The Berbers (also called Imazighen, "free men", singular Amazigh) are an ethnic group indigenous to Northwest Africa, speaking the Berber languages of the Afroasiatic family. 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 Kabyle,Tachelhit and Central Atlas Tamazight, with a total of roughly 14-25 million speakers.



There is no complete certitude about the origin of the Berbers; however, various disciplines shed light on the matter.

Genetic Evidence

While population genetics is a young field still full of controversy, in general the genetic evidence appears to indicate that most Northwest Africans (whether they consider themselves Berber or Arab) are of Berber origin, and that populations ancestral to the Berbers have been in the area since the Upper Paleolithic era. The genetically predominant ancestors of the Berbers appear to have come from the east - from East Africa, the Middle East, or both - but the details of this remain unclear. However, significant proportions of the Berber gene pool derive from more recent immigration of Arabs, Europeans, and sub-Saharan Africans.

The Y chromosome is passed exclusively through the paternal line. According to Bosch et al. 2001 (, "the historical origins of the NW African Y-chromosome pool may be summarized as follows: 75% NW African Upper Paleolithic (H35, H36, and H38), 13% Neolithic (H58 and H71), 4% historic European gene flow (group IX, H50, H52), and 8% recent sub-Saharan African (H22 and H28)", mostly from an "Upper Paleolithic colonization that probably had its origin in eastern Africa". The interpretation of the second most frequent "Neolithic" haplotype is debated: Arredi et al. 2004 (, like Semino et al. 2000 and Bosch et al. 2001, argue that the H71 haplogroup and North African Y-chromosomal diversity indicate a Neolithic-era "demic diffusion of Afro-Asiatic-speaking pastoralists from the Middle East", while Nebel et al. 2002 ( argue that H71 rather reflects "recent gene flow caused by the migration of Arabian tribes in the first millennium of the Common Era." Bosch et al. also find little genetic distinction between Arabic and Berber-speaking populations in North Africa, which they take to support "the interpretation of the Arabization and Islamization of NW Africa, starting during the 7th century A.D., as cultural phenomena without extensive genetic replacement." Cruciani et al. 2004 ( note that the E-M81 haplogroup on the Y-chromosome correlates closely with Berber populations.

The 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 Maghrib returning to the east in Paleolithic times. Derivative clade U6a1 signals a posterior movement from East Africa back to the Maghrib 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 10500 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% is southern Moroccan Berbers, 18% in Kabyles and 28% in Mozabites. Rando et al. 1998 (as cited by [[1] (]) "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% (Touaregs) to 4% (Rifains). This north-south gradient in the sub-Saharan contribution to the gene pool is supported by Esteban et al. (


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 Afroasiatic 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[2] (


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#Classification history.)

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

Phenotype and genotype by region

The appearance and the genetic make-up of Berbers is best examined together with that of their fellow Arabic-speaking inhabitants of North Africa; both share a predominant Berber ancestry.

Coastal Northwest Africans

Missing image
Berber Kabyles in an MCB meeting

About 75% of Northwest Africans live on the coast. Berber groups such as the Rifains and Kabyles have the least sub-Saharan admixture (~2%) and the highest European admixture (~15%); Arabic-speaking groups have about 7% sub-Saharan admixture overall. Berber groups in this zone include:

  • Kabyles
  • Chawis
  • Rifains
  • Amazighs
  • Chenwas

Northwest Africans of the interior

Missing image
Berber Mozabites in a Zaouia

About 20% of Northwest Africans live between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara; these groups have a moderate sub-Saharan admixture (~20%), including:

  • Mozabites.
  • Shleuhs.

Saharan Northwest Africans

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Berber Touaregs in Mali

About 5% of Northwest Africans live in the Sahara; these groups have the highest sub-Saharan admixture, sometimes reaching 80-90% among the Tuaregs. They include:

  • Touaregs
  • Saharan Berbers, Oasis Berbers.

Religions and Beliefs

Berbers are predominantly Sunni Muslim, most belonging to the Maliki madhhab, while the Mozabites, Djerbans, and Nafusis of the northern Sahara are Ibadi Muslim. Sufi tariqas are common in the western areas, but rarer in the east; marabout cults were traditionally important in most areas.

Before their conversion to Islam, some Berber groups had converted to Christianity (notably the Donatist heresy) or Judaism, while others had continued to practice traditional polytheism. Under the influence of Islamic culture, some syncretic religions briefly emerged, as among the Berghouata, only to be replaced by Islam.


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A depiction of an Ancient Lybian (Berber) from the Book of Gates copied by Carl Richard Lepsius from the tomb of Ramesses III

The Berbers have lived in North Africa for as far back as records of the area go. References to them 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 Lebu (Libyans) tribes on their western borders. Many Egyptologists think that 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, although others posit different origins for these dynasties, including Nubian ones. The Byzantine chroniclers often complain of the Mazikes (Amazigh) raiding outlying monasteries, and berbers long remained the main population of the Western Desert well into the Nineteenth century.

For many centuries the Berbers inhabited the coast of North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. In historical times, they have expanded south into the Sahara (displacing earlier black African populations such as the Azer and Bafour), and have in turn been mainly culturally assimilated in much of North Africa by Arabs, particularly following the incursion of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century.

Berbers and the Islamic invasion

Unlike the invasions of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have pervasive and long-lasting effects on the Maghrib. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political idioms.

Nonetheless, the Islamization and Arabization of the region were complicated and lengthy processes. Whereas nomadic Berbers were quick to convert and assist the Arab invaders, not until the twelfth century under the Almohad Dynasty did the Christian and Jewish communities become totally marginalized.

The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. These early forays from a base in Egypt occurred under local initiative rather than under orders from the central caliphate. When the seat of the caliphate moved from Medina to Damascus, however, the Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty ruling from 661 to 750) recognized that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front. In 670, therefore, an Arab army under Uqba ibn Nafi established the town of Al Qayrawan about 160 kilometers south of present-day Tunis and used it as a base for further operations.

Abu al Muhajir Dinar, Uqba's successor, pushed westward into Algeria and eventually worked out a modus vivendi with Kusayla, the ruler of an extensive confederation of Christian Berbers. Kusayla, who had been based in Tilimsan (Tlemcen), became a Muslim and moved his headquarters to Takirwan, near Al Qayrawan.

This harmony was short-lived, however. Arab and Berber forces controlled the region in turn until 697. By 711 Umayyad forces helped by Berber converts to Islam had conquered all of North Africa. Governors appointed by the Umayyad caliphs ruled from Al Qayrawan, capital the new wilaya (province) of Ifriqiya, which covered Tripolitania (the western part of present-day Libya), Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.

Paradoxically, the spread of Islam among the Berbers did not guarantee their support for the Arab-dominated caliphate. The ruling Arabs alienated the Berbers by taxing them heavily; treating converts as second-class Muslims; and, at worst, by enslaving them. As a result, widespread opposition took the form of open revolt in 739-40 under the banner of Kharijite Islam. The Kharijites objected to Ali, the fourth caliph, making peace with the Umayyads in 657 and left Ali's camp (khariji means "those who leave"). The Kharijites had been fighting Umayyad rule in the East, and many Berbers were attracted by the sect's egalitarian precepts. For example, according to Kharijism, any suitable Muslim candidate could be elected caliph without regard to race, station, or descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

After the revolt, Kharijites established a number of theocratic tribal kingdoms, most of which had short and troubled histories. Others, however, like Sijilmasa and Tilimsan, which straddled the principal trade routes, proved more viable and prospered. In 750 the Abbasids, who succeeded the Umayyads as Muslim rulers, moved the caliphate to Baghdad and reestablished caliphal authority in Ifriqiya, appointing Ibrahim ibn al Aghlab as governor in Al Qayrawan. Although nominally serving at the caliph's pleasure, Al Aghlab and his successors, the Aghlabids, ruled independently until 909, presiding over a court that became a center for learning and culture.

Just to the west of Aghlabid lands, Abd ar Rahman ibn Rustam ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahert, southwest of Algiers. The rulers of the Rustamid imamate, which lasted from 761 to 909, each an Ibadi Kharijite imam, were elected by leading citizens. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and justice. The court at Tahert was noted for its support of scholarship in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology, as well as theology and law. The Rustamid imams, however, failed, by choice or by neglect, to organize a reliable standing army. This important factor, accompanied by the dynasty's eventual collapse into decadence, opened the way for Tahert's demise under the assault of the Fatimids.

Berbers in Al-Andalus

The Muslims who entered Spain in 711 were mainly Berbers, and were led by a Berber, Tariq ibn Ziyad, though under the suzerainty of the Arab Caliph of Damascus Abd al-Malik and his North African Viceroy, Musa ibn Nusayr. A second mixed army of Arabs and Berbers came in 712 under Ibn Nusayr himself, and are claimed to have formed approximately 66% of the Islamic population in Spain, and supposedly that is the reason why they helped the Umayyad caliph Abd ar-Rahman I in Spain, because his mother was a Berber woman. During the Taifa era, the petty kings came from a variety of ethnic groups; some - for instance the Zirid kings of Granada - were of Berber origin. The Taifa period ended when a Berber dynasty - the Almoravids from modern-day Mauritania - took over Spain; they were succeeded by the Almohad dynasty from Morocco, during which time al-Andalus flourished.

In the power hierarchy, Berbers were situated between the Arabic aristocracy and the Muladi populace. Ethnic rivalries were one of the factors of Andalusi politics.

Initially they settled the Cantabric Mounts, the Central System and the Andalusian mountains.

After the fall of the Caliphate, the taifa kingdoms of Toledo, Badajoz, Mlaga and Granada had Berber rulers.

Modern-day Berbers

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Disribution of Berbers in Northwest Africa

The Berbers live mainly in Morocco (between 35%- 80% of the population) and in Algeria (about 15%-33% of the population), as well as Libya and Tunisia, though exact statistics are unavailable[3] (; see Berber languages#Population. Most North Africans who consider themselves Arab also have significant Berber ancestry[4] ( One particularly prominent Berber group are the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who number approximately 4 million and have kept, to a large degree, their original language and culture. Other noteworthy groups include the Shluh (plural of Arabic "Shalh" and Berber "Ashalhi") of south Morocco, the Riffain of north Morocco, the Chaouia of Algeria, and the Tuareg of the Sahara. There are approximately 3 million Berber immigrants in Europe, especially the Riffain and the Kabyles in the Netherlands and France. Some proportion of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands are descended from the aboriginal Guanches - usually considered to have been Berber - among whom a few Canary Islander customs, such as the eating of gofio, originated.

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.

The Arabization of Northwest Africa

Before the 9th century, most of Northwest Africa was a Berber-speaking area. The process of Arabization only became a major factor with the arrival of the Banu Hilal, a tribe sent by the Fatimids of Egypt to punish the Berber Zirid dynasty for having abandoned Shiism. The Banu Hilal reduced the Zirids to a few coastal towns, and took over much of the plains; their influx was a major factor in the Arabization of the region, and in the spread of nomadism in areas where agriculture had previously been dominant.

Soon after independence, the countries of North Africa established Arabic as their official language, replacing French (except in Libya), although the shift from French to Arabic for official purposes continues even to this day. As a result, most Berbers had to study and know Arabic, and had no opportunities to use their mother tongue at school or university. This may have accelerated the existing process of Arabization of Berbers, especially in already bilingual areas, such as among the Chaouis.

Berberism had its roots before the independance of these countries but was limited to some Berber elite. It only began to gain success when North African states replaced the colonial language with Arabic and identified exclusively as Arab nations, downplaying or ignoring the existence and the cultural specificity of Berbers. However, its distribution remains highly uneven. In response to its demands, Morocco and Algeria have both modified their policies, with Algeria redefining itself constitutionally as an "Arab, Berber, Muslim nation".

Currently, Berber is a "national" language in Algeria and is taught in some Berber speaking areas as a non-compulsory language. In Morocco, Berber has no official status, but is now taught as a compulsory language regardless of the area or the ethnicity.


Missing image
Liamine Zeroual, Former President of Algeria
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Khalida Toumi

Berbers are not discriminated based on their Ethnic or mother tongue. As long as they share the reigning ideology they can reach high positions in the social hierarchy; good examples are the former president of Algeria, Liamine Zeroual, and the current prime minister of Morocco, Driss Jettou. In Algeria, furthermore, Chaoui Berbers are over-represented in the Army for historical reasons.

Berberists who openely show their political orientations rarely reach high hierarchical postions. However, Khalida Toumi, a feminist and Berberist militant, has been nominated as head of the Ministry of Communication in Algeria.

Famous Berbers

In Ancient Times

In Medieval Times

In Modern Times


Figures of the Algerian resistance and revolution
  • Mouloud Feraoun, writer assassinated by the OAS.
  • Tahar Djaout, writer and journalist assassinated by the GIA in 1993.
  • Salem Chaker, Berberist, linguist, cultural and political activist, writer, and director of Berber at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris


Famous People who were either Berber or Punic

Famous People who may have had some Berber ancestors

Nearly all North Africans - and many Andalusi Moors - fall and fell into this category, but do not in general identify themselves as Berber. For lists of them, look under the respective countries.

See also


  • Brett, Michael; & Fentress, Elizabeth (1997). The Berbers (The Peoples of Africa). ISBN 0631168524. ISBN 0631207678 (Pbk).
  • The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 by Christopher Ehret
  • Egypt In Africa by Celenko
  • Stone Age Races of Northwest Africa by L. Cabot-Briggs
  • The people of Africa (People of the world series) by Jean Hiernaux
  • Britannica 2004
  • Encarta 2005

External links

Template:Berberar:الأمازيغ de:Berber es:Bereber fr:Berbres nl:Imazighen ja:ベルベル人 sl:Berberi sv:Berber


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