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LEMBA, Judaizing African tribe living in small groups throughout northeast South Africa and in central and eastern Zimbabwe. Notwithstanding that this tribe is in many respects indistinguishable from neighboring tribes, for much of the 20th century a number of Lemba, and particularly those of South Africa, have claimed to be of Jewish or Semitic ancestry, and a number of outside European observers have made similar claims for them for an even longer period. Recent genetic work has suggested that there may be some truth in their traditions.

According to oral traditions of origin, the Lemba claim to come from a place in the north called Sena (sometimes Sena One). The Lemba habitually refer to themselves as "the white men who came from Sena." Apparently at the end of the 16th century the Lemba, now settled inland, far away from Islamic or other coastal influences, developed their identity and religious system independently. Throughout this period they did not intermarry. They had strict laws of purity and food taboos. The eating of pork was punished by death. They would only eat meat that had been ritually slaughtered by a Lemba. Today the religious life of the Lemba is highly syncretistic. Many of them belong to various Christian churches (e.g., the Zion Christian Church and Pentecostal groups), whereas some in Zimbabwe are Muslims. Some Lemba, however, claim to be Lemba by religious practice as well as by ethnic identification. The religious practices of these Lemba do not have much in common with Judaism as it is practiced elsewhere. The great majority of those Lemba who perceive themselves as ethnically "Jewish" find no contradiction in regularly attending a Christian church.

Recent work has brought the Lemba to international attention. The chief reason for this are genetic studies that have suggested that the Lemba may have something like "Jewish" ancestry. The original research which seemed to be reaching towards this conclusion was carried out by Professor Trefor Jenkins of the South African Institute for Medical Research and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Jenkins had the idea of trying to determine the origin of the Lemba by collecting genetic material from the tribe. The reason for this is that one tribal tradition had it that the original Lemba immigrants from the north, from Sena, were males who subsequently took local African wives. Jenkins argued that if the Y-chromosome of the Lemba, which only passes down the male line, could be shown to originate in some specific part of the world, it might be possible to determine where the Lemba were from.

On the basis of samples of DNA from 49 Lemba men, Jenkins wrote a scientific article that was published in The American Journal of Human Genetics (59, 1996). He was able to show that "50% of the Lemba Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin – 40% are Negroid, and the ancestry of the rest cannot be resolved. These Y-specific genetic findings are consistent with Lemba oral tradition." Jenkins' pioneering efforts reached a popular audience with the transmission of the BBC Television series Origins and the book based on the series, Inthe Blood: God, Genes and Destiny (1996) by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College, London. Relying on Jenkins' data Jones noted: "In the pedigree of the Lemba there is a surprise. Most of their genes – blood groups, enzymes and the like – unite them with the African peoples around them. However, those on the Lemba Y chromosome … have a different origin. On a family tree of the world's male lineages the Lemba are linked, not with Africans, but with the Middle East. The Lemba legend of their origin contains a hidden truth." Jenkins' work immediately began to have an impact on the Lembas' sense of their own identity. There was some possibility that the Lemba had come from South Arabia. A subsequent analysis of Lemba and Arabian DNA (see T. Parfitt et al., "Y Chromosomes …" in Bibliography below) showed a significant similarity of markers between many of the Hadramaut Y chromosomes and those of the Lemba. It was also discovered that one of the South African sub-clans of the Lemba carries a haplotype which has been connected with the Jewish priesthood – the Cohen Modal Haplotype. This haplotype was of a very high frequency – over 50% of the sub-clan had it. These results could therefore with great caution be interpreted as indicating that at some time in the past Jews inhabited the areas from which the Lemba came – probably South Arabia. This is the most likely locus for the transmission of the haplotype.


T. Parfitt, M.G. Thomas, D.A. Weiss, K. Skorecki, J.F. Wilson, M. le Roux, N. Bradman, and D. Goldstein, "Y Chromosomes Travelling South: The Cohen Modal Hapolotype and the Origins of the Lemba – the 'Black Jews of Southern Africa,'" in: American Journal of Human Genetics, 66 (2000), 674–86; T. Parfitt, M.G. Thomas, N. Bradman, D. Goldstein et al., "Origins of Old Testament Priests …," in: Nature, 394 (July 1998), 138–40; T. Parfitt, The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth (2002); T. Parfitt and E. Trevisan-Semi, Judaising Movements: Studies in the Margins of Judaism (2002); T. Parfitt, Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel (2000).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.