Holy Ark of the Covenant (illustrative)
Holy Ark of the Covenant (illustrative)Israel news photo: Temple Institute

British scientists have confirmed with DNA testing that an African tribe in northern South Africa that claims Semitic origins is telling the truth.

The Lemba, whose oral traditions state that their ancestors were Jews, practice customs that are remarkably similar to those of the House of Israel. They keep one day of the week holy, bless the new moon, circumcise their boys, slaughter meat in a ritual manner, avoid eating food with blood and do not eat pork. Some of the men wear yarmulkas (kippot), they strongly discourage marriage outside the tribe, and the custom of the tribe is to inscribe a Star of David on the gravestone of the deceased.

None of these practices are common among the peoples of Zimbabwe or South Africa.

The Lemba are also divided into 12 tribes, and among the Buba, the priestly class, was found the exact same DNA element as among those Jews of the priestly class elsewhere around the world.

A number of genetic studies have confirmed the findings. Initial research in 1996 indicated that more than half of the Lemba Y chromosomes (the male chromosome) are Semitic in origin. That study was followed by another in 2000, that reported more specifically that a significant group of Lemba males carry the “Cohen [Kohen] modal haplotype” (CHM) on the Y chromosome, which indicates the Y-DNA Haplogroup J found among Jews and some other populations across the Middle East.

The Buba clan carried most of the CMH markers among the Lemba, similar to other Jewish groups around the world where the males of the priestly class, the Kohenim, carry the CHM marker. Lemba tradition states that it was the Buba clan that had a “leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel” and into southern Africa.

The oral tradition handed down among the Yemenite Jews is similar, stating that after the expulsion following the destruction of the First Temple, the Levi'im (assistant priests) and Kohenim fled towards Yemen; the group then split, with some continuing on towards the south, in the direction of Africa.

The University of London's Professor Tudor Parfitt , who spent six months living with the tribe, and 20 years researching their people, expressed his amazement in an interview this week with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

This was amazing,” Parfitt said. “It looks as if the Jewish priesthood continued in the West by people called Cohen, and in the same way it was continued by the priestly clan of the Lemba. They have a common ancestor who geneticists say lived about 3,000 years ago somewhere in north Arabia, which is the time of Moses and Aaron, when the Jewish priesthood started.”

The Lemba tradition states that their ancestors fled the Holy Land some 2,500 years ago, traveling first to “Sen'a” and then south to Africa. Their sacred prayer language is comprised of a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

The tribe, approximately 80,000 strong, lives in central Zimbabwe and the northern part of South Africa, and prizes above all its holiest object: the ngoma lungundu, “the drum that thunders.” According to tribal leaders, it is this, a wooden replica of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, that connects the Lemba to their Jewish ancestry.

The oral traditions regarding the ngoma lungundu said it had been used in battles, and thus was rebuilt several times, possibly from original remnants, Parfitt explained. He added that the replica that recently went on display at the Harare museum, about 700 years old, is “the closest descendant of the Ark that we know of.”

The Lemba people of today, however, are Christians and Muslims, although many define their ties to Judaism as their “culture.”