African Pygmies are widely known around the world for their small stature and are not one tribe, but various smaller tribes that live in Central Africa. Pictured above, they enact their traditional hunting ceremony. Image: Susan Schulman
It is a commonly held belief that human life evolved out of Africa millions of years ago. Many indigenous African tribes are direct descendants some of the earliest modern human (Homo sapiens) groups and have unique DNA markers. These tribes also have unique genetic features as well as languages that are not closely related to any others that exist today. Additionally, these tribes have been able to maintain their cultural traditions for thousands of years despite European colonization in nearby regions. Remarkably, all of the tribes on this list are still around and practicing their ancient traditions.
Age: over 3,000 years old
Location: southern Kenya and northern Tanzania
Current Total Population: about 900,000
The Maasai are one of the most internationally famous African tribes because they live near many of the country’s most popular national parks and reserves. The tribe is also known for its vibrant outfits and distinct customs. Observing and visiting the Maasai people is one of the most popular tourists attractions in Kenya.
According to Maasai oral tradition, the tribe originated north of Lake Turkana (north-west Kenya) in the lower Nile Valley. The Maasai began migrating south in the 15th century, but are believed to have existed as a distinct tribe for over 3,000 years. The tribe is also known for its warriors, who were feared during the Maasai’s height in the 19th century for throwing orinka (clubs) over 100 meters (328 feet).
Age: over 10,000 years old
Location: North Africa, primarily in Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, northern Niger, Tunisia, Libya, and part of western Egypt
Current Total Population: 20 – 30 million
Languages(s): Various Berber languages and Maghrebi Arabic dialect
The Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh, are the indigenous people of Northern Africa. There is evidence that the Berbers have existed in the Maghreb region of Africa (modern-day Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania) since the beginning of recorded history in the area. It is believed that modern Berbers are the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa.
One of the earliest groups of Berbers were the Caspians, who lived in the region over 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. The Berbers, who were named by the Romans after the Latin word for barbarians (barbarus), are regularly referenced throughout Greek and Roman history. In many historical Greek texts, the Berbers were called Libyans and were the sole representation of Africa in Europe at the time. Today, the Berbers are a widely diverse group that reflect the various people and cultures that conquered their lands.
Age: over 87,000 years old
Location: Central Tanzania
Current Total Population: 60,000 in 2013
The Sandawe live in central Tanzania near another old African tribe, the Hadza. Like the Hadza, the Sandawe speak one of the few remaining click languages in Africa – the Sandawe click language is unrelated to the Hadza click language.
According to a study from 2015, Pygmies have a different pattern of growth than other humans, which accounts for their smaller size. Pygmies are born average sized, but grow slowly in early childhood. The study also showed that Pygmies’ short stature is genetic and not a result of their environment or malnutrition.
Age: over 100,000 years old
Current Total Population: 1,200 – 1,300
Along with the San (Bushmen), the Hadza tribe of Hadzabe are believed to be some of the most ancient people in the world. The Hadza are also the last true hunter-gatherers and their lifestyle and traditions have been the same for over 10,000 years. The tribe doesn’t grow any crops or keep livestock, and they do not have any permanent shelters.
The Nama are the last true descendants of the Khoikhoi, who are closely related to the San. Collectively, the Khoikhoi and San are called the Khoisan and are often called the world’s first or oldest people. Like the San, the Nama share DNA with some of the oldest groups of humans.
Today, very few pure Nama people exist because of intermarriage with other tribes and a smallpox outbreaks in the 18th century. The Nama are cattle farmers, a tradition which emerged when some San people acquired cattle stock over 2,300 years ago. This group started calling themselves the Khoikhoi to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Khoisan. The Nama are their remaining descendants.
1. San (Bushmen)
Age: 100,000 – 140,000 years old
Location: Southern Africa in countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa
Current Total Population: about 90,000
Languages(s): All languages of the Khoe, Kx’a, and Tuu language families