Evidence for Semitic influence in ancient Zimbabwe (updated and enhanced)
David L. McNaughton – www.DLMcN.com
Earlier version in: The Mankind Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2012 – Vol. 52 (nos. 3-4), pp. 323-335

There is evidence that several centuries ago there was a Semitic presence in southeast Africa. There are also strong indications that its principal remnant is the Lemba tribe, now confined to the extreme north of South Africa. Nineteenth and early 20th century missionaries reported that the Lemba were renowned for their mining and metal-working abilities, and for other aptitudes characteristic of the ancient Zimbabwean civilization. It is therefore unreasonable to dismiss completely the possibility that Great Zimbabwe and the other stone buildings nearby were constructed by Semites.

Features of the ancient Zimbabwean civilization

Lying in the interior of tropical southern Africa are hundreds of stone ruins. The largest of them is situated near Masvingo, and is known as "Great Zimbabwe". A dozen or so other sites were obviously satellite settlements of secondary importance (Popham, 1904; White, 1903 and 1905; Hall, 1904; Layland, 1972). The majority of those structures lie within the country which is now called Zimbabwe, although the area also includes Manyikeni and Chibuene (on or near the Mozambique coast) and Mapungubwe (just across the Limpopo). Brief references were made to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins in 16th century Portuguese writings (de Barros, 1552; McCall-Theal, 1900). Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to the building, written in characters not known to the (well educated) Arab merchants who had seen it (McCall-Theal, 1900).

All buildings were unroofed, and were constructed using dry-stone walling techniques, i.e. without any cement or mortar, meaning that the granite bricks had to be carefully shaped and trimmed so as to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the stone walls were ten metres high (photo: Gayre, 1972, facing p.229); many of them incorporated chevron, herring-bone or chequered patterns. A set of steps leading into Great Zimbabwe constitutes a true work of art: each course curves out of the flanking walls into the entrance, with the penetration of the curves increasing as the steps are ascended (photo: Gayre, 1972, p.56).

Many thousands of prehistoric gold-workings are scattered round the territory of modern-day Zimbabwe – over an area, in fact, similar to that containing the ruins (Gayre 1972, p.182). Some calculations indicate that more than 20 million ounces were extracted (Paver, 1950; Gayre, 1972, pp. 49, 179-181, 229; Murdock, 1959).

The ancient gold mines required a measure of engineering skill, containing horizontal as well as deep vertical shafts (Bent, 1896; Gayre, 1972, pp. 179-181). Furnaces, crucibles and various tools found in some of the stone ruins indicate that the gold ornaments and jewellery accompanying them, were produced locally (Layland, 1972, p.229).

The inhabitants of ancient Zimbabwe were skilled water engineers, constructing a number of dams feeding complex systems of irrigation channels (Layland, 1972). In addition, regularly spaced terraces, which can still be viewed today, were carved into many of the hills in northeastern Zimbabwe (Hall, 1909; Gayre, 1972, pp. 85-87). Layland (1972) estimated that the area of ancient terracing there extended over 6500 square kilometres.

Ann Kritzinger (2010, 2012 and 2017) argues that the stone-lined 'pit structures' in the Nyanga area were not used to keep dwarf cattle (as is widely believed), but were hydraulic tanks designed to recover gold by gravity concentration (Kritzinger 2010, Figures 2 & 3, and 2017, p.34). They were skilfully engineered freestanding structures built up from bedrock. Their entrance tunnels were deliberately curved – so they could well have served as 'point bars' where heavy metals fell out of suspension. Soil and rock samples taken from the tunnels and from exit-drains were assayed for gold – and many of them showed quantities which were too high to be normal, background levels (Kritzinger 2010 and 2012).

Trying to identify the builders

Nowadays, the academic consensus is that the ancient Zimbabwean civilization was constructed by people speaking one of the Shona languages (Pikirayi, 2001; Beach, 1994; Huffman and Vogel, 1991; also see Caton-Thompson, 1931; Randall-McIver, 1906). They believe that Great Zimbabwe flourished between about 1100 and 1450 AD.

However, according to de Barros (1552 – see McCall-Theal VI, pp. 267-268), in the early 1500s the people living in Great Zimbabwe had absolutely no idea as to who might have built it, saying instead that it must have been 'the work of the devil', adding that 'it just did not seem possible that [the stone structures] should be the work of man'. At that time – according to a report received from Moorish merchants – the building was guarded by a 'nobleman' who was looking after some of the wives of the country’s ruler, Benomotapa.

Thus, an alternative possible scenario has been proposed (Nyamutswa, 2017; Gayre, 1972; Mullan 1969; Murdock, 1959; Hall and Neal, 1902) suggesting that the original civilization might have been created by (or under the direction of) people of Semitic stock, only to be conquered (perhaps as early as 1350) by Bantu tribes. These writers accept the fact that Shona-style huts, pottery and artefacts have been found in and around Great Zimbabwe and the other ruins, but they argue that those might have been placed there only after the Shona overran ancient Zimbabwe. They add that the invaders would probably have absorbed some of the previous inhabitants, and indeed learned something from them. That would certainly explain why, even as late as the 19th century, the local MaKaranga people were still washing fluvial gold in Rhodesia, and were aware that it had commercial value.

Early contacts with southeast Africa

In order to examine whether the "Semitic" theory might be plausible, we should perhaps start by asking when explorers and merchants from the northern hemisphere ventured as far as modern-day Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

It is beyond dispute that the Indian Ocean, including much of its African coastline, has been travelled for more than two thousand years. For instance, there is a record of Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa in about 600 BC (Herodotus, c450 BC). This claim is bolstered by their report that the midday sun was on their right while they were sailing westwards – which Herodotus refused to believe – but that would of course be a feature of the southern hemisphere.

Arab traders were certainly visiting Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam before the beginning of the Christian era, and around 60 AD the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was compiled (in Greek) as a guide to East African, Arab and Indian sailors. Most scholars doubt whether its coverage extended beyond Tanzania, but Peters (1902) argues that the "Fire Islands" mentioned there, could well have been the volcanic Comoro group, because they are placed at the entrance to the "Channel". The description in the Periplus continues further southwards, although names of rivers and harbours can no longer be identified with certainty.

Many centuries ago, there was actually a mass migration from the East Indies to Madagascar – evidenced by the relationship between Malay and a main language of that island; thus, it seems likely that Asian explorers were already well acquainted with the southwest Indian Ocean when the Periplus was written (Murdock, 1959).

Here, it is relevant to mention that the winds along the Mozambique coast tend to alternate between northeasterlies and southeasterlies – often on an almost weekly as well as on a seasonal basis (Hattle, 1979) – such that two-way travel there would have been extremely easy.

In the sixth century AD there was a reference by the Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes to gold acquired by trade with southeast Africa – where "winter occurred during northern hemisphere summer" (McCrindle, 1897). Mas'udi and Ibn Al Wardy confirm that gold was apparently being exported during the ninth and tenth centuries from Sofala (de Maynard and de Courtaille, 1864; Kenyon, 1931; Hall, 1909) – which is an old Arab trading post on the coast, east of Great Zimbabwe.

It is possible that some early seafarers would have made a point of testing river effluent for auriferous deposits – in which case they would probably have detected something in the alluvial mud at the mouths of the Zambezi and Save.

Citing the Yemeni writer Al-Hamdani of 942 AD, Horton (1987) alludes to a policy of deliberately keeping secret that southeast African gold source.

The Lemba – and genetic evidence of Semitic ancestry

The Lemba tribe in the extreme north of South Africa could well be the remnant of a Semitic community which once occupied Zimbabwe, and which managed to flee when that territory was overrun (Gayre, 1972; le Roux, 2003; McNaughton, 2012). As early as the latter 19th century, missionaries had noticed and were commenting on their Semitic features and customs (Junod, 1908 – citing an article written in 1894; Wessmann, 1908; Wheelwright, 1905). The Lemba have an oral tradition that their male ancestry originally comprised "white people from over the sea" who came to southeast Africa – from a country which boasted large cities – in order to obtain gold (van Warmelo, 1966, pp. 281-282; Hammond Tooke, 1937; Junod, 1927; le Roux, 2003, pp. 210-224).

That oral tradition has been supported by genetic analyses. A preliminary study by Spurdle and Jenkins (1996) focussed on the frequency, in the Lemba and in other populations, of a Y chromosome Alu Polymorphism. This involves the recent insertion of an Alu family member onto the Y chromosome, and is an extremely useful marker for population studies because sequence data suggest that such a mutation event is unique in human evolution (Hammer 1994). Thus, it can usually be assumed that it partitions Y chromosomes into distinct genealogical groups.

Their results indicated that at least 50% of the Lemba Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin, approximately 40% are Negroid, while the ancestry of the remainder could not be resolved (Spurdle and Jenkins, 1996).

In an attempt to distinguish a specifically Jewish from other Semitic ancestry in the Lemba, a subsequent project (Thomas et al., 2000) analysed 399 Y chromosomes for six microsatellites (which mutate relatively frequently) and six biallelic markers (including Y Alu Polymorphisms, i.e. representing “unique events”). The ability to identify high-resolution haplotypes comprising linked markers mutating at different rates makes the Y chromosome a powerful instrument for investigating relationships between geographically distant populations. Those 12 polymorphisms led to the identification of the Cohen Modal Haplotype – which is dominant in the Jewish priesthood, and which may be more generally characteristic of Hebraic ancestry. Various southern African and Middle Eastern population-groups were examined during the project.

In South Africa, samples were collected from paternally unrelated but otherwise random Lemba males in the Louis Trichardt area in the Northern Province (90 individuals) and in Sekhukuneland in Mpumalanga in the east of the country (46 individuals). Just over two thirds of the Lemba Y chromosomes were designated as having a Semitic origin. In particular, the Cohen Modal Haplotype was identified in a significant number of Lemba males, occurring most often in their Buba clan, which is acknowledged as being the oldest one, and the most authoritative (Thomas et al., 2000).

In a later investigation, Soodyall (2013) found no genetic evidence for a (specifically) Jewish ancestry of the Lemba, but acknowledged the likelihood of a "stronger link with Middle Eastern populations".

Additional Semitic customs and features of the Lemba

The MaLemba refuse to eat pork, rabbit, hare, carrion and scaleless fish, exactly as laid down in Leviticus chapter 11 (Gayre, 1972, pp. 126-137, 65, 199-204). When preparing meat for consumption, they always kill in the kosher manner by bleeding (Gayre, 1967 and 1970; van Warmelo, 1940). The Lembas also have a distinctive New Moon ceremony (le Roux, 2003, pp. 172-174, 292). In addition, Magdel le Roux (pp. 174, 293) mentions a ritual of sacrifice that the Lembas call the "Pesah", which seems similar in many ways to the Jewish Pesach or Passover.

A number of words and clan-names used by Lembas must have had a Semitic origin (Hammond Tooke, 1937; Mullan, 1969; Gayre, 1972, pp. 163, 135, 66, 103), e.g. Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi (which is one of their words for "master"). Furthermore, some Lembas possess aquiline noses and narrow, non-Bantu lips (pictures: Frobenius, 1938, p.162) . Here, it is relevant to mention that there are also indications of Semitic blood, although more diluted, in Vendas and Karangas – implying that traces of the original Zimbabwean genetic material survive in these other communities too.

The Reverend A.A. Jaques (1931) tells us that Lemba prayers were ended by saying "Amin" - which is of course a Jewish custom as well as a Christian one. However, their liturgy bore absolutely no resemblance to any of the Christian liturgies. On the contrary, Jaques cited what might be a reference to Moses in one of the Lemba prayers. He also mentioned that the Lemba had a taboo about eating with the left hand. Van Warmelo (1966) recorded other examples of Lemba prayers uttered in a completely alien, non-Bantu tongue. Those devotees had absolutely no idea what the words meant – but claimed nevertheless that they represented the language of their forefathers; (also see le Roux pp. 164, 176).

Before the spread of Western health services, the MaLemba enjoyed a reputation for their outstanding medical knowledge (Trevor, 1930; Jaques, 1931). In particular, they were responsible for introducing the practice of circumcision into South Africa (Junod, 1927; Schapera, 1966; Stayt, 1931), which is relevant because stone phallic symbols found at various Zimbabwean ruins definitely represent circumcised organs (le Roux, 2003, p.169; photo: Gayre, 1972, p.143; Nyamutswa, 2017). Indeed, this is only one of many apparent links between that tribe and Zimbabwe.

Other pointers linking the Lembas with ancient Zimbabwe

The MaLemba claim that their ancestors constructed Great Zimbabwe (Parfitt, 2000, pp.1-2); in fact, there is evidence that they continued to build in stone even after they had fled across the Limpopo (Gayre, 1972, pp. 200-201; le Roux, 2003, pp. 25, 53).

During the early 20th century, the Lembas were markedly different in many ways from the other tribes around them. In particular, the Lembas were renowned for their mining and metallurgical skills (Hammond Tooke, 1937; van Warmelo, 1940; Junod, 1927; Gayre, 1972, p.200; Murdock, 1959; Trevor, 1930; Mourant et al., 1978). For many decades, the Lembas continued to provide neighbouring tribes with metal tools and containers – using copper obtained from deposits in their area (Frobenius, 1938; Stayt, 1931). But, not surprisingly – even as early as the 18th century, Lemba workmanship could not match the standards displayed by the stonework and gold ornaments found at Great Zimbabwe.

The Lembas bury their dead in an extended position, in contrast to the "crouched" posture adopted by other Bantu peoples (le Roux, 2003, pp. 50, 95-96; Stayt, 1931). In that respect, the Lemba custom resembles the one which was followed by the ancient Zimbabweans – whose graves can readily be identified by the presence of gold jewellery (Hall and Neal, 1902; Mullan, 1969; Murdock, 1959; Layland, 1972; Gayre, 1972, pp.103-104, 126, 111).

Stone spindle whorls found at Great Zimbabwe indicate that cotton was spun and woven with greater sophistication there, than was displayed in other regions occupied by Bantu tribes. Cotton is of course not indigenous to southern Africa, but a few (now wild) cotton trees nevertheless seem to have been planted near that ancient city (Gayre, 1972, pp. 52-57, 63; Hall and Neal, 1902; Hall, 1909). Thus, it is relevant to note that (unlike most other Bantu) the Lembas did wear cotton garments in the past (Gayre, 1972, pp. 52, 63-64; Hammond Tooke, 1937; van Warmelo, 1966, p.281).

Two reports cited by le Roux (2003, pp. 46-47) are consistent with the theory that the Lemba (or their ancestors) created the ancient Zimbabwean civilization. William Bolts (1777) had been sent to southeast Africa by the Austrian Habsburg authorities to search for gold; he wrote: "A people called MaLembe resort to [Sofala] at stated periods from a country ... said to be several weeks' journey [away]". Punt (1975) refers to another letter sent to Vienna in 1777 by Bolts which described "a big and important city called Zimbabwe where gold was mined and gold articles were manufactured by a tribe known as the BaLemba". And in a later account compiled by Anderson (1887) after visiting the area, we read: "The natives state that the gold was worked and the forts were built by white men who once occupied this country, and whom they call Abberlomba"; (elsewhere in his book, Anderson spells this "Abberlemba").

The old Lemba language was a variation of Karanga – i.e., the dialect of Shona which is spoken today in the area around Great Zimbabwe and Masvingo. This supports the Lemba tradition that they migrated from that region. If, earlier, there had been a mass immigration from the Middle East to southeast Africa, then it is likely that males would have outnumbered females, such that wives and concubines would have been taken from the local population – with this process continuing for several centuries; indeed, this was reflected in the genetic analyses carried out by Spurdle and Jenkins (1996). It is a well-known fact that children learn their mother’s language more easily than their father’s one, which could explain why that community eventually adopted the Karanga language.

The ancient irrigation systems in the Zoutpansberg in South Africa have been described by Trevor (1930), and may be compared with those found in Nyanga in northeast Zimbabwe. Trevor believes that those in the Zoutpansberg had previously been utilised by the BaVenda people (with whom the MaLemba were closely associated).

Comparisons between Saba and southeast Africa

Gayre (1972) and Bent (1896) suggested that the male ancestry of the ancient Zimbabweans was derived from the Sabaeans of southern Arabia (adding that the Abyssinians probably took over the gold trade eventually). Many questions still need to be answered, but Sabaeans certainly were wealthy gold miners (Pliny the Elder, c70AD) – although it is not known where their mines were – with substantial commercial interests in East Africa (Gayre, 1972, pp. 20-21, 31; Murdock 1959). They spoke a Semitic language – closely related to Arabic – and followed a Judaistic type of religion (including circumcision) between the fifth and seventh centuries AD. Like the Lembas, they lived by the Moon; [both Gayre (1972, pp. 155, 159) and de Barros (1552) mention a tradition that there was once a moon dynasty in Zimbabwe]. Furthermore, the Sabaeans constructed dams to serve their terraced agriculture, and built elliptical unroofed dry-stone temples at Marib and at Sirwah (Doe, 1971).

Conclusions – the two rival theories

The current 'consensus' in academic circles is that the ancient Zimbabwean civilization was created by Shona-speaking people – based on the fact that in recent decades nothing whatsoever has been published to support the alternative (Semitic-based) theory. However, after the identification – in the late 1990s – of Jewish DNA in the Lembas, it is now appropriate to reopen the debate.

In particular, we cannot rule out the Lemba claim that their ancestors came from overseas and settled in southeast Africa with the intention of mining and exploiting its gold deposits. If, however, we insist on rejecting this possibility, then we will probably need to find another explanation for various observations and facts recorded, not just by Thomas (and by Spurdle) regarding DNA – but also by van Warmelo, Junod, Jaques and Trevor. All of these writers, incidentally, may be described as 'neutral' in the sense that they were not proposing any theory regarding the origins of Great Zimbabwe.


Useful correspondence was undertaken with Ian Kluckow, who spent most of his life in Zimbabwe before retiring to Bulgaria.


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