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The origins of the Tutsi and Hutu peoples is a key issue in the history of Burundimarker and Rwandamarker, as well as the Great Lakesmarker region of Africa. While the Hutu are generally recognized as the ethnic majority of Rwanda, in racialist ideology the Tutsi were identified as a foreign race, as opposed to an indigenous minority. The relationship between the two is thus, in many ways, derived from the perceived origins and claim to "Rwandan-ness". The largest conflict related to this question was the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Ugandan scholar Mahmoud Mamdani identifies at least four distinct foundations for studies that support the "distinct difference between Hutu and Tutsi" school of thought: phenotype, genotype, cultural memory of inhabitants of Rwanda, and archeology/linguistics.

Phenotype argument

The first type of studies were carried out by colonial scholars, who began with the casual observation that the Twa were short, like pygmies, that the Hutu were of medium height, and that the Tutsi were tall and slender. After gathering data, physical anthropologists confirmed this observation. A German scholar working in the early twentieth century, found a 12-centimeter difference between those identified as Tutsi and those identified as Hutu. As late as 1974, Jean Hiernaux of the National Center for Scientific Research noted a height difference of almost ten centimeters. Colonial scholars, influenced by racialist theories, especially as developed by Arthur de Gobineau, concluded that such physical differences meant that the Hutu and Tutsi must have originated from different regions. The colonial arrogance (whether biologically or culturally motivated) is perhaps most memorably described by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who divided Africa into: "European Africa", or North Africa; "the land of the Nile", or Egyptmarker, considered a part of Eurasia and a civilizing force; and "Africa Proper", or "Subsaharan Africa, which Hegel described as "the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of conscious history is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night". As Europeans became more familiar with Africa, the conception of the Sahara as barrier between civilization and savagery became decreasingly credible. A new racialist theory to explain this discrepancy was developed, namely that all evidence of progress in "Africa Proper" was the result of the influence of an outsider race, who were Caucasian in race but black in skin color, known as the "Hamitic theory". The origin of the "Hamites" is normally placed somewhere in the Horn of Africa. Finding a large, centrally directed monarchy in Rwanda, colonial authorities refused to consider the possibility that the complex social structure had developed without external direction and identified and designated the Tutsi as a foreign race of Hamites who, in European racialist thought, must have civilized the backward indigenous people, namely the Twa and Hutu.

The migration theory came under two rounds of criticism. The first, exemplified by Walter Rodney in his 1972 work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was a militant attack on colonial ideology and denied any possibility of migration. Rodney argued that the physical differences were a result of social development, namely that the Twa's diminutive stature was a result of chronic malnutrition resulting from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and that Tutsi physical stature was a result of a pastoralist protein-rich diet compared to the relatively poor food available to the agriculturalist Hutu. Rodney's writing was required reading for many Rwandan Patriotic Front cadres in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coinciding with the Rwandan Civil War and Rwandan Genocide. To Rodney's argument for a selective diet explanation, others add status and breeding. Noting that a 12-centimeter difference in average height also distinguished a military conscript and senator in 1815 France, social geographer Dominique Franche argued that the height difference can also be explained by physical effects of hard labor among agriculturalists, as well as self-selective breeding towards different standards of beauty between different social groups.

Genotype argument

More recent studies have de-emphasized physical appearance, such as height and nose width, in favor of examining blood factors, the presence of the sickle cell trait, lactose intolerance in adults, and other genotype expressions. A 1987 study, "Genetics and History of Sub-Saharan Africa", published in Yearbook of Physical Anthropology found that the Tutsi and Hima, despite being surrounded by Bantu populations, are "closer genetically to Cushites and Ethiosemites". Another study concluded that, while the sickle cell trait among the Rwandan Hutu was comparable to that of neighboring people, it was almost non-existent among Rwandan Tutsi. Presence of the sickle cell trait is evidence of survival in the presence of malaria over many centuries, suggesting differing origins. Regional studies of the ability to digest lactose are also supportive. The ability to digest lactose among adults is widespread only among desert-dwelling nomadic groups that have depended upon milk for millennia. Three quarters of the adult Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi have a high ability to digest lactose, while only 5% of the adults of the neighboring Shi people of eastern Congo can. Among Hutu, one in three adults has a high capacity for lactose digestion, a surprisingly high number for an agrarian people, which Mamdani suggests may be the result of centuries of intermarriage with Tutsi. Bethwell Ogot in the 1988 UNESCO General History further notes that the number of pastoralists in Rwanda increased sharply around the fifteenth century. Although Luis et al. in a more general study on bi-allelic markers in many African countries found a statistically significant genetic difference between Tutsi and Hutu, the overall difference were not large.

Anthropological argument

While most supporters of the migration theory are also supporters of the "Hamitic theory", namely that the Tutsi came from the Horn, a later theory proposed that the Tutsi had instead migrated from nearby interior East Africa, and that the physical differences were the result of natural selection in a dry arid climate over millennia. Among the most detailed theories was one put forward by Jean Hiernaux, based on studies of blood factors and archeology. Noting the fossil record of a tall people with narrow facial features several thousand years ago in East Africa, including locations such as Gambles Cave in the Kenya Rift Valley and Olduvai Gorgemarker in northern Tanzania, Hiernaux argues that while there was a migration, it was not as dramatic as some sources have proposed. He explicitly attacks the Hamitic theory that migrants from Ethiopia brought civilization to primitive Africans.

However, in light of recent genetic studies, Hiernaux's theory on the origin of Tutsis in East Africa appears doubtful. It has also been demonstrated that the Tutsis harbor little to no Northeastern African genetic influence. On the other hand, there is currently no mtDNA data available for the Tutsi, which might have helped shed light on their background.

Migration hypothesis vs. Hamitic hypothesis

The colonial scholars who found complex societies in sub-Saharan Africa developed the Hamitic hypothesis, namely that "black Europeans" had migrated into the African interior, conquering the primitive peoples they found there and introducing civilization. The Hamitic hypothesis continues to echo into the current day, both inside and outside of academic circles. As scholars developed a migration hypothesis for the origin of the Tutsi that rejected the Hamitic thesis, the notion that the Tutsi were civilizing alien conquerors was also put in question.

One school of thought noted that the influx of pastoralists around the fifteenth century may have taken place over an extended period of time and been peaceful, rather than sudden and violent. The key distinction made was that migration was not the same as conquest. Other scholars delinked the arrival of Tutsi from the development of pastoralism and the beginning of the period of statebuilding. It appears clear that pastoralism was practiced in Rwanda prior to the fifteenth century immigration, while the dates of state formation and pastoralist influx do not entirely match. This argument thus attempts to play down the importance of the pastoralist migrations.

Still other studies point out that cultural transmission can occur without actual human migration. This raises the question of how much of the changes around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the result of an influx of people as opposed to the existing population being exposed to new ideas. Studies that approach the subject of racial purity are among the most controversial. These studies point out that the pastoralist migrants and pre-migration Rwandans lived side by side for centuries and practiced extensive intermarriage. The notion that current Rwandans can claim exclusively Tutsi or Hutu bloodlines is thus questioned.

Tutsi and Hutu today

In the modern day, the difference between Tutsi and Hutu is often stated as that between those in commanding and subordinate social positions. Tutsi can often be physically distinguished as taller than Hutu, but according to the vice president of the National Assembly Laurent Nkongoli, frequently "[y]ou can't tell us apart; we can't tell us apart." Some Hutus own cattle and have important social standing. However, the Tutsi are the elite of the country, and people have been known to switch groups, reinforcing the idea that the Hutu and Tutsi labels are labels of class or caste rather than tribe or ethnicity as is usually portrayed by the media and militants on both sides.

Since all three groups now speak the same language and regularly intermarry, some argue that the differences between Tutsi and Hutu may be exaggerated cultural constructs.

Notes and references

  1. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-691-10280-5, pp. 43-44
  2. Hegel, trans. H.B. Nider, Lectures on the Philosophy of the World (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 173-177 as quoted in Mamdani (2001), p. 78
  3. Mamdani (2001) p. 79
  4. Mamdani (2001) p. 45
  5. "Genetics and History of Sub-Saharan Africa",Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 30 (1987), pp. 151-194, quoted in Mamdani (2001) p. 45
  6. Mamdani (2001) pp. 45-46
  7. J. R. Luis et al.: The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations ( Errata), American Journal of Human Genetics, 74: 532-544.
  8. Mamdani (2001) pp. 46-47
  9. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, "The History and Geography of Human Genes", (Princeton University Press: 1994), pp. 171 and 183
  10. Brace CL, et al. (1993). Clines and clusters versus "race:" a test in ancient Egypt and the case of a death on the Nile. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 36:1–31.
  11. Mamdani (2001) pp. 48-49



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