The origins of the Seereer people

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The origins of the Seereer people has been a topic of discourse for many decades. Just like the etymology of the word Seereer (variations: Sereer, Serer or  Sérère), where many theories have been proposed, so is the origin of the Seereer people. In this article, we will first outline what the oral tradition of the Seereer people says about their own origins before reporting on what the academic world says about the origin of these people. Seereer DNA and archaeological sitepertaining to the Seereer will also be  discussed.
Seereer oral tradition

As discussed in previous articles, and as evident in some of the previous and succeeding articles in this history series, Seereer history and culture are closely linked to Seereer religion


On the subject of Seereer religion, Asante writes:

Religiously, the Serer follow the pattern of many West African people: They have a belief in one Supreme Deity, Roog. In their view, Roog created everything in the universe, but all of the ordinary things that have to do with daily life, relationships, land disputes, war, and death are left to the ancestors. Among the Serer, there are elaborate ceremonies surrounding their relationship with their clan and totemic ancestors. Names such as Faye, Sar, Fall, Diange, and Diouf are considered totemic for the Serer. (Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama, "Encyclopedia of African Religion" [1])

And on the Seereer oral sources about their own origins, Asante  went on to write:
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The oral tradition of the Serer states that, they traveled from the Upper Nile to West Africa. One of the reasons that Cheikh Anta Diop claimed that the Serer were able to reject Islam, being one of the few African groups in the West African Sahel region to do so successfully, might be because of their strong connection to their ancient religious past. (Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion" [1])
Although there are various demigods or spirits in Seereer religion, Roog Seen (or Koox Seen among the Saafi) is the Supreme Deity in Seereer religion. For the various names assigned to the Supreme Deity by the various Seereer groups, see God in Seereer religion.

In a private interview with the  late historian, researcher,  theologian and  Egyptologist  - Professor Issa Laye Thiaw, recorded on Thursday, 8th January 2015. at Diamaguène, Diack Sao, Senegal, our team of  researcher asked  Professor Thiaw the meaning and origin of the  name  "Seereer."   Professor Thiaw, who had traveled to almost every part of Seereer country for many decades researching and documenting all matters relating to Seereer history, culture, and religion gave the following reply based on thSeereer oral tradition on the meaning and  etymology of their name (Seereer):
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The Seereer oral tradition states that, their name  (seereer) comes from the Seereer term "seere" , which derives from "seedeeh" [or sedeh] which mean "to bear witness", that is, to bear witness that God  exists. 


Seereer was not actually an  ethnic group but a spirituality or form of religion.[7]

What made Professor Thiaw unique compared to other scholars wring on Seereer history, culture and religion, other than his academic credentials and years of experience and research was his fluency in all the "Seereer languages" - meaning all the languages of the Seereer peoples such as Seex (pronounced Seeh) and the Cangin languages. His ability to speak and understand all the Seereer languages, Wolof, French and Arabic, and ability to decipher Seereer symbols and provide etymology of Seereer words - free from any French or Arabic influences made him stood out from his peers.

Scholarly sources
Theories about Nile Valley connection

Professor Cheikh Anta Diop was one of the first scholars to propose a Nile Valley origin. In "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" (p. 192), he writes:

The Serer probably came to Senegal from the Nile basin; their route was said to be marked by the upright stones found at the same latitude, from almost as far away as Ethiopia to Sine-Salum.[8]

On the subject of the ancient Thiemassas culture discussed in the Seereer archaeological sites article, Henry Gravrand ("Pangool", p.77) writes:

Rupestral engravings of the Sahara before it turned into a desert are well the proof of a double presence of Blacks and Berbers in the Sahara. During a visit of the geologists on the pre-historic site of Thiemassas, not far from Mbour, the geological analysis of the site, its oral tradition and the origin of the Sereer were successively evoked. I was brought to present the Sereer origins from the Nilotic point of view, going back to ten millennia to the present, of their ancestors from the Nile valley. During the debate held on the geological site in question, the possibilities of the crossing of the Sahara were recognised reasonable before the fifth millennium. According to the present geologists and pre-historians, there was a Saharan optimum with the seventh, the sixth and even at the fifth millennia. On the assumption of a Sereer presence in the valley of the Nile, between the tenth and the fifth millennia, or of a Lebou presence in the west of Egypt at varying times, a series of migrations relating to restricted groups is about the possible one.[9]

Citing Cheikh Anta Diop and others, Asante writes:

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Scholars have long believed that the route of the Serer from their ancient homeland in East Africa can be traced by upright stones found along the latitude they traveled from East to West, from Ethiopia to the region of Sine-Saloum. (Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality", p. 192 [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion" [2])

Asante went on to write that:

Linked to the religious beliefs of the Serer is the fact that their ancestors came through the Sudanese village of Tundi-Daro and erected upright stones in the shape of a phallus and a female organ. It is believed that this was an agrarian practice that symbolized the ritual union of the sky and Earth as a way to give birth to vegetation, their daughter. The vegetation from this union was a cosmic trinity that harks back to the African trinity of Ausar-Auset-Heru. Thus, the ancestors to the Serer carved stones of two sexual organs to invite the divinities to couple and give them good harvests. It was the desire to ensure material existence that drove humans to this process of ritualizing the the divine union." (Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" , p. 192-6 [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion [3]).

The Serer people still retain the deity service to the upright stones. At one time during the 14th century, they planted pestles that were used as alters for libations, called dek-kur, by the Wolofwho have mixed with many of the Serer. Indeed the idea of dek-kur means anvil or receptacle. The ancient town of Tundi-Daro means, in Wolpof, the hill of sexual union in a ritual sense, affirming much of the Serer oral tradition. ( Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality", p. 196 [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion" [4]).

*The term "dek-kur" is most probably a Seereer or Saafi term in origin, not Wolof. As with many Seereer and Cangin religious words loaned by the Wolof e.g. Tobaski, Gamo, Weri Kor, KoriteCosaan, Julit, etc.,[5] the term dek-kur may have made its way into the Wolof language and the author's source might have assumed it to be Wolof in origin without reference to the etymology of the term. This is a rather common misconception in the Senegambian region where many words are assumed to be Wolof in origin but actually aren't. A result of the Wolofization phenomenon in the region, and the Wolof's ability to absorb or borrow from other cultures.

As regards to  the Seereer-Ancient  Egyptian origin theory,  Professor Thiaw posits that, if Professor Cheikh Anta Diop and other scholars' assertions are  right, that is, the Seereer and some other Black African  ethnic groups migrated from  Ancient  Egypt, then in his opinion, the  southward migration into Sub-Saharan Africa would...

probably have been around 522 BC - before  the  death and during the reign of Cambyses II following his conquest of  Egypt, where  many Black inhabitants of  Ancient Egypt  were  driven out or had to leave.  Professor Thiaw went on to state that, as these Blacks attempted to cross the Sahara, they became a target for Roman and Arab slave raiders, and therefore, very few Black Africans made  the  successful crossing into Sub-Saharan Africa.[6]

Notes and references


[1]  Asante,  Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion", SAGE Publications (2008), ISBN 9781506317861

[2]  Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion"

[3]  Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion"

[4]  Diop, Cheikh Anta, "The African origin of civilization" - "Myth or reality" [in] Asante, Molefi Kete ; Mazama, Ama , "Encyclopedia of African Religion"

[5]  Tobaski is an ancient Seereer religious festival. It was a fetish competition festival based on the tracking of a dead / shot animal with an arrow. The animal itself was the Tobaski, who ever found it won the Tobaski (the prize). The word Tobaski comes from old Seereer. After the Wolof and other Senegambian groups' mass conversion to Islam in the 19th-century, the Seereer word Tobaski was adopted for the Islamic festival. In similarity, the word Gamo (or Gamou/Gamu) was borrowed from the Seereer religious festival of forgiveness by the Senegambian Islamic religious leader  El-Hajj Malick Sey when he visited a Seereer-Saafi community in Tivaone - whom he found celebrating the ancient Gamo festival. He liked the rituals and decided to borrow the name to mark the birth of Muhammad, and the name is now used by all Senegambians. The Gamo is a Seereer religious festival  of forgiveness. The name gamo comes from thSeereer  word  gam - which was the  third and biggest spear used by the  eldest Seereer high priest or  elder during this holy festival. The character O as in gamo is a  typical Seereer suffix or prefix. 
[6]  Cosaan Seereer : Part 2 of 2 : Exclusive interview with Professor Issa Laye Thiaw (January 2015) by The Seereer Resource Centre and Seereer Radio). Recorded  on 8th January 2015 at Diamagane Sicap. Dakar, Senegal. Interviewers: Tamsier Joof and Demba Sene. [in] Seereer Podcast: www.seereerpodcast.org
[7] Cosaan Seereer : Part 1 of 2 : Exclusive interview with Professor Issa Laye Thiaw (January 2015) by The Seereer Resource Centre and Seereer RadioRecorded  on 8th January 2015 at Diamagane Sicap. Dakar, Senegal. Interviewers: Tamsier Joof and Demba Sene. [in] Seereer Podcast:  www.seereerpodcast.org
[8] Diop, Cheikh Anta, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth Or Reality, (editor & translator: Mercer Cook), Chicago Review Press (1989), p. 192, ISBN 9781613747360 Gravrand, Henry, La civilisation sereer : Pangool, Nouvelles Editions africaines du Sénégal (1990), p. , ISBN 9782723610551
[9] Gravrand, Henry, La civilisation sereer : Pangool, Nouvelles Editions africaines du Sénégal (1990), p. 77, ISBN 9782723610551