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Sara Tishkoff and company are leveraging their massive African data set again, with a paper out which surveys the diverse landscape of lactase persistence genetics across continent, Genetic Origins of Lactase Persistence and the Spread of Pastoralism in Africa. Many of the results were well known or could have been anticipated, selection for the trait in Africa, or even the fact that lactase persistence in the Khoikhoi derive from East Africa. So let me quote at length one section which I think is rather notable: In fact, the T-13910 variant in the Mozabite from Algeria occurred on the same haplotype background as observed in Middle Eastern populations, whereas the Fulani from Cameroon and the Bulala from Chad shared the same haplotype background with Europeans. The Fulani also shared a distinct T-13910 haplotype background with the Arabic Baggara. These patterns suggest that the distribution of observed haplotype variation might be due to gene flow that occurred over time from outside and within Africa possibly during key historical events, such as the settlement of the Roman Empire in parts of northern Africa and the expansion of the Arabs prior to and during the Ottoman empire within the last 2,000 years.67 These inferred migration events are also consistent with studies based on mtDNA, Y chromosome, and autosomal genetic variation.

The T-13910 variant is the one that is very widespread in Western Eurasia, from Northern Europe, all the way to Northwest India. Earlier analysis had suggested hat the Fulani people of the western Sahel carried the the European and South-Central Asia mutation for lactase persistence, as opposed to the ones more common in Eastern Africa or the Middle East. This was curious, but not totally incomprehensible in light of the fact that it seems that populations such as the Tuareg mediated gene flow across the Sahara, and the Berber polities extended to the northern Sahel. What is surprising is that upon closer inspection the flanking regions around T-13910 in the Fulani, but not the Mozabite Berbers, exhibit a signature which indicates a European origin. The Mozabite Berbers are a rather isolated group, probably representative of genetic variation in large part before the settlement of non-Berber populations along the coastal zone in antiquity. So it would not surprise me if T-13910 haplotypes in much of Morocco and Algeria are of the European, and not the Mozabite, flavor. But that still prompts the question, why are there two variants in the Maghreb when they are functionally the same?

A plausible model is that the European haplotype came along with the Vandals, a Germanic barbarian tribe with origins in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany which conquered North Africa in the early 5th century A.D. Of course the allele could have arrived in the centuries of earlier Roman rule, but the T-13910 mutation is generally found in low frequencies in Mediterranean populations like Italians. In contrast it is well over 50% among Northern Europeans. It is fashionable in studies of Late Antiquity to assume that the Vandals, and their Alan confederates, were ad hoc social constructs which somehow congealed out of the political compost heap of the late Roman Empire. An alternative view, championed by Peter Heather (see Empires and Barbarians), is that groups such as the Vandals were a genuine volk engaged in wholesale migration. The idea that the Vandals were social constructs of some sort, and of trivial numbers, suggests that they made only a marginal impact and disappeared in totality after the conquest by the Byzantines in the 6th century of the Maghreb. But the presence of these distinctive genetic markers indicates that the Vandal numbers may have been substantial enough to allow for the transfer of the T-13910 allele to the Berber tribes which assimilated the the rural estates they still held.

Much of this is speculation of course. We’ll know the truth of the matter when someone does extensive resequencing of the whole region of LCT in a variety of populations. At that point presumably one might be able to discern if the Fulani allele is closely related to German ones in particular. The point is that these sorts of bizarre scenarios which are more in keeping with late 19th and early 20th century adventure fiction might actually be closer to much of history than we would have thought.

Note: I should add that Greg Cochran speculated in this direction a few years ago.

• Category: Science • Tags: Fulani 
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  1. Neither of those two differing views of barbarian groups such as the Vandals precludes the spread of that particular gene variant in North Africa. Whether one chooses to see barbarian identity as a social construct or favors the innate, biological view of ethnicity favored by scholars like Heather, most historians of Late Antiquity are perfectly comfortable with the idea of mass migration. Whatever the Vandals thought of themselves, the people who moved were largely from northern Europe, whether their parents and grandparents were Sciri, Rugi, Suebians, Gepids, Goths, Lombards, Alans, or Romans from western Gaul. Their genetic makeup would likely reflect that, including the rates of persistence of that gene variant.

  2. Don’t know about Blondes, but there’s definetly a chunk of R1b (specifically R1b-V88) in Chadic populations. I believe it also shows up in the Fulani.

    R1b-V88 = R1b1c

    parallel branch to R1b-M269 found in Europe and middle East.

    R1b-M269 = R1b1a2

    There’s some general discussion that V88 expanded out of middle East into Africa probably some time in the Neolithic.

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Book 14 of Procopius’ Vandal Wars suggests that all the Vandals that the Byzantines could find were rounded up and resettled in the east. Even if they didn’t get all of them, there was a concerted effort to remove them from the north African gene pool.

    Given this fact and the relatively short tenure of the Vandals, wouldn’t it make more sense that the genes arrived from the Carthaginians, Romans, and/or Byzantines? Each controlled the area for a longer period. Perhaps Carthaginians would have the Middle Eastern variant of T-13910, but I doubt the others. Romans had plenty of Gauls and Germans in the army; Byzantines had all kinds of Slavs and Goths in their ranks.

  4. more likely byzantine. the north african provinces were relatively under-defended before the vandals showed up because they were quiet. so unlikely that many germans were stationed there in 3rd or 4th century (not too many germans in service in 2nd century and before). but we probably wouldn’t be able to tell influx from non-vandal germans from vandal germans. it’s all too close in time and there probably isn’t enough between pop diff in t-13910 in these groups

  5. I love this phrase “the political compost heap of the late Roman Empire”! This is almost too good to be true, because it accords with some of the origin myths among the Fulani. I did fieldwork in the Sahel in the 1980s while I was the International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics. I heard several similar myths indicating that the Peul (local name for Fulani in Burkina Faso) originated from the marriage of a “white” Berber from the north and a dark woman of the south. The local Mossi of Burkina Faso often spoke of the Peul as “white” people. It is also interesting that earlier genetic MtDNA work had indicated some 8% Western Eurasian haplogroups (see

    I wonder if studies of the cattle kept by Fulani pastoralists might shed any light? As far as I am aware, they are not of the Tsetse-resistent lines found further to the south, but closely resemble the north African strains of Bos indicus (see also In a sense, this has been the limiting factor in the spread of the Fulani, so that they moved from west to east along the semi-arid margin of the Sahel. This would tend to support a north African origin for the pastoral economy, the associated cattle, and the people who spread it down the western coastal region of Africa. Most historical and archaeological evidence supports the idea that the Fulani culture and language emerged first in Senegal and then expanded eastward after that.

  6. People will travel a long way for gold.

  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Geographically, the Mozabites are a lot closer to Tunisia than the Fulani (or the Zenaga Berbers from whom the Fulani would presumably have gotten this), and they are hardly as isolated as you seem to suggest. The Mozabites got where they are only following repeated emigrations; a faithful remnant of the Ibadi Rustamid state, which stretched along the inland semidesert from western Algeria to western Libya, took refuge in Sedrata before moving further south to the Mzab. They’ve maintained links with other Ibadi remnant groups in southern Tunisia and western Libya right up to the present. Granted, most of the relevant areas would have been outside the limes; but the Zenaga were a great deal further outside it. It’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario for the spread of Vandal genes that affects the Zenaga’s ancestors while leaving the Mozabites’ unaffected.

    Of course, the Mozabites have been strikingly endogamous for a millennium or more, with a small and religiously isolated population. Maybe the loss of the “European” variant is just part of the reduced genetic diversity caused by that. But in that case, it’s rather hazardous to assume that their T-13910 variant is the earlier one in the region. I suppose we won’t know until more data is available…

  8. I am a Berber from the eastern parts of the Atlas range. My results for the T-13910 variant is TT (lactase persitent). It’s in line with my family and tribes’ staple food which is milk and bread plus with my known tolerance. No sign of European ancestry based on my uniparental markers and autosomal testings with ADMIXTURE.

    As LX (above me) pointed out, Mozabites are not some pristine and untouched population who has remained isolated from the changes occuring in the rest of the region. They are indeed representative of the ancestry make up of native berbers (they are no different from Kabyles or Tunisian berbers) but their “recent” and high endogamy probably made this tight community/sect lose some diversity and eventually the “European” lactase persistence variant.
    A sample from a more cosmopolitan and less endogamous (yes, it exists) part of the region would have been more useful.

    As for Fulanis, they seem to be North African-admixed (as in Berber, not Egyptian) based on the minor presence of what I call “Euro-Berber” mtdna (” West Eurasian”). In addition, some samples of Fulani from Bučková et al. might have a significant to high frequency of y-dna E-V257 (ancestor of E-M81) if the information in the interwebs is not wrong, which is an even clearer sign of their suprasaharan ancestry besides the more accurate auDNA which shows Fulanis to be up to 1/3 North African if modern Berbers are a reference for the latter.
    R1b-V88 on the other hand may be a sign of Chadic-related ancestry.

  9. No background in this whatsoever, so forgive me if I’m out to lunch here…

    My understanding is that the Berbers are relatively recent interlopers into the Western Sahara, with linguistic evidence pointing to an expansion around 3000 BP and coinciding with the spread of domesticated camels from their Semitic neighbours to the east. It would make sense that there would that lactase persistence genes associated with the domestication of the Arabian camel would enter the population simultaneously, and from there spread West. This result is only really surprising if you assume that lactase persistence entered the Chad basin via Berbers, and not at some earlier date, perhaps via some obscure route in the later years of the Green Sahara.

    Am I off base here or…?

    Also it’s worth noting IMHO that the Fulani cluster with Chadic speakers on autosomal DNA according to Tishkoff et al 2012.

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