultural and herding practices of their neighbours, the soil is poor. The government forced Sandawe to settle in more permanent villages, and now they live in small villages scattered through the area, with a few small ‘towns’ here and there. The area is hilly with woodland and scrub.

They are fond of singing, dancing, and telling stories that portray themselves as small animals who use their cunning intelligence to outwit more powerful enemies.

Religion: Animism. They worship the moon and stars and practice with the craft. They fear spirits. There are some Catholic converts, but they mix Catholicism with animism. Islam is making inroads.

The African pygmies

African pygmies live in several ethnic groups in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo (ROC), the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, and Zambia.

There are at least a dozen pygmy groups, sometimes unrelated to each other. The best known are the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, who speak Bantu and Ubangian languages; the Mbuti (Efe etc.) of the Ituri Rainforest, who speak Bantu and Central Sudanic languages, and the Twa of the African Great Lakes, who speak Bantu Rundi and Kiga.

Most Pygmy communities are partially hunter/gatherers, living partially but not exclusively on the wild products of their environment. They trade with neighbouring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other material items; no group lives deep in the forest without access to agricultural products. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 Pygmies living in the Congo rainforest.

However, although Pygmies are thought of as forest people, the groups called Twa may live in open swamp or desert.

Distribution of Pygmies and their languages according to Bahuchet (2006). The southern Twa are not shown.

Origins

A commonly held belief is that African Pygmies are the direct descendants of late Stone Age hunter/gatherer people of the central African rainforest, who were partially absorbed or displaced by later immigration of agricultural peoples, and adopted their Central Sudanic, Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics.

Some 30% of Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of the Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of pygmy vocabulary is botanical, dealing with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest, and is shared between the two western pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western pygmy (Mbenga or “Baaka”) language.

However, this type of vocabulary is subject to widespread borrowing among the Pygmies and neighbouring peoples, and the “Baaka” language was only reconstructed in the 15th century.

African Pygmy populations are genetically diverse and extremely divergent from all other human populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. Their uniparental markers represent the second-most ancient divergence right after those typically found in Khoisan peoples.

Men play a struck beau while women and children sing behind them at a Mbenzele Pygmy village.

Recent advances in genetics shed some light on the origins of the various pygmy groups. Researchers found “an early divergence of the ancestors of pygmy hunter/gatherers and farming populations 60,000 years ago, followed by a split of the Pygmies’ ancestors into the Western and Eastern pygmy groups 20,000 years ago.”

New evidence suggests East and West African Pygmy children have different growth patterns. The difference between the two groups may indicate the Pygmies’ short stature did not start with their common ancestor but instead evolved independently in adapting to similar environments, which adds support that some sets of genes related to height were advantageous in Eastern pygmy populations, but not in Western pygmy populations.

However, Roger Blench (1999) argues that the Pygmies are not descended from residual hunter/gatherer groups, but rather are offshoots of larger neighbouring ethnolinguistic groups that had adopted forest subsistence strategies.

Blench notes the lack of clear linguistic and archaeological evidence for the antiquity of Pygmy cultures and peoples, and also notes that the genetic evidence can be problematic.

Blench (1999) also notes that there is no evidence of the Pygmies having hunting technology distinctive from that of their neighbours, and argues that the short stature of Pygmy populations can arise relatively quickly (in less than a few millennia) due to strong selection pressures.

Culture

The African Pygmies are particularly known for their usually vocal music, usually characterised by dense contrapuntal communal improvisation. Simha Arom says that the level of polyphonic complexity of pygmy music was reached in Europe in the 14th century, yet pygmy culture is unwritten and ancient. Music permeates daily life and there are songs for entertainment as well as specific events and activities.

The Hadza tribe

Along with the San (Bushmen), the Hadza tribe of Hadzabe are believed to be some of the most ancient people in the world. The Hadza are also the last true hunter-gatherers and their lifestyle and traditions have been the same for over 10,000 years. The tribe doesn’t grow any crops or keep livestock, and they do not have any permanent shelters.

Like the San, the Hadza’s ancestors split off from other ancient groups early on in human history. The Hadza speak a click language that is unrelated to any other existing language on Earth, which provides more evidence of the tribe’s old age. The Hadza still live in their ancestral homeland in Tanzania, near an archaeological site where the oldest fossil evidence of early humans was found.

The Nama tribe

The Nama are one of the oldest indigenous groups in Namibia, the ethnic group of Nama, or Namaqua that literally means ” Nama people “, is a subset of the broader South-African ethnolinguistic group of Khoikhoi, and they are their only true descendants.

Today there are 13 Nama tribes present in Namibia, South Africa and to a lesser extent in Botswana; Namibia accounts for about one-eighth of the total population.

Traditionally, the language spoken by the Nama belongs to the family of the Khoe-Kwadi languages, easily recognizable by shots and clicks that are characteristic and common to the language used by all the Khoisan tribes; nowadays many Nama also speaks Afrikaans.

The Nama are shepherds and most of them still practice communal ownership of land policy; this means that none of them owns the land, but that all the members of a group have free access and can use it as they want.

They live in huts called Haru Oms that are constructed to be easily dismantled and moved elsewhere, this allows them to migrate when the pastures of an area become scarce.

The Nama have a great oral tradition: the traditional music, folk tales, proverbs, poems and riddles are handed down for generations and they are a key aspect of their culture and their identity.

The stories and poems are passed down from generation to generation, the poems have different themes, some are love songs, others praise heroic figures, there are also songs dedicated to animals and plants present in the environment; usually they are told to children by older family members, but any adult interested in listening or telling stories, can participate at any age.

The Nama culture has been kept alive not only with the narrative but also with a rich heritage of music and traditional dances as well as crafts created mainly by Nama women.

Men and women proudly display their textile painting works with motifs taken from art and the environment, they realize leather attires, and lappiesrok, a dress made of scraps of cloth, as a kind of patchwork.

The Nama women are highly skilled artisans, their embroidery and applique are considered as an art form, usually, they perform scenes in bright colours inspired by the environment and the lifestyle of the Nama themselves.

The clothing, over the years, has been largely influenced by settlers; in rare cases, some women still wear traditional clothing, but the majority of them are wearing clothing in Victorian style, due to the influence of the missionaries who were present in these areas during the European colonization.

Nama wedding ritual

The Nama have a complicated wedding ritual that consists of several stages and can last several months.

First, the man has to discuss his intentions with his family, if the relatives agree, they recommend the future husband which costumes to adopt to ask the family of the bride for consent to the wedding and later they accompany him to the place where the girl lives.

Before the arrival of the future husband’s family, the bride’s family prepares the place where to have the discussion; some skins of animals are arranged on the ground in order to enable the various groups to sit comfortably and discuss.

The groom’s family, once they arrive at the destination, asks for “opening the door”, this is the first fundamental ritual, if the door is opened, the groom enters the place of discussion and he is questioned about the bride, the circumstances of their first meeting and their subsequent meetings are investigated, besides one tries to determine whether he is able to recognize the signs on her body to see if he can identify the girl, these questions are made to see if the two know each other well.

In the event that the bride is pregnant or had children from her future husband or from previous relationships, the girl is subjected to a “cleansing” ceremony that involves the slaughter of a goat as white as snow, a sign of purity; the meat is consumed later.

After a few days, the wedding ritual continues with a visit by the bride’s family to the groom’s clan; if an agreement is reached between the two clans and both are satisfied, the date of the wedding is chosen and the engagement is announced to the community; to ratify this agreement a few white flags are hoisted on both families’ houses, these flags cannot be removed even after the whole ritual, they remain in place until they are consumed, or until the wind takes them away one day.

Once the two families take the commitment and set the wedding date, the groom’s family brings live animals as a gift to the home of the bride’s family; animals are slaughtered, hung on three sticks and every part of the animal is offered to the family of the bride.

Other products as well, such as some sacks of sugar or flour, are brought as a gift to indicate that there will always be plenty of food.

Right after the groom’s family will bring animals and goods to the family of the bride, as reciprocity.

At this point they begin the preparations for the wedding that can take up to a year, during this period one of the most important moments is when the groom’s family brings a gift to the bride’s mother; traditionally the gift consists of a cow and a calf, to thank her to have feed the bride to her breast.

On the wedding day, both families must contribute with animals and other food products to give life to the party that can last for several days.

The first night after the wedding the couple will go to a separate hut; the next morning, they come out of this hut and reach their new home.

Nama History

For thousands of years the indigenous inhabitants of Namibia have experienced the collection of berries, nuts, roots, and occasionally hunting.

The lifestyle of these populations has evolved over the centuries, in particular a group, those who became then the Nama, developed a more structured society and changed their lifestyle, introducing cattle for breeding and then passed from being gatherers and hunters to nomadic herders.

The Nama settled in the area around the Orange River, which is located along the Southern border with South Africa and maintained a pastoral lifestyle for thousands of years, with herds of goats and sheep, collecting firewood and wild honey.

Over the centuries, the Nama shepherds have often clashed with the Herero, this population is also on the territory of today’s Namibia; the Herero like the Nama, were always in search of better pastures for their cattle.

The arrival of European settlers devastated the region and the relations between the ethnic groups, the Herero and the Nama before enemies, joined forces to form a common front against the German invader.

Hendrik Witbooi was the leader who led the Nama in the liberation struggle from the German colonization, Witbooi was known as “the captain who disappears in the grass”, because of his military tactics, despite being remembered as a true hero he was killed in a battle on October 29, 1905.

Late Hendrik Witbooi.

The military might of the Germans was clearly superior to the local populations potential and in the clashes that occurred from 1904 to 1907 it is estimated that over 10,000 Nama lost their lives, a number corresponding to about 50% of the population.

In 1920 in the Nama territories, at the mouth of the Orange River, diamonds were discovered, this event triggered the miners rush to get the best lands, lands that were expropriated to the Nama.

Besides the expropriation of their lands, the Nama suffered a further injustice, they were in fact forced to work as slaves in the diamond extraction and the construction of railway lines.

During the apartheid era the Nama suffered strong pressure to change their lifestyle, white people, in fact, to be able to better control them, “encouraged” the Nama to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle in favour of a sedentary lifestyle inside villages.

Today the Nama live according to their traditions in Namaqualand, a section of this territory became part of the Richtersveld National Park; here in this corner of Namibia you can still see and hear their traditions that have been passed down orally for generations.

The Nama today are nomadic shepherds who move with their livestock in search of new pastures, with the changing of the seasons they move their villages and their herds, implementing a pasture rotation that has helped to preserve the land from overuse.

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