Monday 3 June 2024

The Amazigh and Arabs: A Detailed Look

The term “Amazigh” or “Berbers” covers a wide variety of people groups, some which did not intermarry with Arabs, and some which did. 

Many Berbers prefer to be called Amazigh, which is their self-identified name. Using "Amazigh" is a more culturally sensitive and accurate term when referring to this ethnic group. Major Amazigh languages include Tashelhit (Tashelhiyt, Tashelhait, Shilha), Tarifit, Kabyle, Tamazight, and Tamahaq.

190,000 - 5,000 Years Ago:

“The human presence in North Africa dates back 130–190 Kya (Smith et al. 2007) and different cultures are identified in archaeological records, since the local Aterian, followed by the Iberomaurusian during the Holocene, and the Capsian culture that arose before the Neolithic (Hunt et al. 2010; Barton et al. 2013; Scerri 2013). The population continuity or replacement of these ancient cultures is under debate, although events of replacement have been supported by genetic and archaeological studies (Irish 2000; Henn et al. 2012), suggesting that the first Paleolithic settlers might not be the direct ancestors of extant (meaning “ancient”) North African populations.”

3000 BC - 5th Century CE

“Historical records affirm that North Africa was populated by different groups supposed to be the ancestors of the current Amazigh peoples, by the arrival of Phoenicians in the second millennium B.C., and later the arrival by conquest of the Romans. The Roman control persisted until the 5th century C.E., although non-Romanized Amazigh tribes persisted all over the region.”

Arrival of Phoenicians, and Romans resulted in some cases in the subordination of native Africans to lower levels of the social hierarchy along the coast, and sometimes in a Client state relationship with Rome while in the interior native Africans continued to self-govern. In some cases the new arrivals were absorbed into African societies. The oral tradition of Carthage for instance states that Queen Dido committed suicide, because she didn’t want to marry King Iarbas (her landlord), and her land was taken back by the African king (King Iarbas) who leased land to the arriving Phoenicians. Indisputably some intermarriages happened. Southern neighbours and Coastal states continued to sometimes harass each other with violence and taking prisoners of war, when not enjoying peaceful trading relations. Slaves therefore flowed both ways - both North and South - as by-products of warfare.

6th Century CE to 16th Century CE

The Arab expansion (considered an “invasion” of Africa) started in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century C.E. through Egypt and expanded until reaching the westernmost part of North Africa (i.e., the Maghreb). The Arab expansion into North Africa is sometimes viewed as both an "invasion" and a more gradual process influenced by trade and migration. The rule of the Arab dynasties ended with a decline in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire took control of the region until the colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries by European countries (Newman 1995). The complexity of these known (and unknown) historical migrations might have left genetic traces in North African populations that could be reconstructed by, e.g., recent haplotype-based approaches (Lawson et al. 2012; Hellenthal et al. 2014). Conflicts between the Ottomans and African-ruled regions resulted in the flow of slaves as prisoners of war in both directions - both North and South.

Native Genetic Lineages

Native (autochthonous) genetic lineages of North Africa are considered mitochondrial haplogroups U6 and M1; and Y-chromosome haplogroups E-M78 and E-M81 haplogroups. North Africans, like many populations, exhibit genetic diversity and share genetic components with various ancestral groups - African, Middle Eastern, and European.

White enslaved persons

Some European genetic ancestry arrived during the 7th to 19th century:


“Sultan Moulay Ismail’s slaves came from virtually every corner of Europe. There were Frenchmen and Dutchmen held in Meknes, as well as Greeks, Portuguese and Italians. A few came from Ireland and Scandinavia; some were from as far afield as Russia and Georgia. But the largest group was formed by the sultan’s Spanish slaves, which usually numbered several thousand. These men and women were also the most miserable. Many had been seized more than a decade earlier, and some of the younger captives had spent the greater part of their lives in Meknes. The most wretched of all was the handful of survivors who had been seized during the siege of Mamora. The stories of their capture – which had occurred in 1681, thirty-five years earlier – would haunt all who were brought to Meknes in the summer and autumn of 1716.”

Men served as farm hands, builders, labourers, government officials, guards, and miners. The status of slaves were determined by the status of their masters. With the slaves of sultans commanding the most fear.

Women served as domestic help, farm hands and concubines. In this way, some Moroccans had European concubines as ancestors. Slaves who bore children were entitled to freedom and so were their children under Islamic law, although the community would continue to remember the origins of such freed slaves.

Non-Muslims slaves were regularly tortured for being “infidels” so sometimes Europeans converted to Islam in order to receive better treatment. Converts were said by other Europeans to have “gone Turk” if they adopted Islam.

Skin tone diversity is not due to replacement

The North African Amazigh population have been extensively genetically tested, with over 2,000 blood samples examined. Global studies of the evolution of skin concluded that their skin tones diversity is determined by multiple complex factors: local environmental factors (UVB radiation levels, latitude, and forest cover), polygenic traits of the skin pigmentation (about 120 genes), diet, social factors (such as caste systems and racism) human migration patterns, and time spent in a particular location without interbreeding, genetic drift, common ancestry, shared ancestry, and the effect of admixtures.

Regions closer to the equator receive higher levels of UV radiation, which can be damaging to the skin. To protect against this, the body produces melanin, a pigment that absorbs and scatters UV radiation. This leads to darker skin tones in populations living in regions with high UV exposure. However, UV B absorption can also help the body produce vitamin D which is essential for regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. These nutrients keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. A body which doesn’t produce vitamin D well can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and bone pain from an adult condition called osteomalacia, which is just a modern Latin word for bone (osteo) prefixed to the Greek word for soft (malakos). The further away from the equator humans get, the more of a liability a dark skin is for having strong bones, since a lighter skin is better at absorbing UV B and producing vitamin D at lower intensity UV B latitudes.

Geographic Spread

The Amazighs live in scattered communities across Morocco 🇲🇦 Algeria 🇩🇿 Tunisia 🇹🇳 Libya 🇱🇾 Egypt 🇪🇬 Mali 🇲🇱 Niger 🇳🇪 and Mauritania 🇲🇷 They speak various Amazigh languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family related to ancient Egyptian. The Amazigh are native to Africa and are the descendants of Africans. 


Barton RNE, Bouzouggar A, Hogue JT, Lee S, Collcutt SN, Ditchfield P. 2013. Origins of the iberomaurusian in NW Africa: new AMS radiocarbon dating of the middle and later stone age deposits at taforalt cave, Morocco. J Hum Evol. 65:266–281.

Henn BM, Botigué LR, Gravel S, Wang W, Brisbin A, Byrnes JK, Fadhlaoui-Zid K, Zalloua P. a, Moreno-Estrada A, Bertranpetit J, et al. 2012. Genomic ancestry of North Africans supports back-to-Africa migrations. PLoS Genet. 8:e1002397.

Hunt C, Davison J, Inglis R, Farr L, Reynolds T, Simpson D, el-Rishi H, Barker G. 2010. Site formation processes in caves: the Holocene sediments of the Haua Fteah, Cyrenaica, Libya. J Archaeol Sci. 37:1600–1611.

Irish JD. 2000. The Iberomaurusian enigma: north African progenitor or dead end? J Hum Evol. 39:393–410.

Newman JL. 1995. The peopling of Africa: a geographic interpretation Yale University Press, New Haven.

Scerri EML. 2013. The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age. Q Int. 300:111–130.

Smith TM, Tafforeau P, Reid DJ, Grun R, Eggins S, Boutakiout M, Hublin J-J. 2007. Earliest evidence of modern human life history in North African early Homo sapiens. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 104:6128–6133.

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