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Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I'm originally from Somalia and I get asked by many people about my identity.  Especially why we Somalians and Ethiopians look slightly different than other Africans.  Sadly I do not know much other than the fact that am African and of the black race.  Perhaps some information on the history of these ethnicities will help.

The question you ask actually involves some very complex factors.  Initially what I will do is give some background context for the factors involved.  Forgive me if at first some of these comments seem too detailed or far from your question.

First a note on some of the background I bring to this question.  When I lived in Kenya, I knew several Kenya Somalis and Somali people from Somalia.  Many people of the Somali language or clan groups live in Ethiopia.  I have also visited Djibouti, where the Somali Issa clan are dominant.

I have visited Ethiopia some also, as well as Eritrea, and have studied extensively the backgrounds of the Amharic and Tigrinya and related peoples.  Perhaps my articles on their ethnicity will be helpful:
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya -- Ethnicites, Languages and Politics
The Amhara

Race and Skin Color
Here is a basic principle that underlies such questions.  From the records over recent centuries of systematically recording and investigating information about the world's peoples, it is now known that there is no consistent relationship of skin color to "race."  Further, the concept of "race" is very vague and is not a technical category with a standard definition.

In general there are some general informal categories, sometimes called "race," that help us classify various peoples of the world, but they are not strictly defined, and are used differently by different writers, but the terms and categories to not relate clearly to definite physical types. 

This is one reason you will sometimes hear various commentators comment that there is only one race, the Human Race.  All humans now living on Earth apparently share the same full gene pool.

Simply, there is no simple relationship to physical features (physiognomy) or genetic structure to any clear groupings of peoples.  There are some general patterns.  Thus in general most peoples traditionally living in the African continent are black, and have some general features usually referred to as Negroid in broad racial categories. 

Common Genetic Stream
But recent genetic studies have shown that the oldest genetic stream of humanity is among the "Bushmen" of Southern and Central Africa.  These genetic studies include a comparative study of select peoples of all continents and physical types. 

Read details of recent DNA comparisons all over the world, which have established a clear geographical chain of origin and migration.  Spencer wells has written up the historical conclusions from this comparative DNA study, which reads like an exciting novel:
The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey

Various changes have been traced in different groups of humans around the world.  Thus there is a common base and various physical changes from that base.  Sometimes these observed differences are superficially categorized and are the basis of distinctions referred to as "race," have developed over centuries. 

Continuum of Features
There is a continuum of physical features and skin color.  There are not clear-cut categories by either skin color, hair or eye color, head shape or size, height, body size, leg length or other feature.  Only general groupings and greater tendencies in various groups.

As to skin color, however, there are black peoples with Caucasian features in Southern India and the Indian Ocean Islands.  In general this group ("race" or "sub-race") of people is called Dravidian.  Examples of Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc., in India.

Black peoples called Melanesian in the South Pacific are also black, and have some similar features to Negroid Africans, but they are different also.  The peoples of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya, for instance, are Melanesian.  Likewise in this group are those called Australian Aborigines ("Originals").

Thus there are peoples who are black that are not Negroid."  The term "African" is generally used in popular speech to refer to the broad majority of black peoples of Africa who generally fit the popular traditional classification of physical features called Negroid.

Ethnicities in Northeastern Africa
Please bear with me for some more clarifying background for your question about the race of Ethiopians and Somalis.

There are basically three groupings of peoples involved in the ethnic mix you ask about:
Cushites, Semites and Bantu or Nilo-Saharan.  The best way to group these various peoples is by language, since languages can be more objectively organized and relationships between various languages has been well-established in the last two centuries.

Each of these broad groups also has complex sub-groups that complicate the language and ethnic picture in North-Eastern Africa.  The primary way groups of ethnicities in the Horn of Africa seem to relate is by language, more than by physical type.

My articles about the Beja and Oromo peoples in the region also gives some historical information and mentions how different ethnicities intermarry and new peoples emerge.  The Beja are a group of basically Cushite peoples who have mixed in various ways with Semitic peoples, the Sabean and Arabs, as well as with other types of Cushites: 
The Beja

The term Oromo refers to a large grouping of languages and peoples in the Horn of Africa, deep into Kenya.  These languages are Cushitic and relate distantly to the Somali/Maay group.  the Oromo peoples are generally very dark, like the Somalis, but are shorter and have more "African" (Negroid) features, due to more intermarrying with Bantu or Nilotic groups.
The Oromo: What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?

A related Cushite group is the Afar, on the Ethiopian and Eritrean Red Sea coast.  They seem to be generally lighter brown color, more like the Beja, but their language is in the same broad group as the Oromo and Somali families.

My article on them might also provide some helpful historical and cultural information:
Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History

Migrations and Ethnic Overlays
Among the peoples of the Horn of Africa, as well as every over place in the world, various groups of humans have migrated in and out over the millennia, and intermarried in various ways.  They have exchanged culture and language.  Some Cushite peoples have migrated west towards the center of the Africa continent, like the Tutsi in the Lakes Area. 

Meanwhile Nilotic peoples from the North have migrated south to mix with Cushite and Bantu peoples.  You can read about some of these in the following article:
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima -- Cultural Background in Rwanda

The Bantu peoples in Eastern Africa and Somalia seem to have migrated from the center of the continent from around the time of Christ.  They were into what is now Southern Somalia perhaps by 200 AD.  Related to this migration are the "Somali Bantu," Gosha, Mushungulu and related groups in the inland Horn, as well as the Barawa and related Swahili groups on the coast. 

Incidentally, the latter tend to be lighter skinned due to their origin as intermarrying of Arab men with African (Bantu) women among the east coast of Africa.  See more in my article on the Swahili peoples.

Somali Race and Ethnicity
Back to your specific questions on the concept of race now.  Among these groups, you have noted that the Somalis and "Ethiopians" look different from other  African peoples.

It is unclear why the Somalis peoples look more Caucasian, even though they have dark skin like the Oromo Cushites or Bantu Africans.  There seems to be no generally accepted explanation among scholars.

Some Somali clans claim descent from Arab tribes.  This appears to be due to intermarrying since the contact with Islam.  This however, is another source for more "Caucasian" features we find among the Somali groups, even with their black skin.

Ethiopian Race and Ethnicity
The "Ethiopians" are easier to explain.  The large, dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopian highlands (including Eritrea) are speakers of a group of Semitic languages, brought to the area from the Arabian peninsula, likely by the Sabean peoples.  This group is referred to in various ancient texts, including the Old Testament and the Quran.  The name is a form of the name Sheba.

The identity of ancient Sheba is uncertain, and is associated with the term Cush also.  The languages of the region were mixed from ancient times with Semitic and Cushitic. (For instance, the ancient Chaldeans, in the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates River in the Persian Gulf, who later took over the Babylonian Empire from the Assyrians, were Cushitic.) 

Arabic and Hebrew are closely related languages in the same family as the languages of Amharic and Tigrinya.

See the related articles on these at the end of this article.

The Sabeans were one base of the peoples in the Horn of Africa now speaking Semitic languages.  Other racial or genetic contributions to this stock are from the Cushite peoples.  In the area are Eastern and Northern Cushites.  The Eastern group I have mentioned in the Oromo and Somali. 

The Beja are the only remaining Northern Cushite group there now.  Peoples speaking Cushitic languages range form dark brown up to very light. 

Egyptian and Nubian
The ancient Egyptians also spoke a language broadly related to the Cushite and Semitic languages in the broader Afro-Asiatic family.  The Egyptians were apparently lighter skinned, like the Semitic Phoenicians, Hebrews, other Canaanites and the Arabs.  Their descendants are primarily identified in the Coptic Egyptians (mostly Christian) who now speak Arabic.

In addition, we can add the Nubian mix.  Traditionally farther west around the White Nile and up into Egyptian territory we find the Nubian peoples, whose speech is classified as Sudanic.  Nubian peoples were in ancient "Upper Egypt" and at one time became the ruling dynasty in all Egypt (the "Black Pharaohs"). 

Their influence, if not direct rule, would have included much of traditional "Cush," usually thought to include Ethiopia and parts of Sudan.  It is possible they also contributed to the genetic mix of the Horn area.

These Semitic-speaking peoples migrating into the Horn of Africa apparently intermarried with the various Cushites groups already living in the area and migrating in later.  This Semitic strain of genetics accounts somewhat for their more "Caucasian" features.  Skin color varies, but ranges toward the lighter shades. 

Thus African (Bantu) peoples have a known different origin in historic times from the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Ethiopian highlands.  It is less clear why the Somali group have more European features, though they have darker skins. 

Rich Mix
In conclusions, the short summary of all this is that various groups of peoples from different "racial" and linguistic origins have migrated in and out of the Horn of Africa, and have intermarried in various ways.  This gives us the dynamic, rich, complex, sometimes volatile mix of ethnicities and the range of ethnicity and language that is difficult to relate directly to any clear racial category.

These various genetic and geographic origins in various mixes account somewhat for the differences we currently observe in their features, as well as in their cultures.  This is different only in degree from the general story of humanity all over the world.

The fascinating thing is that the farther back into genetic history we have been able to go (through recent DNA comparative study) the more similar we find the human stream to be, back to a single genetic grouping in central Africa.

Also related
How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya -- Ethnicites, Languages and Politics
The Amhara
The Beja
The Oromo: What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima -- Cultural Background in Rwanda
The Swahili Peoples
The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey


First written as an email reply to a question from a reader 25 January 2006
First posted on SLRK 30 January 2006

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2006
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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