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Berber people

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Masinissa • Augustine of Hippo K. Belkacem • Z. Zidane
Total population
c. - 36 million
Regions with significant populations
 Morocco 18,980,000
 Algeria 12,800,000
 France 1,200,000
 Niger 1,000,000
 Spain 850,000
 Mali 700,000
 Libya 550,000
 Netherlands 250,000
 Belgium 100,000
 Tunisia 100,000
 Egypt 20,000
 Mauritania 5,000

Berber languages


Islam (mostly Sunni), Christianity, Judaism

Related ethnic groups

Egyptians, possibly Iberians

Berbers are the indigenous peoples of North Africa west of the Nile Valley. They are discontinuously distributed from the Atlantic to the Siwa oasis, in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean to the Niger River. They speak various Berber languages, which together form a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Between fourteen and twenty-five million Berber speakers live within this region, most densely in Morocco and becoming generally scarcer eastward through the rest of the Maghreb and beyond.

Many Berbers call themselves some variant of the word Imazighen (singular Amazigh), meaning "free men". This is common in Morocco, but elsewhere within the Berber homeland a local, more particular term, such as Kabyle or Chaoui, is more often used instead. Historically Berbers have been variously known, for instance as Libyans by the ancient Greeks, as Numidians and Mauri by the Romans, and as Moors by medieval and early modern Europeans. The modern English term is borrowed from Arabic, but the deeper etymology of "Berber" is not certain. (See also: Berber (Etymology).)


A Berber family crossing a ford - scene in Algeria

The Berbers have lived in North Africa between western Egypt and the Atlantic Ocean for as far back as records of the area go. The earliest inhabitants of the region are found on the Saharan rock art. References to them also occur frequently in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sources. Berber groups are first mentioned in writing by the ancient Egyptians during the Predynastic Period, and during the New Kingdom the Egyptians later fought against the Meshwesh and Libu tribes on their western borders. From about 945 BC the Egyptians were ruled by Meshwesh immigrants who founded the Twenty-second Dynasty under Shoshenq I, beginning a long period of Berber rule in Egypt. They long remained the main population of the Western Desert—the Byzantine chroniclers often complained of the Mazikes (Amazigh) raiding outlying monasteries there.

For many centuries the Berbers inhabited the coast of North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. Over time, the coastal regions of North Africa saw a long parade of invaders, settlers, and colonists including Phoenicians (who founded Carthage), Greeks (mainly in Cyrene, Libya), Romans, Vandals and Alans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and the French and Spanish. Most if not all of these invaders have left some imprint upon the modern Berbers as have slaves brought from Southern Europe to the Barbary Coast by Barbary pirates (one estimate places the number of Europeans brought to North Africa during the Ottoman period as high as 1.25 million) . Berber interactions with neighboring Sudanic empires, sub-Saharan Africans, and nomads from East Africa have also left varying impressions upon the people across the vast expanse of north Africa.

The areas of North Africa which retained the Berber language and traditions have, in general, been those least exposed to foreign rule—in particular, the highlands of Kabylie in Algeria and the Chleuh and Riffian peoples in Morocco, most of which even in Roman and Ottoman times remained largely separate and independent. The Phoenicians never even penetrated beyond the port cities along the coast. While many peoples have made contact and exchanged goods and services with native North Africans, full contact had been only with the Romans whereby the Numidian and Mauritanian provinces had been fully integrated as Provinces of the Roman Republic, and their peoples Roman Citizens. Amongst the people who had entered and settled with the autochthonous people of North Africa, are the 80,000 families of Germanic Vandals also referred to as "The Barbarians" by the Romans and the Mediterraneans in general who neither perished nor returned to Germania, but mixed with the natives and ultimately resulted in the eviction of the Roman forces from North Africa.

The Islamic invasion

Until the 7th century, the region of North Africa practiced many religions including various forms of indigenous rituals.

Before the ninth century, Northwest Africa was largely Berber-speaking. It was primarily Sufi Muslim, with Jewish populations in the valleys and Christians in the highlands. This was particularly true in the Algerian Aures and Kabyle regions, from which came several Berber Roman Emperors, Saint Augustine, along with the roots of Roman Catholicism. The main spoken language was Tamazight Berber, with Greek and Latin the chief written languages. The process of word borrowing started only around the ninth century with the Fatimids of Egypt. The Banu Hilal reduced the Zirids to a few coastal towns and took over much of the plains. Governments in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco encouraged the Arabization of the region, as had the French colonial regime that preceded them.

Modern-day Berbers

Berber village in the high Atlas in Morocco (Imlil valley)

The Berbers live mainly in Morocco (30% of the population) and in Algeria (about 8%-15% of the population), as well as Libya and Tunisia, though exact statistics are unavailable ; see Berber languages. Most Berbers who consider themselves Arab also have mainly Berber ancestry , though this too is not exact and may be purely conjectural in such a cosmopolitan region. Prominent Berber groups include the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who number approximately 4 million and have kept, to a large degree, their original language and culture; and the Chleuh (Francophone plural of Arabic "Shalh" and Tashelhiyt "ašəlḥi") of south Morocco, numbering about 8 million. Other groups include the Riffians of north Morocco, the Chaouia of Algeria, and the Tuareg of the Sahara. There are approximately 2.2 million Berber immigrants in Europe, especially the Riffians in the Netherlands and Kabyles in France. Some proportion of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands are descended from the aboriginal Guanches--usually considered to have common origins with Berbers--among whom a few Canary Islander customs, such as the eating of gofio, originated.

Distribution of Berbers in Northwest Africa

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.


Various disciplines shed light on the origin of the Berbers.


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 Afro-Asiatic 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.

Physical Anthropology

"At best we can define Berbers as Mediterranean. In terms of physical anthropology they are more closely related to Italians, Sicilians, Spaniards and Egyptians than to Nigerians, Saudi Arabians, or Ethiopians... .".

There are also theories mixed with observations by acknowledged racists, now discredited by the scientific community, although once popular with the like-minded during the Nazi era, and earlier, which speculate about the Berber people of North Africa.

Genetic evidence

In general, genetic evidence appears to indicate that most North Africans (whether they consider themselves Berber or Arab) are predominantly of Berber origin and that populations ancestral to the Berbers have been in the area since the Upper Paleolithic era. Berbers appear to be largely descended from a group or groups of people who expanded west from an eastern origin, along the southern rim of the Mediterranean sea, beginning perhaps as much as 50 000 years ago. Significant proportions of both the Berber and Arabized Berber gene pools also derive from more recent migration of various groups who have left their genetic footprints to varying degrees throughout the region.

Y-chromosome DNA

Y chromosomes are passed exclusively through the paternal line.

Bosch et al. (2001), found little genetic distinction between Arabic-speaking and Berber-speaking populations in North Africa, which they take to support the interpretation of the Arabization and Islamization of northwestern Africa, starting with word-borrowing during the 7th century A.D. and through State Arabic Language Officialisation post independence in 1962, as cultural phenomena without extensive genetic replacement. According to this study the historical origins of the NW African Y-chromosome pool may be summarized as follows: 75% NW African Upper Paleolithic (M78, M35, and M81), 13% Neolithic (J1-M267 and J2-M172), 4% historic European gene flow and 8% recent sub-Saharan African. They identify the "75% NW African Upper Paleolithic" component as "an Upper Paleolithic colonization that probably had its origin in Eastern Africa." The North-west African population's 75% Y chromosome genetic contribution from East Africa contrasted with a 78% contribution to the Iberian population from western Asia, suggests that the northern rim of the Mediterranean with the Strait of Gibraltar acted as a strong, albeit incomplete, barrier. However this study only analysed a small sample of Moroccan Y lineages.

A more recent and thorough study by Arredi et al. (2004) which analyzed five additional populations (Algerians and Tunisians) concludes that the North African pattern of Y-chromosomal variation (including both E3b and J haplogroups) is largely of Neolithic origin which suggests that the Neolithic transition in this part of the world was accompanied by demic diffusion of Afro-Asiatic–speaking pastoralists from the Middle East. This Neolithic origin was later confirmed by Myles et al. (2005) which "suggest that contemporary Berber populations possess the genetic signature of a past migration of pastoralists from the Middle East and that they share a dairying origin with Europeans and Asians, but not with sub-Saharan Africans".

Cruciani et al. (2004) note that the E-M81 haplogroup on the Y-chromosome correlates closely with Berber populations.

Nebel et al. (2002) of the Hebrew University argue that J1-M267 rather reflects "recent gene flow caused by the migration of Arabian tribes in the first millennium of the Common Era(700-800 A.D)." According to Nebel, the indigenous population of the Maghrib, the Berbers, have always been a composite people.

After the 8th century CE, a process of Arabization affected the bulk of the Berbers, while the Arab-Islamic culture and population absorbed local elements as well. Under the unifying framework of Islam, on the one hand, and as a result of the Arab settlement, on the other, a fusion took place that resulted in a new ethnocultural entity all over the Maghrib. Another study on Haplogroup J (Semino et al. 2004) agrees with Nebel et al.'s suggestion that J1-M267 may have spread to North Africa in historic times (as identified by the motif YCAIIa22-YCAIIb22; Algerians 35.0%, Tunisians 30.1%), which they assume to be a marker of the Arab expansion in the early medieval period.. This theory is disputed by Arredi et al. 2004, who argue like Bosch et al. 2001 that the J1-M267 haplogroup (formerly H71) and North African Y-chromosomal diversity indicate a Neolithic-era "demic diffusion of Afro-Asiatic-speaking pastoralists from the Middle East."

Mitochondrial DNA

mtDNA, by contrast, is inherited only from the mother.

According to Macaulay et al. 1999, "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 the rest 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 Maghreb returning to the east in Paleolithic times. Derivative clade U6a1 signals a posterior movement from East Africa back to the Maghreb and the Near East. This migration coincides with the probable Afroasiatic linguistic expansion.

A genetic study by Fadhlaoui-Zid et al. 2004 argues concerning certain exclusively North African haplotypes that "expansion of this group of lineages took place around 10,500 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% in southern Moroccan Berbers, 18% in Kabyles and 28% in Mozabites. Rando et al. 1998 (as cited by ) "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 82% (Tuaregs) to 4% ( Rifains). This north-south gradient in the sub-Saharan contribution to the gene pool is supported by Esteban et al. Nevertheless, individual Berber communities display a considerably high mtDNA heterogeneity among them. The Berbers of Jerba Island, located in South Eastern Tunisia, display an 87% Eurasian contribution with no U6 haplotypes , while the Kesra of Tunisia, for example, display a much higher proportion of typical sub-Saharan mtDNA haplotypes (49%, including 4.2% of M1 haplogroup) Cherni L, et al., as compared to the Zriba (8%). According to the article, "The North African patchy mtDNA landscape has no parallel in other regions of the world and increasing the number of sampled populations has not been accompanied by any substantial increase in our understanding of its phylogeography. Available data up to now rely on sampling small, scattered populations, although they are carefully characterized in terms of their ethnic, linguistic, and historical backgrounds. It is therefore doubtful that this picture truly represents the complex historical demography of the region rather than being just the result of the type of samplings performed so far."


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 Igor Diakonoff and Christopher Ehret) to have originated in east Africa no earlier than 12,000 years ago, although Alexander 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.)

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

There are between 14 and 25 million speakers of Berber languages in North Africa (see population estimation), principally concentrated in Morocco and Algeria but with smaller communities as far east as Egypt and as far south as Burkina Faso.

Their languages, the Berber languages, form a branch of the Afroasiatic linguistic family comprising many closely related varieties, including Tarifit, Kabyle and Tashelhiyt, with a total of roughly 14-25 million speakers. A frequently used generic name for all Berber languages is Tamazight, not to be confused with the language found in the High and Middle Atlas or Rif.

Ethnic groups

Religions and beliefs

Berbers are mostly Sunni Muslim belonging to the Maliki sect, while the Mozabites of the Saharan Mozabite Valley are mostly Shitte.

Important Berbers in Islamic history

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

(c. 1061 - 1106) was the Berber Almoravid ruler in North Africa and Al-Andalus ( Morrish Iberia).

He took the title of amir al-muslimin (commander of the Muslims) after visiting the Caliph of Baghdad 'amir al-moumineen" ("commander of the faithful")and officially receiving his support. He was either a cousin or nephew of Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, the founder of the Almoravid dynasty. He united all of the Muslim dominions in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal and Spain) to the Kingdom of Morocco (circa 1090), after being called to the Al-Andalus by the Emir of Seville.

Yusuf bin Tashfin is the founder of the famous Moroccan city Marrakech (in Arabic Murakush, corrupted to Morocco in English). He himself chose the place where it was built in 1070 and later made it the capital of his Empire. Until then the Almoravids had been desert nomads, but the new capital marked their settling into a more urban way of life.

Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Tumart

(c. 1080 - c. 1130), was a Berber religious teacher and leader from the Masmuda tribe who spiritually founded the Almohad dynasty. He is also known as El- Mahdi (المهدي) in reference to his prophesied redeeming. In 1125 he began open revolt against Almoravid rule.

The name "Ibn Tumart" comes from the Berber language and means "son of the earth."

Tariq ibn Ziyad

(d. 720), known in Spanish history and legend as Taric el Tuerto (Taric the one-eyed), was a Berber Muslim and Umayyad general who led the conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711. He is considered to be one of the most important military commanders in Spanish history. He was initially the deputy of Musa ibn Nusair in North Africa, and was sent by his superior to launch the first thrust of an invasion of the Iberian peninsula. Some claim that he was invited to intervene by the heirs of the Visigothic King, Wittiza, in the Visigothic civil war.

On April 29, 711, the armies of Tariq landed at Gibraltar (the name Gibraltar is derived from the Arabic name Jabal Tariq, which means mountain of Tariq, or the more obvious Gibr Al-Tariq, meaning rock of Tariq). Upon landing, Tariq is said to have burned his ships then made the following speech, well-known in the Muslim world, to his soldiers:

أيّها الناس، أين المفر؟ البحر من ورائكم، والعدوّ أمامكم، وليس لكم والله إلا الصدق والصبر...
O People ! There is nowhere to run away! The sea is behind you, and the enemy in front of you: There is nothing for you, by God, except only sincerity and patience. (as recounted by al-Maqqari).

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta

(born February 24, 1304; year of death uncertain, possibly 1368 or 1377) was a Berber Sunni Islamic scholar and jurisprudent from the Maliki Madhhab (a school of Fiqh, or Sunni Islamic law), and at times a Qadi or judge. However, he is best known as a traveler and explorer, whose account documents his travels and excursions over a period of almost thirty years, covering some 73,000 miles (117,000 km). These journeys covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world, extending from present-day West Africa to Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and China, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessor, near-contemporary Marco Polo.

Abu Ya'qub Yusuf

(died on July 29, 1184) was the second Almohad caliph. He reigned from 1163 until 1184. He had the Giralda in Seville built.

Abu Yaqub al-Mustansir Yusuf

Caliph of Morocco from 1213 until his death. Son of the previous caliph, Muhammad an-Nasir, Yusuf assumed the throne following his father's death, at the age of only 16 years.

Ziri ibn Manad

(d. 971), founder of the Zirid dynasty in the Maghreb.

Ziri ibn Manad was a clan leader of the Berber Sanhaja tribe who, as an ally of the Fatimids, defeated the rebellion of Abu Yazid ( 943- 947). His reward was the governorship of the western provinces, an area that roughly corresponds with modern Algeria north of the Sahara.

Muhammad Awzal

Muhammad ibn Ali Awzal or al-Awzali was a religious Berber poet. He is considered the most important author of the Tashelhiyt (southern Morocco Berber language) literary tradition. He was born around 1670 in the village of al-Qasaba in the region of Sous, Morocco and died in 1748/ 9 (1162 of the Egira).

Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli al-Simlali

From the tribe of Jazulah which was settled in the Sus area of Morocco between the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains. He is most famous for compiling the Dala'il al-Khayrat, an extremely popular Muslim prayer book.

Important Berbers in Christian history

Before adhering to Islam, most Berber groups were Christians, and a number of Berber theologians were important figures in the development of Western Christianity. In particular, the Berber Donatus Magnus was the founder of a Christian group known as the Donatists. The 4th century Catholic (i.e. common or universal) Church viewed the Donatists as heretics and the dispute lead to a schism in the church dividing North African Christians. The Romano-Berber theologian known as Augustine of Hippo (modern Chaoui city of Annaba, Algeria), who is recognized as a saint and a Doctor of the Church by Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Communion, was an outspoken opponent of Donatism. Many believe that Arius, another early Christian theologian who was deemed a heretic by the catholic Church, was of Libyan and Berber descent.

Berber Jews

Berber culture

Famous Berbers

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