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Encyclopedia > Imazighen

The Berbers (also called Imazighen, "free men", singular Amazigh) are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group indigenous to the Maghreb, speaking the Berber languages of the Afroasiatic family. There are between 14 and 25 million speakers of Berber languages in North Africa (see Berber languages#Population.)

Through the centuries Berbers have mixed with so many other ethnic groups, notably the Arabs, that they are now identified usually on a linguistic rather than a racial basis. Their languages, the Berber languages, form a branch of the Afroasiatic linguistic family comprising many closely related varieties, including Tachelhit, Central Atlas Tamazight, and Kabyle, with a total of roughly 14-25 million speakers. Many Berbers are bilingual in Arabic.

A typical-looking northern Berber, Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou

Berber populations show varying degrees of biological affinity with Europeans, Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans. Those who inhabit the northern Maghrib and most of the Atlas Mountains are typically light brown to pallid in complexion, with a high frequency of blond and red hair and green and blue eyes relative to the region as a whole. Those who live in and around the Sahara zone range from brown to very dark. Black minorities, descended sometimes from former slaves, sometimes (particularly in the Mzab) from sub-Saharan traders, and sometimes from indigenous populations, are also found in many Berber groups, increasing in number to the south. The Haratin are perhaps the most notable of these black Berber groups, found in Morocco and much of the Sahara. They are often viewed as the descendants of imported slaves, but it has also been argued that they are indigenous to their areas.



There is no complete certitude about the origin of the Berbers; however, various disciplines shed light on the matter.


While population genetics is a young field still full of controversy, in general the genetic evidence appears to indicate that most Northwest Africans (whether they consider themselves Berber or Arab) are of Berber origin, and that populations ancestral to the Berbers have been in the area since the Upper Paleolithic era. The genetically predominant ancestors of the Berbers appear to have come from the east - from East Africa, the Middle East, or both - but the details of this remain unclear. However, significant proportions of the Berber gene pool derive from more recent immigrations, including Arabs, Europeans, and sub-Saharan Africans.

The Y-chromosome is passed exclusively through the paternal line. According to Bosch et al. 2001 (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v68n4/002582/002582.html), "the historical origins of the NW African Y-chromosome pool may be summarized as follows: 75% NW African Upper Paleolithic (H35, H36, and H38), 13% Neolithic (H58 and H71), 4% historic European gene flow (group IX, H50, H52), and 8% recent sub-Saharan African (H22 and H28)", mostly from an "Upper Paleolithic colonization that probably had its origin in eastern Africa". The interpretation of the second most frequent "Neolithic" haplotype is debated: Arredi et al. 2004 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15202071), like Semino et al. 2000 and Bosch et al. 2001, argue that the H71 haplogroup and North African Y-chromosomal diversity indicate a Neolithic-era "demic diffusion of Afro-Asiatic-speaking pastoralists from the Middle East", while Nebel et al. 2002 (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=379148#RF17) argue that H71 rather reflects "recent gene flow caused by the migration of Arabian tribes in the first millennium of the Common Era." Bosch et al. also find little genetic distinction between Arabic and Berber-speaking populations in North Africa, which they take to support "the interpretation of the Arabization and Islamization of NW Africa, starting during the 7th century A.D., as cultural phenomena without extensive genetic replacement." Cruciani et al. 2004 (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v74n5/40866/40866.html) note that the E-M81 haplogroup on the Y-chromosome correlates closely with Berber populations.

The mtDNA, by contrast, is inherited only from the mother. According to Macaulay et al. 1999 (http://www.stats.gla.ac.uk/~vincent/papers/980656.web.pdf), "one-third of Mozabite Berber mtDNAs have a Near Eastern ancestry, probably having arrived in North Africa ∼50,000 years ago, and one-eighth have an origin in sub-Saharan Africa. Europe appears to be the source of many of the remaining sequences, with therest having arisen either in Europe or in the Near East." [Maca-Meyer et al. 2003] analyze the "autochthonous North African lineage U6" in mtDNA, concluding that:

The most probable origin of the proto-U6 lineage was the Near East. Around 30,000 years ago it spread to North Africa where it represents a signature of regional continuity. Subgroup U6a reflects the first African expansion from the Maghrib returning to the east in Paleolithic times. Derivative clade U6a1 signals a posterior movement from East Africa back to the Maghrib and the Near East. This migration coincides with the probable Afroasiatic linguistic expansion.

A genetic study by Fadhlaoui-Zid et al. 2004 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15180702) argues concerning certain exclusively North African haplotypes that "expansion of this group of lineages took place around 10500 years ago in North Africa, and spread to neighbouring population", and apparently that a specific Northwestern African haplotype, U6, probably originated in the Near East 30,000 years ago but has not been highly preserved and accounts for 6-8% is southern Moroccan Berbers, 18% in Kabyles and 28% in Mozabites. Rando et al. 1998 (as cited by [[1] (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v68n4/002582/002582.html)]) "detected female-mediated gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa to NW Africa" amounting to as much as 21.5% of the mtDNA sequences in a sample of NW African populations; the amount varied from 90% (Touaregs) to 4% (Rifains). This north-south gradient in the sub-Saharan contribution to the gene pool is supported by Esteban et al. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15204363)


The Neolithic Capsian culture appeared in North Africa around 9,500 BC and lasted until possibly 2700 BC. Linguists and population geneticists alike have identified this culture as a probable period for the spread of an Afroasiatic language (ancestral to the modern Berber languages) to the area. The origins of the Capsian culture, however, are archeologically unclear. Some have regarded this culture's population as simply a continuation of the earlier Mesolithic Ibero-Maurusian culture, which appeared around ~22,000 BC, while others argue for a population change; the former view seems to be supported by dental evidence[2] (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=11006048)


The Berber languages form a branch of Afro-Asiatic, and thus descended from the proto-Afro-Asiatic language; on the basis of linguistic migration theory, this is most commonly believed by historical linguists (notably Diakonoff and Ehret) to have originated in east Africa no earlier than 12,000 years ago, although Militarev argues instead for an origin in the Middle East. Ehret specifically suggests identifying the Capsian culture with speakers of languages ancestral to Berber and/or Chadic, and sees the Capsian culture as having been brought there from the African coast of the Red Sea. It is still disputed which branches of Afro-Asiatic are most closely related to Berber, but most linguists accept at least one of Semitic and Chadic as among its closest relatives within the family (see Afro-Asiatic languages#Classification history.)

The Nobiin variety of Nubian contains several Berber loanwords, according to Bechhaus-Gerst, suggesting a former geographical distribution extending further southeast than the present.


The Berbers have lived in North Africa for as far back as records of the area go. References to them occur frequently in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sources. Berber groups are first mentioned in writing by the ancient Egyptians, who fought against the "Lebu" (Libyans) on their western borders, and in 945 BC were conquered by Lebu who founded the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. They long remained the main population of the Western Desert; the Byzantine chroniclers often complain of the Mazikes (Amazigh) raiding outlying monasteries.

For many centuries the Berbers inhabited the coast of North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. In historical times, they have expanded south into the Sahara (displacing earlier black African populations such as the Azer and Bafour), and have in turn been mainly culturally assimilated in much of North Africa by Arabs, particularly following the incursion of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century.

Berbers in Al-Andalus

The Muslims who entered Spain in 711 were mainly Berbers, and were led by a Berber, Tariq ibn Ziyad, though under the suzerainty of the Arab Caliph of Damascus Abd al-Malik and his North African Viceroy, Musa ibn Nusayr. A second mixed army of Arabs and Berbers came in 712 under Ibn Nusayr himself, and are claimed to have formed approximately 66% of the Islamic population in Spain, and supposedly that is the reason why they helped the Umayyad caliph Abd ar-Rahman I in Spain, because his mother was a Berber woman. During the Taifa era, the petty kings came from a variety of ethnic groups; some - for instance the Zirid kings of Granada - were of Berber origin. The Taifa period ended when a Berber dynasty - the Almoravids from modern-day Mauritania - took over Spain; they were succeeded by the Almohad dynasty from Morocco, during which time al-Andalus flourished.

In the power hierarchy, Berbers were situated between the Arabic aristocracy and the Muladi populace. Ethnic rivalries were one of the factors of Andalusi politics.

Initially they settled the Cantabric Mounts, the Central System and the Andalusian mountains.

After the fall of the Caliphate, the taifa kingdoms of Toledo, Badajoz, Málaga and Granada had Berber rulers.

Modern-day Berbers

The Berbers live mainly in Morocco (between 35%- 80% of the population) and in Algeria (about 15%-33% of the population), as well as Libya and Tunisia, though exact statistics are unavailable[3] (http://www.ethnologue.com/); see Berber languages#Population. Most North Africans who consider themselves Arab also have significant Berber ancestry[4] (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v68n4/002582/002582.text.html). One particularly prominent Berber group are the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who number approximately 4 million and have kept, to a large degree, their original language and culture. Other noteworthy groups include the Shluh (plural of Arabic "Shalh" and Berber "Ashalhi") of south Morocco, the Riffain of north Morocco, the Chaouia of Algeria, and the Tuareg of the Sahara. There are approximately 3 million Berber immigrants in Europe, especially the Riffain and the Kabyles in the Netherlands and France. Some proportion of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands are descended from the aboriginal Guanches - usually considered to have been Berber - among whom a few Canary Islander customs, such as the eating of gofio, originated.

Although stereotyped in the West as nomads, most Berbers were in fact traditionally farmers, living in the mountains relatively close to the Mediterranean coast, or oasis dwellers; the Tuareg and Zenaga of the southern Sahara, however, were nomadic. Some groups, such as the Chaouis, practiced transhumance.

Political tensions have arisen between some Berber groups (especially the Kabyle) and North African governments over the past few decades, partly over linguistic and cultural issues; for instance, in Morocco, giving children Berber names was banned.

Famous Berbers

In Ancient Times

In Medieval Times

In Modern Times

  • Abd el-Krim, leader of the Rif guerrillas against the Spanish and French colonizers.
  • Lalla Fatma n Soumer, woman who led western Kabylie in battle against French colonizers
  • Si Mohand, Kabyle folk poet
  • Lounes Matoub, Algerian singer.
  • Ali Lmrabet, Moroccan journalist.
  • Zinedine Zidane (1972 - ), French football superstar.
  • Mohamed Choukri (famous writer)
  • Hocine Ait Ahmed, Algerian revolutionary fighter and politician
  • Liamine Zeroual
  • Mouloud Feraoun, Algerian writer
  • Abane Ramdane, Algerian revolutionary fighter
  • Krim Belkacem, Algerian revolutionary fighter
  • Mohamed Chafik
  • Ahmed Ouyahia, Prime Minister of Algeria
  • Abdallah Oualline Berber Warrior & freedom fighter. Fought against the Spanish occupation in Ait Baamrane, south of Agadir.
  • Driss Jettou, Prime Minister of Morocco
  • Didouche Mourad
  • Tahar Djaout
  • Colonel Amirouche
  • Idir - singer
  • Ait Menguellet - singer
  • Cherif Khedam - composer
  • Sliman Azem - singer
  • Cheikh El Hasnaoui - singer
  • Abdallah Nihrane -Scientific Investigator, Assistant Professor, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York USA
  • Saďd Sadi, secularist politician

Famous People who were either Berber or Punic

Famous People who may have had some Berber ancestors

Nearly all North Africans - and many Andalusi Moors - fall and fell into this category, but do not in general identify themselves as Berber. For lists of them, look under the respective countries.

See also


  • The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 by Christopher Ehret
  • Egypt In Africa by Celenko
  • Stone Age Races of Northwest Africa by L. Cabot-Briggs
  • The people of Africa (People of the world series) by Jean Hiernaux
  • Britannica 2004
  • Encarta 2005

External links

  • Amazigh links (http://amazighworld.net/history/index.php) some of which are in English
  • North African Kingdom of Numidia (http://www.fortunecity.com/skyscraper/ballard/168/) (Warning: Popup trap, tries to install spyware)
  • Tawalt (http://www.tawalt.com/)
  • http://www.myrine.at/Berber/berber.html
  • http://berber.startkabel.nl/

  Results from FactBites:
US Defense Intelligence Assessment: The Rise of Amazigh Nationalism (3072 words)
The Kabyle Imazighen are at the forefront of the latest issue of concern to Imazighen: the Algerian government's determination to implement the Arabization law of December 1996 on 5 July 1998.
Moroccan Imazighen leaders, however, claim that 80-90 percent of the population, as in Algeria, are ethnic Imazighen who have lost their cultural identity in the process of Arabization since the 13th century.
Imazighen readily identify with Islam as their preferred religion, but are concerned about the state-directed attempts to Arabize the Tamazight-speaking minority and thereby eliminating the Amazigh existence from all memory.
Libya: News and Views - Letters (902 words)
Imazighen, I think, opposing and insisting on the complete stop of their denial and the ignorance of their identity and culture by calling them Arabs by a punch of Arabists.
Imazighen are not requesting from others to hand them their rights in a pie of cake.
However, Imazighen, in my opinion, are still (and will be) refusing to work hand on hand with their denialists and their oppressors, does not matter whether they are with the current regime or opposite.
  More results at FactBites »



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