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  • Biocultural Emergence of the Amazigh (Berbers) in Africa:Comment on Frigi et al. (2010)
  • S. O. Y. Keita

Berbers, Amazigh peoples, mtDNA lineages, gene flow, Maghreb, definition of "indigenous,", population history, language

Frigi et al. [2010 (this issue)] present some new findings on a population of Amazigh—Berber speakers in Tunisia. Although their study is not exhaustive, they provide an outline of human population history in the Maghreb and a general discussion of its mtDNA diversity. Their work is important in inviting researchers to think about the concepts of continuity and change in biology, culture, language, and identity in a geographic space. Their presentation helps in understanding the complexity of examining the ancestry and emergence of Berber origins in Africa as a local process and encourages the consideration of many questions about how the human biology and culture of a known population or ethnolinguistic group can be conceptualized through space and time.

Berber- (Tamazight-) speaking communities are thought to represent the clearest known descendants of the ancient indigenous populations of Africa west of the northern Nile valley in the supra-Saharan and northern Saharan regions (Brett and Fentress 1996; Camps 1982; Desanges 1981). "Indigenous" here can refer only to those whom we can perceive as having had the longest tenure on the land, using available historical evidence. However, there are questions. What constitutes "historical evidence" for earlier periods? Should it include archaeology, paleontology, historical linguistics, skeletal biology, and genetics, as broadly advocated by a historical anthropological approach (e.g., Kirch and Green 2001; Mace et al. 2005)? Or is it only to be based on the interpretation of texts from the ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, or Islamic periods [e.g., see comments by Brett and Fentress (1996), Desanges (1981), Norris (1982), and Snowden (1971)]? How is the varied evidence to be ranked in importance, reconciled when it seems to be in contradiction, and analyzed synthetically? A simplistic positivism has to be avoided in discussions of any facet of human history because various pathways could lead to similar results. What is the role of evolutionary mechanisms—adaptive selection, gene flow, drift, sexual selection—in explaining the biology of some of the ancestors of Berber speakers at the deepest time levels and of living Amazigh as well? Frigi et al. (2010) do not address all these questions directly, but [End Page 385] their work implicitly acknowledges their importance and provides a new framework for investigation.

Braudel's (1980) concept of different levels of history can be adapted and adopted in a modified form as levels of biocultural or bioethnic history, to further consider Frigi and colleagues' contribution, which implicitly acknowledges the contingent and multidimensional character of population interactions through time against an evolutionary background.

Another issue of some interest is the (mis)labeling of Berbers as "Eurasian" migrants from the Near East: Did they arrive as a unit from Asia or Europe, as a settler colonist "package" with a persistent identity analogous to Europeans in South Africa, or did the biology, language, and culture of the Amazigh emerge primarily from a set of interactions in Africa involving African peoples at base, that is, as a part of authentic African historical and biological processes? There are no ancient Berber communities outside Africa, and the idea of simple demic diffusion of Berbers as a people to the Maghreb (e.g., Arredi et al. 2004) from the Near East is not supported. It is of some interest that even Coon and Hunt (1965), using a raciotypological paradigm now long discredited, postulated a massive invasion of Africa by "Caucasians" in the Pleistocene and therefore thought that Berber language and identity had entered the Maghreb from more southerly regions in Africa. Frigi and colleagues suggest that several populations over time were involved in the biological ancestry of the current Berber speakers, and this is consistent with archaeological evidence of actual migration in the mid- to late Holocene (Camps 1982) as well as historical documentation. Craniofacial diversity has been documented in the region before Vandal and Arab migrations (Keita 1990).

It is important to remember that biology, language, and culture are not intrinsically or obligatorily correlated, a principle established some time ago (Boas 1940). It is not...


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