The Luo are part of the Nilotic group of people. The Nilote had separated from the other members of the East Sudanic family by about the 3rd millennium BC. Within Nilotic, Luo forms part of the Western group. The Luo languages forms one branch of this Western Nilotic group, the other being Dinka-Nuer (named for the Dinka people and the Nuer people). The separation of the Luo group from Dinka-Nuer presumably took place in South Sudan at some point in the first millennium AD.
Within Luo, a Northern and a Southern group is distinguished. “Luo proper” or Dholuo is part of the Southern Luo group. Northern Luo is mostly spoken in South Sudan, while Southern Luo groups migrated south from the Bahr el Ghazal area in the early centuries of the second millennium AD (about eight hundred years ago). This migration was presumably triggered by the medieval Muslim conquest of Sudan.
A further division within the Northern Luo is recorded in a “widespread tradition” in Luo oral history: the foundational figure of the Shilluk (or Chollo) nation was a chief named Nyikango, dated to about the mid-15th century. After a quarrel with his brother, he moved northward along the Nile and established a feudal society. The Pari people descend from the group that rejected Nyikango.
Anuak girls in Dimma, Ethiopia
The Anuak are a Luo people whose villages are scattered along the banks and rivers of the southwestern area of Ethiopia, with others living directly across the border in southern Sudan. The name of this people is also spelled Anyuak, Agnwak, and Anywaa. The Anuak of Sudan live in a grassy region that is flat and virtually treeless. During the rainy season, this area floods, so that much of it becomes swampland with various channels of deep water running through it.
The Anuak who live in the lowlands of Gambela are distinguished by the color of their skin and are considered to be black Africans. The Ethiopian peoples of the highlands are of different ethnicities, and identify by lighter skin color. The Anuak have alleged that the current Ethiopian government and dominant highlands people have discriminated against them. This has affected the Anuak access to education, health care and other basic services, as well as limiting opportunities for development of the area.
The Acholi, another Luo people in South Sudan, occupy what is now called Magwi County in Eastern Equatorial State. They border the Uganda Acholi of Northern Uganda. The South Sudan Acholi numbered about 10,000 on the 2008 population Census.
Around 1500, a small group of Luo known as the Biito-Luo, led by Chief Labongo (his full title became Isingoma Labongo Rukidi, also known as Mpuga Rukidi), encountered Bantu-speaking peoples living in the area of Bunyoro. These Luo settled with the Bantu and established the Babiito dynasty, replacing the Bachwezi dynasty of the Empire of Kitara. According to Bunyoro legend, Labongo, the first in the line of the Babiito kings of Bunyoro-Kitara, was the twin brother of Kato Kimera, the first king of Buganda. These Luo were assimilated by the Bantu, and they lost their language and culture.
Later in the 16th century, other Luo-speaking people moved to the area that encompasses present day Southern Sudan, Northern Uganda and North-Eastern Congo (DRC) – forming the Alur, Jonam and Acholi. Conflicts developed when they encountered the Lango, who had been living in the area north of Lake Kyoga. The Lango also speak a Luo language. According to Driberg (1923), the Lango reached the eastern province of Uganda (Otuke Hills), having traveled southeasterly from the Shilluk area. The Lango language is similar to the Shilluk language. There is no consensus as to whether the Lango share ancestry with the Luo (with whom they share a common language), or if they have closer ethnic kinship with their easterly Ateker neighbours, with whom they share many cultural traits.
Between the middle of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, some Luo groups proceeded eastwards. One group called Padhola (or Jopadhola – people of Adhola), led by a chief called Adhola, settled in Budama in Eastern Uganda. They settled in a thickly forested area as a defence against attacks from Bantu neighbours who had already settled there. This self-imposed isolation helped them maintain their language and culture amidst Bantu and Ateker communities.
Those who went further a field were the Joka jok and Joka owiny. The Jok Luo moved deeper into the Kaviirondo Gulf; their descendants are the present-day Jo Kisumo and Jo Rachuonyo amongst others. Jo owiny occupied an area near got ramogi or ramogi hill in alego of siaya district. The Owiny’s ruins are still identifiable to this day at Bungu Owiny near Lake Kanyaboli.
The other notable Luo group is the Omolo Luo who inhabited Ugenya and gem areas of Siaya district. The last immigrants were the Jo Kager, who are related to the Omollo Luo. Their leader Ochieng Waljak Ger used his advanced military skill to drive away the Omiya or Bantu groups, who were then living in present-day Ugenya around 1750AD.
Between about 1500 and 1800, other Luo groups crossed into present-day Kenya and eventually into present-day Tanzania. They inhabited the area on the banks of Lake Victoria. According to the Joluo, a warrior chief named Ramogi Ajwang led them into present-day Kenya about 500 years ago.
As in Uganda, some non-Luo people in Kenya have adopted Luo languages. A majority of the Bantu Suba people in Kenya speak Dholuo as a first language and have largely been assimilated.
The Luo in Kenya, who call themselves Joluo (aka Jaluo, “people of Luo”), are the fourth largest community in Kenya after the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luhya. In 2010 their population was estimated to be 4.1million. In Tanzania they numbered (in 2001) an estimated 980,000 . The Luo in Kenya and Tanzania call their language Dholuo, which is mutually intelligible (to varying degrees) with the languages of the Lango, Kumam and Padhola of Uganda, Acholi of Uganda and Sudan and Alur of Uganda and Congo.
The Luo (or Joluo) are traditional fishermen and practice fishing as their main economic activity. Other cultural activities included wrestling (yii or dhao) kwath for the young boys aged 13–18 in their age sets. Their main rivals in the 18th century were the Lango, the Highland Nilotes, who were traditionally engaged them in fierce bloody battles, most of which emanated from the stealing of their livestock.