The SOMALIS: Origins, Migrations & Settlement
The rare findings and evidences of archeology, anthropology, historical linguistics,
and related disciplines have provided insights of the origins and evolution of the
Somali people. For example, where historians once believed that the Somalis originated
on the Red Sea's western coast, or perhaps in southern Arabia, it now seems clear
that the ancestral homeland of the Somalis, together with affiliated Cushite peoples,
was in the highlands of southern Ethiopia, specifically in the lake regions.
Similarly, the once-common notion that the migration and settlement of early Muslims
followers of the Prophet Muhammad on the Somali coast in the early centuries of
Islam had a significant impact on the Somalis no longer enjoys much academic support.
Scholars now recognize that the Arab factor--except for the Somalis' conversion
to Islam--is marginal to understanding the Somali past. Furthermore, conventional
wisdom once held that Somali migrations followed a north-to-south route; the reverse
of this now appears to be nearer the truth.
Increasingly, evidence places the Somalis within a wide family of peoples called
Eastern Cushites by modern linguists and described earlier in some instances as
Hamites. From a broader cultural-linguistic perspective, the Cushite family belongs
to a vast stock of languages and peoples considered Afro-Asiatic.
Afro-Asiatic languages in turn include Cushitic (principally Somali, Oromo, and
Afar), the Hausa language of Nigeria, and the Semitic languages of Arabic, Hebrew,
and Amharic. Medieval Arabs referred to the Eastern Cushites as the Berberi.
The Somalis belong to a subbranch of the Cushites, the Omo-Tana group, whose languages
are almost mutually intelligible. The original home of the Omo-Tana group appears
to have been on the Omo and Tana rivers, in an area extending from Lake Turkana
in present-day northern Kenya to the Indian Ocean coast.
The Somalis form a subgroup of the Omo-Tana called Sam. Having split from the main
stream of Cushite peoples about the first half of the first millennium B.C., the
proto-Sam appear to have spread to the grazing plains of northern Kenya, where protoSam
communities seem to have followed the Tana River and to have reached the Indian
Ocean coast well before the first century A.D. On the coast, the proto-Sam splintered
further; one group (the Boni) remained on the Lamu Archipelago, and the other moved
northward to populate southern Somalia. There the group's members eventually developed
a mixed economy based on farming and animal husbandry, a mode of life still common
in southern Somalia. Members of the proto-Sam who came to occupy the Somali Peninsula
were known as the so-called Samaale, or Somaal, a clear reference to the mythical
father figure of the main Somali clan-families, whose name gave rise to the term
The Samaale again moved farther north in search of water and pasturelands. They
swept into the vast Ogaden (Ogaadeen) plains, reaching the southern shore of the
Red Sea by the first century A.D. German scholar Bernd Heine, who wrote in the 1970s
on early Somali history, observed that the Samaale had occupied the entire Horn
of Africa by approximately 100 A.D.