People of the Veil: New Study Reveals Clues to Origins of the Nomadic Tuaregs


Not many people could survive the harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert.  Yet the Tuareg have lived in the the region for millennia.

The Tuareg call themselves the Imazghan, meaning “free people.” Today they are known for a distinctive dark blue turban worn by the men, and for their long history as gatekeepers of the Sahara Desert. They are a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the West-Central Sahara, which encompasses parts of western Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and some neighboring countries.

The Tuaregs were first mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who spoke of a group known as the Garamantes living in the Fezzan region of southwest Libya that operated trans-Saharan trade routes, connecting the heart of Africa to the North African coast. It is now believed that he was speaking of the Tuareg.

Though known to scholars since Herodotus’ depiction thousands of years ago, the Tuaregs remain shrouded in mystery. Their extreme isolation in one of the earth’s harshest environments has made them difficult for cultural anthropologists to study.  There have been only a handful of studies published on the Tuaregs’ genetic history, and even these examined only the genetics of western Tuaregs from Mali, Niger and Nigeria. The eastern Tuaregs who inhabit the Fezzan of Libya remain far less studied.  So a team of scientists decided to rectify this lack of genetic data, analyzing the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of more than 100 Tuaregs from the Fezzan region of Libya. Their results are reported in the July issue of Annals of Human Genetics.

The authors chose to analyze the mtDNA for a variety of reasons, but mostly as a way of comparing their results to the previous genetic studies that had also used mtDNA. After extracting the DNA of the Tuaregs and assigning each individual to a specific maternal ancestry branch, or haplogroup, they found that the majority of Tuaregs fell into the same haplogroup: H1. In fact, over 61% of the individuals bore haplogroup H1.  This piqued the researchers’ interest, mainly because H1 is often thought to have spread with people from the Iberian peninsula across Europe after the end of the Last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. The results of this study indicate that somehow H1 must have traveled into North Africa as well.

Not only did the researchers find that so many Tuaregs bear the same maternal haplogroup, but there was low genetic diversity among the population overall. This low genetic diversity can be tied to the fact that the Tuaregs are a very isolated people, and it is uncommon for them to venture too far outside their community when looking for a spouse. Indeed it seems that these Libyan Tuaregs are even genetically isolated from their West African counterparts, who showed far less European ancestry and far more ancestry tracing back to sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that both eastern and western Tuaregs share a common language and culture.

The authors have used these bits of information to piece together a scenario for the origins of the Libyan Tuaregs.  Environmental data reveal that, about 5,000 years ago, the Sahara was quickly shifting from its post-Ice Age period of relative stability and good living conditions to a less stable and more arid environment. This shift, the authors propose, was responsible for a series of human migrations throughout the Sahara that led different Tuareg groups living in the region to separate.  It caused other Tuareg groups to intermingle with neighboring groups.  Some Tuaregs, like those in Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, probably had more contact with sub-Saharan West Africans, which accounts for the higher percentage of sub-Saharan maternal haplogroups found by previous genetic studies.  Others, like the Libyan Tuaregs analyzed here, may have met and mingled with groups such as the Berbers of the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.  Apparently migrations from Spain after the Last Ice Age, across the Strait of Gibraltar into Morocco, brought H1 into the African continent. It then made its way into the North African Berber populations, eventually finding its way into the Libayan Tuaregs.

And what of the 35% of Libyan Tuaregs with sub-Saharan African genetic ancestry?  The authors of this study believe this to be a genetic signature of the trans-Saharan slave trade, which the Libyan Tuaregs famously operated during the 1st century BC, and which brought them to the attention of Herodotus so many years ago.

  • Andy

    It is amazing how you interpreted the study. You are right that there are 2 tuaregs-western and libyan, and that there has been some mixing with neighbouring populations.however the study never said that d c.35% L haplogroup(of west and east africa origin) all are from slave trade but that most are ancient some more ancient than H and V.also you said nothing about the fact that both tuaregs are related to some east african population(like beja) in terms of nuclear genetic it will seem that the tuareg came from an ancestral eastern population that later mixed with west and costal north africans giving rise to west and libyan tuaregs, with both sharing some L haplotype amongst them

    • Alex

      While I have vehemently disagreed with several commenters and what I perceive as a combination of ignorance and afro-centric racism with conspiratorial undertones, I do agree with YOUR comment.

      While it is certainly possible that the genetic information referenced was passed into their descendants via the sub-Saharan slave trade, it is also just as likely that it is an ancient trace of another sub-Saharan stock, or it could be due to a political marriage or the result of a trade caravan. To assume it was a result of slave trading without any other evidence aside from that they participated in the trade via VERY DUBIOUS info that came by way of Herodutus, by way of a contemporary, secondary source. that’s about 2,000 years and 2-3 sources removed from something I would want to cite with any confidence lol.

      • Multiculturalist

        The medieval slave trade of the Tuareg and other Berbers is well documented and has nothing to do with 2000 years ago. The Moors traded in the concubines both in Spain and in North Africa. Circassians and other white women were being traded in North Africa as late as the early 20th century, if not now. The sub-Saharan component is also in part due to both slavery and mixing with their client tribes. Most of the Tuareg paternal dna is of east African origin. There is also probably a large Turkish element in the Libyan Tuareg and Berbers who in some regions look strikingly like Central Asians. In African manuscripts of the Bornu region they are said to have “mixed with Turks and Tartars.” It doesn’t matter that the Tuareg have within the last 500 years mixed with a number of concubines or slaves and turned different colors, what should matter for genetics is the Truth about how they came to be what they are.

        Tuareg had nothing to do with the Garamantes an agricultural peoples. That is a myth that started when colonialists believed the Garamantes were a white chariot using master race. Tuarek are the ancient “Ethiopian Mazikes” and Levathes Mauri of Tripolitania as the Romans called them. They retain many of their ancient names known to Procopius and Claudian who mentions them as the Nasamones still called the “Inusamani” Tuareg taking Roman concubines from the Levant.: )

        Funny the author of this article mentions the sub-Saharan slave trade and doesn’t mention the one that most influenced the Libyan Tuareg.

        Tuareg are the ancestors of numerous African American people whether you like it or not so they have a right to know where they originate and who they are. If you consider that Afro-centric that’s your prerogative.

        Tuaregs even took part in raiding the slave pens filled with white Christians from Europe that graced many parts of North Africa until the 19th century.
        “Neighboring mountain peoples, the Berbers and Tuaregs, appear to have attacked outlying farms and were happy to enslave anyone they found there, Moors, renegades, or slaves. Things could turn much worse with these nomads, who often took them far into the interior feeding them as little as possible, leaving them no hope of eventual escape and contact with fellow Europeans”.
        From Christian Slaves and Muslim Masters 2003 by Robert Davis p. 87

  • Concerned

    Just to add that the low diversity and relatively high frepuencies of H and V haplogroups is interpreted by the author in another study ottonni et al 2010, as most probably due to drift, meaning that it is relatively recent and couple of hundreds yr ago had probably much lower frequency. Do you plz have an autosomal study of these people. Thanks

    • Alex

      I agree that an Autosomal study, as well as a traditional deep-clade paternal test would be very interesting in studying this group.

      While the author argued for the superiority of MtDna in this study over PtDna, the only real benefit outlined was that there had been previous MtDna studies of the other Tuareg group.

      With what we tend to believe about paternal DNA, is that it tends to stay located in the same area for longer periods of time, and when it does move, it typically moves in an archaeo-linguistic-genetic wave such as what we believe happened with R1a1 and the Indo-European speakers, which we saw move from the Yamna cultural region / layers, and migrate over 500-1000 years into northeast-central Europe, becoming the Corded-Ware culture. The archaeology (pottery, graves) and the Y-DNA match very closely between the two sites.

      With that, we also see the introduction of several MtDNA groups into Europe for the first time, or at least the first time en-masse, where they established new roots in Europe. This is likely because they were the females and mothers of family groups led by the men of the R1a1 clan.

      So, with the Tuaregs, we might expect to see 1, possibly two dominant Y-DNA groups… If there are two or more, I would expect them to be along the tribal lines described by the article. By establishing the dominant paternal haplogroups of these people, it may also help us chart which ones seem to have co-mutated and co-diffused over similar regions and periods of history; this would allow us to perhaps identify the “core” maternal genetic lines from the very earliest Tuaregs, and to see which lines may have been introduced later.

      Perhaps H1 really did start out as a small component of the MtDNA of the Tuaregs, but possibly due to some kind of aesthetic preference, hereditary diseases, hereditary susceptibility to things like plague/malaria, or an event like a war or disease that almost wiped them all out, and only the descendants of former slaves from a Roman province or earlier Iberian women from a Millenia earlier were the surviving female lineage.

  • Concerned

    Correction plz: the relatively high frequencies of H and V is in relation to the libyan tuareg group

  • linda s parker

    hey i was wondeing if we have creek indians in h1c blood

    • Nyna Strange

      Hi Linda, I also would like to know this. my family is from Kentucky. A lot of our records and data has been lost I am H1c3.

  • AncientTruths

    This study is very much misleading and simply false. How can you sample one population out of many and come to such conclusions? The Libyan so called Tuareg are a mixed caucasian people, possible due to the Vandal and Goth invasions—which is where the H1 stem. The true Tuareg are the ones in Niger and Mali who show East and West African affinities. You people have no shame with your historical revisionisms.

    • hernandayoleary

      Do they not realize that the taureg have more H1 than any european group. By their logic, if h1 is european the taureg ought to look like them. After all the greeks are 35% E or African dna, how do they explain the clear discrepency? It is obvious that h1 is a black african dna haplogroup that spread to europe which is why it occurs lower in europe than africa.

      • Alex

        Where is your proof or citation that H1 is more prevalent in Africa than in Europe? It is a widely established fact that approximately 40% of modern Europeans posess a haplogroup H subtype in their MtDna. To further distance it from what I suspect is bogus, Afrocentric revisionism on your part, it is now believed that haplogroup H first split off from HV 22,500 ybp in SE Asia!

        I’m sorry, but your assertions are total rubbish.

      • Alex

        Oh and by the way…. There is no such thing as a “black African DNA group”.

        ALL hapllgroups ultimately trace their lineage back to Africa. Haplogroups are not at all indicative of blackness or whiteness. If you don’t understand that, then you really should not have commented at all!

        Point in case: MtDna group X. It is found in Europeans and Native Americans. All though modern day descendants may have the same maternal haplotype, because of different paternal haplotypes, and not to mention generations of autosomal mutations and recombination via admixture from maternal grandfather’s and paternal grandmother’s, as well as genetic drift and environmental factors leading to diffuse evolutionary conditions, those two descendants will likely look VERY different.

        I just can’t abide by the ignorance and thinly veiled racism in your post.

    • Alex

      Another ignorant commenter with faux outrage.

      1. they already had substantial MtDna results for other Tuareg groups. The entire purpose of their study was to determine what differences could be found by looking at another group of Tuaregs.

      2. The vandals never extended further south than a couple hundred miles from the coastline of North Africa, and never extended as Far East as modern Libya. After they captured Carthage, their conquests were focused on Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily and Rome itself. So, unless you are suggesting that somehow the Arian Christian Vandals sold their own women into slavery, or that the Proto-Tuaregs somehow raided the vandals and acquired enough H1 positive Vandal/Alan women (the vandals WERE the gothic/Germanic group, the Alan’s were an Iranian/Germanic mixture.)to establish genetic dominance over the native Tuareg female pool, is a doubly outlandish assertion.

      3. Tuareg has NEVER been a purely racial distinction. It is far more a cultural and social affiliation of tribes than an identity that is/was based on race. Look up pictures of Tuaregs; they run the gamut from very dark, medium dark, middle eastern dark, all the way to euro-white with wavy hair and blue eyes.

      Seriously. Some of the people commenting on here need to read a BASIC book on genetics like “7 Daughters of Eve”. They also need to get off their BS Afrocentric, conspiratorial attitude, like somehow the white man is going to further marginalized populations through genetics!

      If anything, genetics has been THE ultimate weapon against racism, aryanism, nazism, regional evolution theory, euro-centric development etc etc etc. Genetics and DNA have already proved that humans came from AFRICA. Now are you Afro-centroid going to try and apply a double standard when DNA tests reveal the Tuaregs are a mixed group, or that MOST of the Pharoahs were not sub-Saharan Africans? Sorry, DNA doesn’t lie, and I would say staking a claim to the very origins of mankind as well as the greatest number of unique genetic lineages is more than enough to prove that racism is not an issue with the results of archaeo-genetics. Maybe the funding and research ideas, but the results aren’t biased.

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