BERBERS-The Indigenous People of North Africa

Beber Indigeneous people- Touareg

The north-western part of Africa, precisely the Maghreb region has witnessed several conquests made by ancient civilizations. This particular region stretches from Siwa Oasis to the Canary Island, and from the Mediterranean to the Niger and Senegal Rivers. The Maghreb is made up of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. And today these regions are made up of about 32 million Berber or Amazigh people. 

Amazigh unlike the word Berber has a rather positive connotation, it means free or noble people while Berber is derived from the word Barbary which was the Maghreb coast in the 19th century. But the word can also be traced to the Greek word barbaroi which means barbarian. 

The Amazigh/ Berber People from different regions

There are many different groups of Berbers that are either scattered across the ochre deserts dotted with oases or live on Mountain tops. For instance, in Morocco, you’ll find some of the Berbers living in the Draa Valley or the Atlas Mountains. While in Algeria at the Aures Range live the Chaoui (Shawia) people and if you travel around the Mediterranean coast there are the Kabyles. But in the Sahara desert, you’ll end up meeting the Touareg touted as the ‘blue people who dressed in traditional blue clothes. 

Berber Kabyle Woman
image: Yves Jalabert

In Tunisia precisely in the picturesque Takrouna village live descendants of the Moors which came from Andalusia in the 8th century.  But there are also the Zenata Berber who live in fascinating troglodyte caves in Matmata. 

And If you travel to the Canary Islands then you’ll be surprised to meet descendants of the Berbers known as Guanches who are the original habitants of the Islands. 

Berber-Guanches in Canary
image: Noor Alnakib

Tracing the roots of the Berber ethnic group…..

Anthropologically speaking Berber is an interesting group of people of study since their origins have always been a debatable topic. There have been many historical accounts made by Greek historians about some native people living in the northern part of Africa. One of the Greek historians is Herodotus who claimed that Libya was inhabited by two native people notably the Lebou (those from the northern part of Africa) and the Aethiopians (those from the southern part).  

The Lebou were identified as light-skinned North Africans and there were evidently many speculations about their roots. In one particular journal-The Berber by Babington Michell, who put forward possible theories such as: 

(I) There have been probably Iberian pre-historic immigration (with a possible connection to the Basque and the Ligurians associated with the legend of the Atlantis

(II) Also, the presence of megalithic remains in the Maghreb region more precisely in Algeria  suggest pre-historic immigration of Celts from the North (probably associated with Etruscans and Sicilians)

(III) Another possible explanation of the light-skinned Lebou people might be possible immigration from Asia Minor and Eastern Mediterranean region (Pelasgian and Mycenaean period).


According to Dr. Bertholon (Institut de Carthage), there are four classifications of the Berber people: 

(i) The Fair Libyan-the intermixed Iberian having traits such as fair complexion with blue eyes (sometimes) were associated with the ‘Tamahous’ or light-complexioned Libyans who seem to be of Celtic origin. These traits can be observed among the Kabyles and those from the high plateau of Tunis and the Rif.  Among the fair-skinned Berber, there’s also the tall Chaoui who might have some connection with the Aegeans and Mycenmeans or Amorites of Canaan. 

(ii) The Getulian and Iberian dark-skinned- these groups of people have a dark complexion, along with narrow and strongly developed skulls, along with receding forehead and chin. They can live in the oases of the desert Ghadames, Wadi Rum and Chott el Djerid in Tunisia. 

(iii) The Iberians have a dark complexion and consist of traits such as a narrow forehead with a broad face, square chin, and heavy jaw. They are believed to be descendants of the Numidians and might be associated with the Kroumirs.

(iv) The Celto-Ligurian have a round and broad face (in comparison to the other group)  with light skin color compared to the Kroumirs and the desert tribes. They are identified with those from Sidra and Sahel of Tunisia. Their origin can be traced from the valley of the Danube 

Sallust who was a Roman historian (and once a governor of Numidia which is currently Algeria) referred the Numidians as half-bred descendants of the Medes (probably referring to Moors), Persians and Armenians who followed Hercules into Spain. Then later some scattered in north-western Africa near the Ocean (those with Persian elements) and the rest were set to occupy the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. He further states that the Moors were descendants of Armenians, Medes, and Libyans who he referred to as the Riffs and the Kabyles. While Ibn Khaldun-a Tunisian historian explained that the Berber were the children of Canaan. He also claimed that the Touaregs are descendants of the Zenaga while the Kabyles are descendants of Kctama. 

The rich culture of Berbers

The Maghreb region has no doubt attracted many of the fascinating ancient civilizations which have shaped the history and culture of the Berbers. These people have constructed marvelous cities and kingdoms. From their traditional dance to their typical dishes like couscous and refreshing mint tea, Berbers are proud people who love their culture and tradition. 

Berber- Touareg
image: Eric Lafforgue

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