Monday, September 3, 2018

800 CE Po-pa-li is not Somalia but 1100 CE Pi-pa-lo is?

Over a year ago, in a post, I delved into a Chinese account by an author named Duan Chengshi (died around circa. 863 CE) where he mentioned a region called Po-pa-li which is often assumed, by various authors, to be a predecessor to Berbera or to be talking about North-Central Somalia as a whole:

It seems the author the above text comes from believes this to correspond with the Greek's more southerly "Barbaroi" region (North-Central Somalia) rather than, like some authors, tying it simply to the settlement of Berbera in particular. And honestly, after giving this a good read, it does not seem to be to be a description of people from North-Central Somalia during the 700-800s CE for the following reasons:

  • Main exports: This country of Po-pa-li seems to mainly export Elephant's teeth (ivory) and ambergris, as these are the only products mentioned as exports by Duan Chengshi. However, both products are mentioned by earlier Greco-Roman sources to be minor exports when dealing with North-Central Somalia. Ivory being exported in abundance, for example, would fit more with Southern Somalia (or areas more south of it) so it would make no sense for this to be Berbera or North-Central Somalia based on these seemingly being the main exports. Where's the Frankincense and Myrrh?
  • Etymology: The author seems to be connecting Po-pa-li to "Barbaroi/Barbara/Barbar" via "Put-Pat-lik" in what appears to be Cantonese and proposes that this corresponds with "Barbaric". This makes no sense at all. "Barbaric", despite ultimately coming from the Greek word "Barbaroi", was not a word used in that English form at that time & place at all so the Chinese couldn't have derived "Put-pat-lik" from that. I'm actually wondering if I'm reading them wrong because it's odd that they'd make such an argument.
  • Arms & Armor: For the weapons present, the account says these people used ivory and oxen horns for bladed weaponry like halberd-type weapons whilst wearing armor (other translations write "armor" specifically as "cuirass") and utilizing bows and arrows seemingly in abundance. This implies that these people, even if they were familiar with metals, had ivory and oxen horns available in such abundance that they probably found them to be cheaper materials to use for making things like spear-heads. This does not sound like people who lived around modern Berbera or even North-Central Somalia who wouldn't have had such an abundance of Elephants in their general area.
  • Presence of Slaving: In North-Central Somalia, we do have Greco-Roman sources such as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea which stipulate that the exporting of slaves was present as a practice, albeit it was noted to be rare. But this indicates the state of such trade prior to the advent of Islam in the region by roughly the 7th to 10th centuries CE. Later on, around 11th-13th centuries, it's mentioned by Islamic/Arab sources that the people on the Somali coast did not trade themselves out as slaves because they were Muslims, unlike a good number of the people in Bilad al-Zanj to the south. Yet, this account by Duan Chengshi mentions that these pastoralists sell some of their countrymen whom they capture as prisoners. Now, it's possible that the 800s CE is rather early and Islamization had not fully taken root in various areas so some slaving was practiced by the locals but if Islam was present; this is rather odd as the Muslims present presumably wouldn't have sold fellow Muslims, at least not notably. 
  • Type of Pastoralism: All we get from this description is that these people have cattle and practice what has been documented as a historic custom among Erythraeic (my preferred term for "Cushitic") speaking semi-nomadic pastoralists (the drinking of cattle blood with milk). There's no mention of sheep, goats or camels. Camel domestication would have been present around Berbera or North-Central Somalia at this point in history but this description sounds like it's one of a people who were mainly cattle-pastoralists, like the Maasai.

This is all makes me think "Po-pa-li" was a region farther south of the Horn of Africa or perhaps even far south into Southern Somalia rather than at all indicating that what we're reading about is a predecessor to modern Berbera or North-Central Somalia as a whole.

What's even more damning is that this same author shares a different Chinese account of later origins (1100s CE) owed to Zhao Rugua which speaks of a country on the East African coast called "Pi-pa-lo" (assumed to be the Somali coast) and it fits with not just one part of but being nearly the whole of the Somali coast much more than the "Po-pa-li" of the 800s CE:

Let's take into account all of the things this country has together all at once:

  • Abundance of pastoralist livestock such as camels, goats, sheep and cattle.
  • A people with a mainly pastoral diet which consists of meat and milk with "cakes" on top (perhaps their way of referring to something like Canjeero/Laxoox/Injera?).
  • Presence of Rhinos, Elephants, Giraffes, Ostriches and what sound to possibly be Somali Wild Asses ("mule" with black, white and brown stripes on it).
  • There is Myrrh and Ambergris in this country.
  • Some semblance of pre-modern urbanism was to be found (four prominent cities/towns are mentioned by the Chinese source).
  • The people "worship heaven" which, I suppose, would refer to a heavenly God which fits with the worship of Allah by Muslims and, oddly, even the worship of the Sky-God Waaq [3].
The Somali coast, or what Medieval Arab/Islamic sources knew as "Bilad al-Barbar" (Somali coast roughly from Zeila down to Mogadishu or areas somewhat south of Mogadishu like the mouth of the Jubba river) is perhaps the only place on the East African coast where all of these things can be found together. 

For example, the Eritrean coast once had some Rhinos present and, to this day, has several semi-nomadic pastoralist peoples who herd camels, sheep, goats and cattle present on its coast whilst having, to this day, a small Elephant population but it didn't have Giraffes

Also, Tanzania and Kenya might have had most of the animals mentioned but they didn't really have camels except for some areas of Kenya, I suppose. But also, these regions' coastal inhabitants did not practice a semi-nomadic pastoralist way of life or have that sort of diet so the description of the people's diet and the emphasis on their livestock conflicts with these being people on the Zanj/Swahili coast who would have mostly been sedentary farmers and fishermen.

Historical and 1987 range of Rhinos

The author is quite right, in my humble opinion, to tie this "Pi-pa-lo" region with the Berbera/Barbar/Somali coast. It mostly fits very well as a description of that region of East Africa although certainly not as a description of solely North-Central Somalia or the area where we now find the city of Berbera, given the mentioning of Giraffes, for example.

The etymology also makes somewhat more sense this time. "Pi-pa-lo", according to the author, comes from "Pat-pa-lo" in Cantonese which makes better sense as some sort of bastardization of "Barbara" or some such (he roughly picks up on this too).

Range of various Ostrich species
At any rate, I'm currently rather skeptical that "Po-pa-li" was actually a description of the Somali coast. I'm particularly sure it wasn't referring specifically to the area where modern Berbera now sits, or even North-Central Somalia. Perhaps it was referring to people somewhere along Southern Somalia given the Elephants, however? A people who had yet to become Muslims, hence the slaving? A people who possibly had not yet adopted camel domestication given the lack of camels in the description (they sound like they were mainly cattle-pastoralists)?

I don't know and can't be sure that this region wasn't really where authors traditionally think it was but that's just my personal view after reviewing the Chinese account again. However, the the "Pi-pa-lo" region described much later (1100s CE), sounds much more blatantly like it fits with what the medieval Islamic/Arab world knew as Bilad al-Barbar.



1. This is actually an old post I 90% completed during early 2017. I got busy back then and it just sort of fell into the back-burner until I forgot about it. Noticed it again recently and just cleaned up a little for posting...

2. Feel free to point out any mistakes I may have made in the comments (or point out something I may have missed), this is an old subject I'm still a little intrigued by.


  1. Hey awale do you believe that there’s a possibility that somalis have some ancient Paleolithic ancestry indigenous to somalia? I was told by a friend that the extinct ones that were in Somalia were tall, had thinner features and were arid climate adapted, do you think it’s possible that you can try finding any samples of these people to check how much of that ancient ancestry somalis today have? I feel that we might have a good amount of that ancestry but since there’s not really much samples of it our autosomal results for our sub saharan african ancestry comes up as just nilotic, it would be amazing if we could find this Paleolithic ancestor of somalia and test how much of it somalis today have, I’ve been told they split from the hadza and sandawe people around 20,000 years ago

    1. The thing about Somalis is that we pretty much look like an off-shoot of a larger population that probably formed, for the most part, somewhere around the traditional lands of Bejas and Nubia during the Neolithic era (roughly modern Northern Sudan & Southern Egypt). I'd say the earliest signs of our ancestors, whether there's a direct path between us and them in the Erythraeic (Cushitic) language branch or not, come with the on-set of the neolithic in what are now Somali territories when you see signs of people practicing pastoralism and later also some forms of farming very similar to what was overall going in various parts of what is now Ethiopia as well as the areas of what are now Sudan & Egypt that I outlined, pointing to our predecessors basically being an eastward extension of a larger set of Erythraeic speaking speaking cultures.

      This then makes sense with the genomics where it's clear that the overwhelming majority of our ancestry is shared with other Erythraeic and Ethiosemitic speaking Horn-Africans like Habeshas, Oromos and Agaws which points to the fact that we probably are overwhelmingly descended from Erythraeic speakers who in time broke off from the Proto-Agaw-East-South speaking community that broke off from North-Erythraeic speakers more north and basically moved into the Horn during the Neolithic (I'd wager sometime around 3000-5000 BCE):

      So, keeping all that in mind, it's not impossible that there were some remnants of the Paleolithic inhabitants of Somalia that our predecessors intermixed with and we now have ancestry from but I honestly doubt it. If such ancestry does exist in us, it's likely quite insignificant. But we'll see in due time.