As empires and armies came and went, the indigenous Berber people remained. Evidence of prehistoric people in North Africa goes back millennia. The Berbers, whose origin is unknown, have lived in North Africa for thousands of those years. The term Berber has come to refer to the indigenous peoples of North Africa, many of whom speak (or spoke) one of the Berber languages—but they are not a single ethnic group. They call themselves Amazigh or Imazighen (plural) which means, roughly, “free people” or “free men.” Many eventually converted to Islam, and they helped the Muslims take the Iberian Peninsula in 711. But many struggled to maintain a degree of independence. For example, the Berbers of Morocco revolted in 740 and later established their own empires and dynasties.
Arabs and Berbers make up the overwhelming majority of the population throughout the Maghreb today. The primary languages spoken in the region are local dialects of Arabic, followed by various Berber languages and dialects. Islam has been the dominant religious force since the Muslim conquests; however, this region has remained culturally diverse. The traditions of Berber groups have remained strong, especially in the harsher mountain and desert environments.
Migrations to and from this region
While migration to this region tended to be from east to west, both Arabic and Berber traders were heavily involved in the thriving trans-Saharan trade, which brought gold, ivory and slaves north and carried salt, cloth and Islam south. This may account for traces of West African genetic ethnicity in some North African individuals. The Berbers also occupied much of Spain and Portugal for almost 800 years. Even though they were expelled from Iberia in 1492, there are still traces of North African ancestry in people across Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands—and vice versa.