African ethnic group of the week: the Imazighen (Amazigh ) people of Niger, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria and Morocco)
The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Imazighen since from at least 10,000 B.C. Northern African cave paintings, dating back twelve millennia, have been found in the Tassili n’Ajjer region, southern Algeria. Others were found in Tadrart Acacus in the Libyan desert. A Neolithic society, marked by bestial domestication and subsistence agriculture, developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean region (the Maghreb) of northern Africa between 6000 B.C and 2000 B.C. This type of life, richly depicted in the Tassili n’Ajjer cave paintings of south-eastern Algeria, predominated in the Maghreb until the classical period. Prehistorical Tifinagh scripts were also found in the Oran region. During the pre-Roman era, several successive independent states (Massylii) existed before the king Masinissa unified the people of Numidia.
They speak various Amazigh languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family related to Ancient Egyptian. At the turn of the 21st century, there were perhaps 14 million in Morocco, 9 million in Algeria, and much smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mauretania; in the Sahara of southern Algeria and of Libya, Mali and Niger, the Imazighen Tuareg number about 1 million.
The Imazighen originally lived all over the Maghreb from western Egypt to the Atlantic. The culturally distinct Imazighen communities of today survive in pockets in the mountains and in the Sahara desert, scattered over a large area from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Atlantic and from the Niger river and the Sahel in the south to the Mediterranean. Their density increases from east to west, Morocco being the state with most Berbers living in it.
Before the eleventh century, most of North-West Africa was a Imazighen -speaking Muslim 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 Imazighen 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. After the Muslim conquest, the Imazighen ethnic groups of coastal North Africa became almost fully Islamized.
Dihya or Kahina was a Amazigh queen, religious and military leader who led indigenous resistance to Arab Islamic expansion in Northwest Africa, the region then known as Numidia. She was born in the early 7th century and died around the end of the 7th century in modern-day Algeria.
Regarding the remaining populations that speak a Berber language in the Maghreb, they account for about half of the Moroccan population and a third of the Algerian, besides smaller communities in Libya and Tunisia and very small groups in Egypt and Mauritania.
Outside the Maghreb, the Tuareg in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso number some 600,000; 400,000 and 120,000 respectively, although Tuaregs are often seen as a distinct group. They are thought to be the founder population of the Imazighen due to their high frequency of E-M81(E1b1b1b), the Imazighen genetic marker.
Prominent Imazighen groups include the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who number about six million and have kept, to a large degree, their original language and society; and the Shilha or Chleuh (French, from Arabic Shalh and Shilha ašəlḥi) in High and Anti-Atlas regions of Morocco, numbering about eight million. Other groups include the Riffians of northern Morocco, the Chaoui people of eastern Algeria, the Chenouas in western Algeria, the Imazighen of Tripolitania and the Tuaregs of the Sahara scattered through several countries.
Though stereotyped in Europe and North America as nomads, most Imazighen were in fact traditionally farmers, living in mountains relatively close to the Mediterranean coast, or oasis dwellers, such as the Siwa of Egypt; but the Tuareg and Zenaga of the southern Sahara were almost wholly nomadic. Some groups, such as the Chaouis, practiced transhumance.
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