Genetic Afterlives

Black Jewish Indigeneity in South Africa

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 27 illustrations Published: October 2020

Author: Noah Tamarkin

African Studies, Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies

In 1997, M. E. R. Mathivha, an elder of the black Jewish Lemba people of South Africa, announced to the Lemba Cultural Association that a recent DNA study substantiated their ancestral connections to Jews. Lemba people subsequently leveraged their genetic test results to seek recognition from the post-apartheid government as indigenous Africans with rights to traditional leadership and land, retheorizing genetic ancestry in the process. In Genetic Afterlives, Noah Tamarkin illustrates how Lemba people give their own meanings to the results of DNA tests and employ them to manage competing claims of Jewish ethnic and religious identity, African indigeneity, and South African citizenship. Tamarkin turns away from genetics researchers' results that defined a single story of Lemba peoples' “true” origins and toward Lemba understandings of their own genealogy as multivalent. Guided by Lemba people’s negotiations of their belonging as diasporic Jews, South African citizens, and indigenous Africans, Tamarkin considers new ways to think about belonging that can acknowledge the importance of historical and sacred ties to land without valorizing autochthony, borders, or other technologies of exclusion.


Genetic Afterlives is a prescient examination of the Lemba community in southern Africa, a group that has long fought for public recognition of their claims to Jewishness over and against the identities imposed upon them as the price of admission into the political landscape of contemporary South Africa and beyond. Using careful ethnographic and archival research, Noah Tamarkin crafts an expansive portrait of the sparks that fly when contested oral histories, state-sanctioned social policies, and cutting-edge genetic research are held in critical and productive tension. This is a significant contribution to Jewish studies, African studies, anthropology, and science studies all at the same time. A very powerful read!” — John L. Jackson Jr., author of Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

“In this major contribution to critical global Indigenous studies, Noah Tamarkin takes up a unique case study at the intersection of race, nation, and indigeneity while also explaining complex genome science and theoretical insights in accessible language that will resonate with diverse audiences.” — Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Noah Tamarkin is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and Research Associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. Diaspora, Indigeneity, and Citizenship after DNA  1
1. Producing Lemba Archives, Becoming Genetic Jews  29
2. Genetic Diaspora  57
3. Postapartheid Citizenship and the Limits of Genetic Evidence  88
4. Ancestry, Ancestors, and Contested Kinship after DNA  120
5. Locating Lemba Heritage, Imagining Indigenous Futures  153
Epilogue. Afterlives of Research Subjects  187
Notes  197
References  223
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0968-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0882-8