The Seven Oldest Tribes in Africa
It is a commonly held belief that human life evolved out of Africa millions of years ago. Many indigenous African tribes are direct descendants some of the earliest modern human (Homo sapiens) groups and have unique DNA markers. These tribes also have unique genetic features as well as languages that are not closely related to any others that exist today. Additionally, these tribes have been able to maintain their cultural traditions for thousands of years despite European colonization in nearby regions. Remarkably, all of the tribes on this list are still around and practicing their ancient traditions.
Age: over 3,000 years old
Location: southern Kenya and northern Tanzania
Current Total Population: about 900,000
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photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Maasai are one of the most internationally famous African tribes because they live near many of the country’s most popular national parks and reserves. The tribe is also known for its vibrant outfits and distinct customs. Observing and visiting the Maasai people is one of the most popular tourists attractions in Kenya.
According to Maasai oral tradition, the tribe originated north of Lake Turkana (north-west Kenya) in the lower Nile Valley. The Maasai began migrating south in the 15th century, but are believed to have existed as a distinct tribe for over 3,000 years. The tribe is also known for its warriors, who were feared during the Maasai’s height in the 19th century for throwing orinka (clubs) over 100 meters (328 feet).
Age: over 10,000 years old
Location: North Africa, primarily in Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, northern Niger, Tunisia, Libya, and part of western Egypt
Current Total Population: 20 – 30 million
Languages(s): Various Berber languages and Maghrebi Arabic dialects
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh, are the indigenous people of Northern Africa. There is evidence that the Berbers have existed in the Maghreb region of Africa (modern-day Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania) since the beginning of recorded history in the area. It is believed that modern Berbers are the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa.
One of the earliest groups of Berbers were the Caspians, who lived in the region over 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. The Berbers, who were named by the Romans after the Latin word for barbarians (barbarus), are regularly referenced throughout Greek and Roman history. In many historical Greek texts, the Berbers were called Libyans and were the sole representation of Africa in Europe at the time. Today, the Berbers are a widely diverse group that reflect the various people and cultures that conquered their lands.
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Age: over 87,000 years old
Location: Central Tanzania
Current Total Population: 60,000 in 2013
photo source: kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.com
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The Sandawe live in central Tanzania near another old African tribe, the Hadza. Like the Hadza, the Sandawe speak one of the few remaining click languages in Africa – the Sandawe click language is unrelated to the Hadza click language.
The Sandawe are descended from some of the first humans and shared a common ancestor with the San tribe, who are believed to be the oldest race in the world. Genetic research has revealed that the Sandawe have a variant gene for melanin, which affects skin color. Researchers have noted that the Sandawe are some of the lightest skinned indigenous African people and look similar to the San.
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4. African Pygmies
Age: over 100,000
Location: Central Africa, primarily in the Congo Basin
Current Total Population: about 900,000 in 2016
Languages(s): Varies by specific tribe
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
African Pygmies are widely known around the world for their small stature and are not one tribe, but various smaller tribes that live in Central Africa. Like the other old African tribes on this list, the Pygmies are thought to be descended from some of the earliest groups of humans. Several current Pygmy tribes have DNA markers closely related to one of the oldest groups of human ancestors.
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According to a study from 2015, Pygmies have a different pattern of growth than other humans, which accounts for their smaller size. Pygmies are born average sized, but grow slowly in early childhood. The study also showed that Pygmies’ short stature is genetic and not a result of their environment or malnutrition.
Age: over 100,000 years old
Current Total Population: 1,200 – 1,300
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photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Along with the San (Bushmen), the Hadza tribe of Hadzabe are believed to be some of the most ancient people in the world. The Hadza are also the last true hunter-gatherers and their lifestyle and traditions have been the same for over 10,000 years. The tribe doesn’t grow any crops or keep livestock, and they do not have any permanent shelters.
Like the San, the Hadza’s ancestors split off from other ancient groups early on in human history. The Hadza speak a click language that is unrelated to any other existing language on Earth, which provides more evidence of the tribe’s old age. The Hadza still live in their ancestral homeland in Tanzania, near an archaeological site where the oldest fossil evidence of early humans was found.
Age: 100,000 – 140,000
Location: southern Africa in Namibia and Botswana
Current Total Population: over 130,000
Languages(s): Nama, Afrikaans, and English
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Nama are the last true descendants of the Khoikhoi, who are closely related to the San. Collectively, the Khoikhoi and San are called the Khoisan and are often called the world’s first or oldest people. Like the San, the Nama share DNA with some of the oldest groups of humans.
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Today, very few pure Nama people exist because of intermarriage with other tribes and a smallpox outbreaks in the 18th century. The Nama are cattle farmers, a tradition which emerged when some San people acquired cattle stock over 2,300 years ago. This group started calling themselves the Khoikhoi to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Khoisan. The Nama are their remaining descendants.
1. San (Bushmen)
Age: 100,000 – 140,000 years old
Location: Southern Africa in countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa
Current Total Population: about 90,000
Languages(s): All languages of the Khoe, Kx’a, and Tuu language families
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photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The San tribe has been living in Southern Africa for at least 30,000 years and they are believed to be not only the oldest African tribe, but quite possibly the world’s most ancient race. The San have the most diverse and distinct DNA than any other indigenous African group. This means the San are direct descendants one of the original ancestral human groups.
The Seven Oldest Tribes In AfricaSours: https://www.slps.org/Page/55808
Meet 8 of the world’s most remote tribes
They're hidden in the deepest, darkest corners of the Earth – or in the vast, remote plains of Africa. Tiny pockets of people whose customs, dress and traditions have remained decidely anachronistic.
While they may only don traditional dress or use ancient hunting methods on special occasions these days, there's no question that the people in these pictures live a lot closer to their old way of life than the average.
Meet eight incredible indigenous tribes – and see what makes them unique.
Huli Wigmen, Papua New Guinea
Location: Tari Highlands, Papua New Guinea
This tribe’s incredible hats are actually made from their own hair, with men in this isolated 40,000-strong group ‘harvesting’ their mane for their own use or to sell to others. They combine these with yellow face paint, a clawed axe, an apron of leaves and a belt of dangling pigtails to intimidate rival tribes. Traditionally, they perform a classic bird dance, mimicking the birds of paradise found on the island.
Future outlook: Successfully blending modern and traditional life, many now wear Western-style clothing and are embracing tourism as a way to keep their tradition alive.
Dogon, West Africa
Location: Mali, West Africa
Using ropes made of baobab bark, men traditionally scale the formidable Bandiagara cliffs to collect pigeon or bat guano, which is sold as fertiliser, and Tellem artefacts, which are sold to Western art collectors. More than 400,000 live in around 700 little villages precariously perched all the way along the 200km cliff escarpment.
Future outlook: The tribe thrived on tourism dollars, but recent unrest has reduced visitors and poor crop harvests are making life much harder.
Chimbu Skeleton Dancers, Papa New Guinea
Location: Chimbu Province, Papua New Guinea
It may be a look we're familiar with, but this tribe’s skeleton dances originated to intimidate enemy tribes in what is a hotly-contested and highly-territorial country. They are so remote that little is known about their real lives, but it is understood they live in a temperate climate in rugged mountain valleys between 1,600 and 2,400m, traditionally in male-female segregated houses but increasingly sharing as families.
Future outlook: Slowly increasing tourism interaction means dances are starting to be done more as shows by community-integrated people, than by the more remote in a traditional setting.
Location: Yamal Peninsula, Siberia
This group of around 10,000 nomads are pretty hardy – they move 300,000 reindeer on a 1,100km migration around an area one-and-a-half times the size of France, in temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius. They travel on sledges anointed with freshly-slaughtered reindeer blood, in trains that stretch up to 8km long. Despite discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1970s, they are adapting well to increasing contact with the outside world.
Future outlook: Bucking the trend of dwindling global nomadic groups, they are adapting to the social, political and natural change around them.
Asaro mud men
Location: Goroka, Papua New Guinea
These mud-covered men are not aiming for the perfect complexion, they slap on the brown stuff because they believe it makes them look like spirits and it terrifies the other indigenous groups in the area. One of many groups scattered on the highland plateau for over a millennium, they are isolated by harsh terrain and were only discovered around 75 years ago.
Future outlook: Success as a tourist attraction has enlarged the tribe’s potential as a national symbol.
Himba herders, Namibia
Location: Namibia, Africa
Semi-nomadic, the Himba live scattered across northwest Namibia and southern Angola. When stationary, they live in tipi-shaped structures built with mud and dung. Curious fact: They keep an ancestral fire burning 24 hours a day in homage to their god Mukuru. Wealth is measured in cattle, but goat is a more regular part of the diet.
Future outlook: There's an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 members of the tribe left, but they're constantly threatened by new development. Nevertheless, many maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Kazakh golden eagle hunters
Location: Bayan-Olgii Province, Mongolia
They use eagles to hunt foxes, marmots and wolves and wear furs of the prey they catch, with boys starting at the age of 13, when they can prove they can carry the weight of a golden eagle. Semi-nomadic, they have been moving around the Altai Mountains since the 19th century. They now number around 100,000 people, but there are only around 250 eagle hunters left.
Future outlook: Because young men are being drawn away, females are starting to break into this masculine-dominated activity to keep it alive.
Bayaka, Central African Republic
Location: Southwest Rainforests, Central African Republic (CAR)
Living by the ‘Jengi’, the spirit of the forest, the Aya have rich knowledge of herbal medicine but use their own language and hunting traditions. They are one of a number of tribes in this remote area of Africa making up a population of half a million. However, elders now report they cannot teach the traditional skills because they can no longer go deep into the forest.
Future outlook: Many pygmy communities have lost their traditional livelihoods, having to give up lands to conservation projects and logging.
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Celia Xakriaba speaks at the APIB/ Survival protest outside the Brazilian Embassy, London
© Rosa Gauditano/ Survival International
In August 2019, a hunter-gatherer tribe living in one of the most important rainforests on Earth made a public plea for help:
“The forest is our home. We rely on the forest to live. We eat there, we find medicines there, we feel healthy when we are there. We raise our children well in the forest. But you people have stolen our forest. What are we going to do? How will we survive?”
At the time this statement was released, coverage of the Amazon fires was dominating the news and social media. Journalists flocked to Brazil’s indigenous communities to hear from them first-hand, and there was an unprecedented display of solidarity from the public on social media. Indigenous voices went mainstream like never before.
Yet the words of this particular tribe, the one posing the desperate question “How will we survive?” were pretty much ignored by both the media at large and the general public — why?
On Survival International’s social media channels, we aim to amplify indigenous voices to help change the world in their favor, but there are definitely some voices that our online audiences like to amplify more than others. Posts relating to Amazonian indigenous people get exponentially more likes and shares than posts that feature tribal people from Africa and Asia.
The quote above is taken from a letter written by the Baka people, a tribe from the Congo Basin, who are inhabitants of the second biggest rainforest on Earth, after the Amazon. The Baka have shaped, nurtured, protected and depended on their forest for generations.
Just like in the Amazon, the tribal peoples of the Congo rainforest know and understand their environment better than anyone else: their unparalleled expertise is crucial to protecting this unique ecosystem.
Just like in the Amazon, the peoples of the Congo rainforest are suffering horrific violence and intimidation for no greater crime than just living the way they want to on their ancestral lands.
Just like in the Amazon, the tribal peoples of the Congo rainforest are facing land theft and genocide because greedy outsiders think they know best when it comes to the use of tribal land and resources, and so therefore have the right to simply take them.
But the people who are killing the Baka, torturing their children, burning their houses, stealing their belongings and cutting off their food supplies are not loggers or miners; they are park rangers, anti-poaching squads or ecoguards. Paradoxically, they are destroying the people best placed to save this forest, in the name of “conservation.” These atrocities are carried out with funding from WWF, one of the world’s pre-eminent conservation groups, and the European Commission, among others.
Please email the Director-General of WWF in solidarity with the Baka people
What’s going on is not conservation at all, it is simply a land grab, driven by the same racist logic that drives loggers to invade indigenous land in the Amazon: that the indigenous inhabitants don’t “deserve” ownership over their forests because they are too “primitive” to use this land “properly.” This same logic is also threatening forest ecosystems and their indigenous inhabitants in Asia.
The future of the Congo rainforest (and indeed all forests) depends on its indigenous people as much as that of the Amazon, and any approach to “conservation” that wounds, alienates and ultimately destroys the environment’s best allies is certain to harm, not help, the ecosystem it claims to be protecting. “We know where and when the poachers are in the forest, but no-one will listen to us,” a Baka man told SurvivalIndigenous lives clearly don’t matter to big conservationists like WWF, because their main response to the atrocities against the Baka and other tribes has been to try and cover this up and hire expensive PR experts to limit their reputational damage (they’ve been doing this for around 30 years now). Perhaps, if WWF knew how strongly the public was against this inhumane treatment, and, more specifically, if this outrage began to affect their donations, they would finally act to make the abuse stop.
If you support the indigenous movement in the Amazon, please show the same solidarity to indigenous peoples defending their forests in Africa and Asia too. The public response to the Amazon fires had a hugely significant impact and changed the direction of policy in Brazil. If the public would give equally staunch and vocal support to African and Asian tribal peoples, this would undoubtedly change the world… and possibly save the planet too.
Please email the Director-General of WWF in solidarity with the Baka people
Download our Activists Pack to amplify the Baka’s voices on social media
SURVIVALINTERNATIONAL is the global movement for tribal peoples. Since 1969 we have helped them defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.
The Mbuti dwell in the Ituri forest (in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo), whereas the Twa are dispersed through the central forests of the Congo Basin. Certain groups also live around the last forest remnants of Rwanda and Burundi.
The third group, the BaMbenga, is found west of the Oubangui River, straddling Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Gabon. This group includes the BaAka (located between the Oubangui and the Sangha Rivers in northern Congo and in southwest Central African Republic), the Baka (in southwestern Cameroon and northern Gabon) and several small groups in central Gabon.
Some indications support the hypothesis that there was, in the beginning, a single language among these three groups. For instance, certain terms related to forest life are common to all the different languages used today. Still, there is a strong tendency for groups to assimilate the languages spoken by the other African groups with whom they are associated. Certain groups speak a Bantu language, like the Dzanga-Sangha BaAka, whilst others use a Nilotic or Ubanguian language depending on their neighbors.
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The indigenous peoples of Central Africa can be divided in two categories: The river peoples and the forest peoples.
The BaAka represent approximately one third of the population living inside the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve. They are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the area, with their seminomadic lifestyle persisting largely unchanged over millennia. Because of their extraordinary knowledge about the forest, they play a fundamental role in all science, nature conservation and tourism projects, thus helping to preserve the core element of their own culture, the forest.
Today about 5,000 BaAka live in and around the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area – a minority among the population around the national park, which has risen to about 15,000 people.
In recent years, however, the BaAka have come under great pressure to adapt to new influences. More people have come to the area due to the political crisis in the Central African Republic, but also because of the presence of logging concessions in the area. The overexploitation of their natural resources and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle bring poverty, exploitation, discrimination and disease.
Even if their situation sees some improvement, not only the BaAka have not traditionally been considered as equals by the Bantu majority, but they have also been massively exploited and deprived of their rights. The BaAka are dependent on the Bantu because the Bantu are their only buyers for medicinal plants, fruits, wild nuts, honey or other products collected in the forest as a source of income.
Due to their illiteracy and lack of proper money management, they have been exploited to carry out poorly paid manual work and been subject to endless debts. This unbalanced relationship leads to tensions between both groups, as well as to the social and economic exclusion of the BaAka.
Despite this situation, traditional lifestyle still plays a strong role in many BaAka communities. Preserving the cornerstones of the BaAka way of life is an important goal of the efforts on the ground. Find out more about our work for the Aka people here.
Today about 5,000 BaAka live in and around the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area.
The Sangha-Sangha river population
“Sangha-Sangha” is a collective term for the original Bantu population along the Sangha River, characterized by innumerable closely linked clans. They are the original inhabitants of the riverbank, its multiple tributaries, and the marshy basins between Salo, Bayanga, Lidjombo and Ouesso in the northern part of the Republic of Congo.
In the past, these groups lived in temporary camps established according to the seasons, different fishing techniques, and importance for different activities. They used the different parts of the Raphia palm, especially its sap to make palm wine. Living at a slow pace, Sangha-Sangha families have always cultivated fields, their main crops being cassava, corn, peanuts, and plantain bananas. Linguistically, they belong to the Bantu group, but each clan has its own dialect.
In general, these populations have an all-around knowledge of both the Sangha-Sangha dialects and the languages of their neighbors, such as the BaAka or the Mbuti. Before the immigration of other peoples into the region, there was a traditional trade relationship between the Sangha-Sangha and the BaAka, who exchanged their respective products.
The main activity of the Sangha Sangha men is fishing using fixed and cast nets. Fishing with cast net is done from a dugout canoe (Pirogue). The net is thrown so that it opens before hitting the water. Fixed nets are attached to the banks – their length and mesh vary depending on the location. Buoys are used to mark their position for easy recovery. In the past, nets were woven using plant fiber, but today, this material has been replaced by nylon. A traditional fishing method, using a spear and a torch lit with the resin of the Copal tree allows fishing at night, for species such as catfish. Women use other techniques such as the damming of streams followed by their draining, and the use of traps. A customary land ownership system governs the usage rights on the Sangha tributaries while access is free on the large river.
A customary land ownership system governs the usage rights on the Sangha tributaries while access is free on the large river.
Molenge – Fermented Palm Wine
Another daily activity of the Sangha-Sangha men is the collection of sap from the Mosende or Raphia palm (Raphia hookeri) to produce an alcoholic drink called Molenge by fermentation. This wine is consumed each evening in the villages and is an important nutritional element. The extraction of palm wine is complemented by the exploitation of Raphia palm fronds for the construction of hut roofs – the preference being for the large Raphia called Bungu (Raphia laurentii), found in the flooded marshes along rivers.
Tribes african jungle
Indigenous People of the Congolese Rainforest
Notable for their short stature, “Pygmies” or the African Rainforest Hunter-Gatherers are a group of ethnic minorities living in the rainforests of Central Africa, most commonly in the Congo Basin. “Pygmy” is a hypernym to refer to various ethnic groups that reside in the Central African rainforests. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the term “indigenous peoples” refers to the Mbati, Batwa and Baka. Indigenous people of the Congolese rainforest consider the term offensive. The DRC is home to around 60% of this indigenous population. According to University College London, Manchester Metropolitan Museum and the University of Malaga, an estimated 960,000 indigenous peoples belonged to this ethnic group in Central Africa in 2016.
Discrimination: Extreme Poverty and Corruption in the Workplace
The African rainforest indigenous people have historically faced oppression in their homeland. In fact, other ethnic and rebel groups ostracize them. In 2011, the Agence-France Presse revealed that the Bantu people of the Congo have been exploiting Pygmies as properties or slaves. In fact, many only saw them as ‘pets’ or extensions of their own property.
Due to rapid modernization, the indigenous people of the Congolese rainforest must abandon their traditional ways of living in exchange for the lowest paying jobs available. Due to their inhumane wages, many do not receive adequate nutrition. When these indigenous people must find work outside of the rainforest, they frequently become ill due to sudden changes in their lifestyle. In 2016, reports determined that working indigenous children received moonshine or other addictive substances instead of money.
Ethnic Cleansing and Murder
Congolese rebel forces are often the culprits behind acts of violence and murder against the Mbati, Batwa and Baka people. In 2003, the United Nations confirmed that the indigenous rainforest people of the DRC have suffered rape, killing or being eaten. One of the most notable instances is the Effacer le tableau, an operation that the Movement for the Liberation of Congo led. Its main goal was to exterminate the Bambuti people of Eastern Congo. The Bambutis experienced mass murder in the span of a few months between 2002 and 2003. The rebels even ate some of the Bambutis due to the belief that ‘Pygmy’ flesh contains supernatural powers. In total, about 60-70,000 total indigenous people experienced killing, which was about 40% of the indigenous population in the eastern Congo region.
In 2017, the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) fatally shot a young Congolese Batwa boy named Christian Mbone Nakulire. These guards received an assignment to manage protected regions of the Congo. After this tragic incident, the Batwa people have unsuccessfully pleaded for their right to ownership of their land as they believe that is the only way to prevent future deaths of their innocent people.
Fight for the Forgotten
Former Greco-Roman wrestler and MMA fighter Justin Wren has founded the Fight for The Forgotten initiative. Justin Wren met the Mbuti people of Congo in 2011 and lived with them for a year. Wren, who received the name “Efeosa” (the man who loves us) by the Mbutis made it his mission to help the marginalized community. Fight for the Forgotten has drilled 86 wells, freed 1,500 enslaved pygmies, aided 30,300 overall villagers, granted 3,048 acres of land and provided sanitation and agricultural training. Wren believes that justice for these indigenous people is possible if they “acquire their own land, access clean water, and develop sustainable agriculture” as these three factors aid in ending the cycle of continuous poverty and discrimination.
Currently, the organization is helping the Batwa people of Uganda by providing them with their own land, building wells for clean water, constructing various buildings and educating on agriculture, along with providing literacy training and much more. People can donate to its website, fightforthefortten.org, and even obtain the opportunity to start their own fundraiser to help the cause.
This charity organization is attempting to end the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) conservation zone project in the Congo Rainforest. Some have accused the WWF of hiring park rangers who have abused and murdered multiple Baka villagers. According to Survival International, eco guards have instigated many accounts of abuse against the Bakas. In 2017, WWF eco guards whipped Baka men, women and children while they crawled on the ground. In 2018, four Baka individuals received accusations of hunting elephants and eco guards beat them although there was no concrete evidence of poaching. Two of those Baka men experienced unlawful arrest and went to prison.
To this day, the Baka people live in daily fear as eco guards frequent their communities to physically abuse villagers and burn down homes. Survival International fights to protect the Baka people as the WWF has continuously denied these abuse cases. Leaked WWF reports have shown major discrepancies between the internal reports on the violence against the Baka people, and the statements it has made publicly.
In February 2016, Survival International submitted a complaint to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD has admitted its complaint and opened an investigation against the WWF, a major accomplishment for a nonprofit like Survival International.
People can contact the embassy of the Democratic Republic of Congo to express concerns for the Congolese indigenous rainforest people and give suggestions on how things can reform and change. Contact information exists on its website.
Although the indigenous rainforest people of the Congo Basin continue to face extreme economic hardships, violence and ethnic issues, others are beginning to hear their voices. Change and reform, despite its difficulty, is starting to look like a possibility. Hope is not bleak for the indigenous people of the Congolese rainforest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is slowly but surely getting brighter.
– Kelly McGarry
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the days when African life was largely rural, few members moved away from their tribal areas. The growth of cities through the 20th century began to change that, as increased numbers of people moved to towns and cities to find work instead of living a subsistence lifestyle. In many parts of Africa (particularly rural areas) tribal influences are still a dominant force in how people live, communicate, and behave.
With this context in mind, here’s our pick of 10 of the most iconic tribes in Africa, with a focus on the key safari regions of East and Southern Africa:
10 Iconic African tribes
Hadzabe man hunting with a bow and arrow.
The Hadzabe of Tanzania is a tribe of hunter-gatherers living in north-central Tanzania, and perhaps the last true nomadic tribe in East Africa.
Since first European contact in the late 19th century and then through various independent Tanzanian administrations there have been attempts to settle the Hadza. These efforts have largely failed, and the Hadza pursue the same way of life today their ancestors have for hundreds of years.
The Hadzabe is a relatively egalitarian society, with no governing hierarchy or status differences between individuals, and where children are reared cooperatively. Much time is spent on foraging and hunting. Women forage in larger groups for berries, fruit, and tubers, depending on availability. Hadza men usually forage individually, feeding themselves and bringing home fruit or honey when they can. They also hunt game using a bow and poisoned arrow, lying in wait overnight at watering holes.
A Hamar mother with her children.
The Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia is a fertile region that’s home to the Hamar. They are a pastoral tribe with a culture that places a high value on cattle. During the dry season families move to live with their herds in grazing areas, and survive primarily on milk and blood from the cattle.
They are easily recognized for their body adornment with multitudes of colorful beads, necklaces, and bracelets, and for their distinctive hairstyles, curling their hair with a mixture of ochre and butter.
Controversial practices include ritual flogging of women by their husbands to prove devotion, and the initiation rite of ‘bull jumping’ performed by boys to allow them to marry.
Ochre-coloured Himba ladies singing.
In north-west Namibia is the Kunene region, home to hunter-gatherers and pastoralists the Himba tribe. The tribe has been successful in maintaining their culture and traditional way of life, not least because Kunene is in a remote and desolate part of Namibia.
Central to the Himba’s culture is Okuruwo, the holy fire which symbolizes their connection to their ancestors, who are in direct communication with Mukuru, their god. There is a permanent fire at the center of each village to signify this connection, tended to by a fire-keeper from each family.
The iconic status of the Himba tribe comes in large part from the appearance of the women, with their red-tinged complexion and thick, red hair in elaborate hairstyles. Hair for Himba women signifies age and status, starting with shaved heads for young children, then braids and plaits, and graduating to a leather ornament called an Erembe for women who have had children.
Their unique red colour comes from a paste made from ochre, fat, and butter, applied each day to their skin and hair, to protect them from the sun and insect bites, and to beautify themselves.
Karo men sitting with weapons.
Living on the banks of the Omo River in Southern Ethiopia, seemingly untouched by the outside world, is the small Karo (or Kara) tribe. For sustenance, they practice flood retreat cultivation, growing beans and maize, breeding cattle and goats, and fishing.
They are highly regarded for their practice of intricate face and body painting, using a combination of white chalk, charcoal, yellow rock, and iron ore to create some truly dramatic body artworks.
The tribe also practice ritual scarification, cutting themselves with a knife or razor, then rubbing ash into the cut to produce a raised effect over time. Women create intricate scarring patterns on their chests, stomachs, or backs to be considered mature and attractive, whilst men scarify their chests to reflect the killing of enemies or deadly animals.
Like their tribal neighbours the Hamar, the Karo also practice a ‘bull jumping’ ceremony to signify the coming of age of young men.
Masai, Kenya & Tanzania
Masai men walking to a jumping ceremony.
Possibly the most famous of all African tribes, the Maasai live along the semi-arid Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Tanzania. These expansive homelands are close to many of Africa’s top game parks, meaning the tribe is often in close contact with international tourists.
The Maasai are warriors who trace their ancestry to the northern Great Rift Valley in Sudan. Today the tribe are semi-nomadic and herd cattle, which they believe were a gift from the sky god Ngai, who lowered them to earth on a leather thong. Cattle are sacred, and used as both a measure of wealth and a source of sustenance, with the Maasai diet fortified by drinking a mix of cow milk and blood.
Along with drinking blood, Maasai culture includes a jumping dance, the wearing of colourful robes, and ceremonial spitting:
- The jumping dance is an initiation right for young men, with whoever has this highest jump being able to claim the best bride.
- Their colorful clothing is cloth called shuka, which comes in a range of symbolic colours – red to protect from wild animals, orange for friendship and hospitality, blue for the sky, and rains for cattle, yellow for fertility, and green for nourishment.
- Saliva is a fluid Massai share at certain times, such as spitting in the palm when shaking the hand of an elder or spitting onto a new-born baby’s head.
San Bushmen, Kenya
San people sitting around a fire.
The San people are one of the world’s oldest tribes, and traditionally hunter-gatherers, known as the first people of South Africa. Today their descendants are a population of around 100,000 people across Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa.
The San’s tracking skills are renowned, and they have the skills to hunt and survive in the seemingly barren lands of Southern Africa’s deserts. They are easily recognised by the unique clicking sound they make when speaking.
It is the San – also known as the Kalahari bushmen – that were responsible for the cave and rock art found across the region, some of which dates back thousands of years. They used pigments made from minerals, ochre, eggs, and blood to paint their iconic images of hunters and various animal prey.
Today the traditional lifestyle of the San bushmen is restricted to small areas around Botswana’s epic Makgadikgadi Pan, as they’ve lost the ability to cover large ranges by the creation of large national parks and increased land given over to farming and mining.
Samburu women in colourful beads.
The Samburu tribe from north and central Kenya are pastoralists from the great plains of the Samburu region. They primarily herd cattle but also keep other livestock such as goats, sheep, and camels.
They are closely related to their southern neighbours the Maasai, sharing the common Maa language, but are semi-nomadic, wandering in remote, arid areas for pastures. Like many East African pastoral tribes, they have a diet that includes cow milk and blood.
The Samburu are renowned for their unique social structure and colourful clothing, indeed the word Samburu means ‘butterfly’, which refers to their many colourful adornments. Men wear black or pink robes in the style of a Scottish kilt, along with headdresses, anklets, bracelets, necklaces. Women have their head shaved and wear two blue or purple cloths – one around the waist and one around their chest, adorning their bodies further with ochre, similar to the Himba of Namibia.
Their social structure is known as a gerontocracy, a system where the leaders are the eldest members of society. They make all the decisions and have the final say in all matters.
Southern Ndebele, South Africa
Colourful Ndeble women.
The Southern Ndebele tribe is found in South Africa’s north-eastern provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, sharing some language with the Zulu. They have unique culture and beliefs, however, that sets them apart from other African ethnic groups.
The Ndebele believe that illness is caused by spells or curses, an external force inflicted on a person. To cure illness a sangoma (a type of traditional healer) needs to do battle with these forces using traditional herbal medicines and bone throwing. Whilst these shamanistic traditions are interesting, what truly makes the Southern Ndeble unique is their artistic style. Not just clothes and bodily adornments, but homes too are decorated in striking geometric patterns filled in with colour.
While traditional designs made use of earthy colours, modern taste has evolved to a more vibrant and vivid palette. One Southern Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu , is now internationally renowned, having designed British Airways plane tail art and a BMW art car, putting her in the company of David Hockney and Andy Warhol.
Xhosa, South Africa
Xhosa boys during a circumcision ceremony.
The Xhosa ethnic group is one of the largest in South Africa, with their homelands in the southeast of the country, in the forested Eastern Cape Province. The Xhosa have South Africa’s second most spoken language, after Zulu. This language is used to maintain their strong oral tradition, full of stories of ancestral heroes, with the teachings of elders handed down through the generations by speech alone.
The idea of ubuntu (essentially humanity towards others) comes – at least in part – from the Xhosa, who have a strong concept of iziduko (clan). It is the iziduko that is central to Xhosa identity, more important even than ones’ name. When two strangers meet for the first time they share their iziduko ahead of their names.
Zulu, South Africa
A Zulu ceremonial dance.
With a population of around 11 million people, Zulu is the largest ethnic group in South Africa, and one of the continent’s largest tribes. The Zulu are a warrior tribe descended from East Africa, and migrated south centuries ago to find a home in KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast.
In the early 19th century the Zulu ethnic group rose into a formidable empire under the leadership of King Shaka, developing a fearsome reputation that is still acknowledged to this day. Modern-day Zulus are modern and progressive though. While traditional clothing is saved for special events like weddings and funerals, the Zulu maintain strong connections with their tradition and historical roots by giving sacrifices to the ancestral spirits to influence their lives on a day to day basis.
The Zulu are also skilled crafters, particularly their beadwork which is woven into intricate, colourful patterns that are both decorative and display meaning. The number and shape of triangles relate to the sex and parenthood status of the wearer. The colours have symbolism too, around the duality of life – for example, red signifies both love and passion, and anger and heartbreak.
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Such a healthy guy. The pea jacket on it does not converge and crawls out from under the belt. The belt is somewhere on the ass. Vityukha looks at me and smiles. I look into the bowler hat.