Africa,  Ancient (pre BCE),  Asia,  ER,  Middle East

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Lemba tribesmen at prayer Photo Credit- Josh Bernstein
Lemba tribesmen at prayer Photo Credit- Josh Bernstein

Jacob had twelve sons, and the descendants of those sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. They settled in the promised land, then divided into to two kingdoms. Everyone was living happily, more or less, until the conquest of the northern kingdom. The Bible discusses the lost tribes of Israel in 2 Kings 17:6: “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.” The Assyrians conquered all of Israel and destroyed the First Temple. Once in exile, this left only the Tribe of Judah, the Tribe of Simeon, the Tribe of Benjamin and the Tribe of Levi. Eventually, Cyrus the Great conquered the Assyrians and allowed the Jews to go back to the Promised Land, but not all of them came back. Some historians believe that there are no “official” lost tribes, but there was definitely some migration. The truth of it was lost to the sands of time.

Fast forward to 1980s. Historian Tudor Parfitt was conducting a lecture on Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas, in Johannesburg, South Africa when he noticed some native people in the back of the lecture hall in what looked to be yarmulkes. Parfitt chatted with them after the lecture and found they were tribesmen from the Lemba tribe, who claimed to be descended from a lost tribe of Israel. He was fascinated and agreed to travel through dangerous terrain to the Lemba homeland to see for himself. He spent the weekend there, then returned to England. However, Parfitt kept coming back and ended up spending months living with the Lemba tribe studying their customs.

The Lemba are a Bantu-speaking tribe who live in the northeast corner of South Africa in the area of Venda. They shared many customs with Semitic people specifically the Jews. The first thing he noticed was their ritual slaughtering of animals was very similar to Jewish traditions. They also kept kosher dietary laws and circumcised their boys, unlike any other tribes in the area. The Lemba also kept one day of the week holy, strongly discouraged marriage outside the tribe and inscribed a Star of David on the gravestone of a deceased tribe member. Parfitt dug deeper and contacted Professor Mashya Mathiva, who is the historian of the Lemba tribe. At Professor Mathiva’s suggestion, he also got in contact with a tribesman who was writing a book on the Lemba, Wilfred Phophi. Parfit describes Phophi as a “card carrying lunatic that was full of good information when he wasn’t screaming and shouting at me.” Through a series of interesting interviews, Parfitt was able to dig out that the ancestors of the Lemba were from the priestly caste and came from a place called Sena. The Lemba referred to Sena the way we would refer to heaven. The word Sena in medieval Arabic meant “Zion” or Jerusalem.

The oral traditions of the Lemba said “We crossed Pusela and we came to Africa. We rebuilt Sena, and then we went inland and had something to do with the construction of the Great Stone City.” However, no one could exactly say what that meant. The Great Stone City was thought to be a reference to the city of Great Zimbabwe, but the rest was unknown. The story continues that “At that point, we broke the law of God and we ate mice.” Mice would not be kosher and not ritually fit for Lemba consumption. And then they were scattered, as they put it, among the nations in Africa. Parfitt felt very strongly about finding what Sena was and unraveling this mystery for the Lemba people. In fact, Professor Mathiva had given Parfitt this charge when they first met, and Parfitt took this very seriously.

Parfitt kept striking out until he was doing some unrelated study in Yemen. He was speaking with a sheik who told him a city named Sena was at the end of the Wadi Masilah. Parfitt traveled there and found tribes with the same names as the Lemba. He felt strongly it was connected. However, he lacked hard evidence.

Teaming up with group from The Center for Genetic Anthropology at University College London they turned to DNA. The took DNA samples from the men of the Lemba and compared them with the Cohen [Kohen] modal haplotype (CHM) on the Y chromosome. People with the last name of Cohen are descended from the caste of priests, who must be descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. A significant number of the Lemba shared this common Y chromosome. They also took samples from the area in Yemen around Sena and found a significant overlap. From this evidence, connections between these populations can be made. The theory is after their expulsion following the destruction of the First Temple, a select number of the priesthood escaped to Yemen and then migrated to Africa.

Parfitt kept his word and Sena was found, and the Lemba can take their place as one of the tribes of Israel.


Sources available on request