A former colleague of mine told me the following story: While he was a professor at Harvard, he had a course titled “African Civilization.” While he was planning to give this course one of his colleagues said to him: “I heard that you are planning to give a course called African Civilization. I know what Africa means and I know also what
civilization means. What I do not know is how you coined these two words together.” This is not an isolated incidence. It has been widely believed and perpetuated by a significant body of scholars in the past and present. Ironically, this distorted notion is knowingly or unknowingly has been echoed by good number of Africans themselves.
Egypt, among the greatest hearth of ancient civilizations, is nowhere but in Africa. The Axumite Empire which was
considered as one of the four world super powers (along with Persia, China, and Rome) in its peak in antiquity was in Africa as the Persian historian Mani (216–276) puts it. The ancient Nubian/Kushite kingdom, (with its sit at Karma, Napata, and later at Meroe) (ca. 2000 BCE – 400 CE) was in Africa.
So, why did the above question percolated to one’s mind to begin with? For those who interpret everything in the prism of “race,” the immediate justification goes as follows: “The Egyptian civilization was a Caucasian one not of the black Africans;the Nubian copied their civilization from the Egyptians; and the Axumite Civilization is made possible by an immigrant Semitic speaking people from South Arabia.” In line with this racial line of thinking some Afrocentric scholars goes on the opposite counterattacking the Eurocentric view. They claim that the Egyptian civilization is a black man civilization and the present population of Egypt does not show the true picture of the ancient Egyptian. See for instance Diop (1981) who tried hard to make the ancient Egyptian as black as possible in line with West African physical type and their language to be genetically related to Wolof, his mother tongue.
Without diving into a racial controversy, we know that the ancient Egyptians spoke a language which is closely related to Semitic, which in turn belongs to a bigger language family called Afroasiatic, formerly known as Hamito-Semitic a term that has a racial connotation with no scientific value as the groups designated as Hamitic do not show a distinct unity which stands in contrast to Semitic. Almost in a similar period to ancient Egypt a parallel civilization underwent in the region of Mesopotamia and this civilization was clearly a Semitic civilization where the language they spoke, Akkadian, is recognized as the first written Semitic language. While the closeness of Semitic and Egyptian is indisputable, the Eurocentric scholars believe the original home of Egyptians was Asia. It is from Asia that they moved to Egypt and created the ancient Egyptian civilization, and hence by extension they are Caucasians.
The Afroasiatic group does not only embody Semitic and Egyptian. Berber, Omotic, Chadic and the various Cushitic groups also belong to it. The skin color of the people of these language groups varies mainly based on the climate where they live in. For Eurocentric scholars,
“The original homeland of the proto-Afroasiatic language speaking people in general was Asia, particularly the Middle East. It is from there that they moved to Africa, leaving the Semitic language-speaking group behind (which some of the Semitic group also migrated to Africa later which we know today as Ethio-Semitic). The darkness of the skin color of those who moved to Africa is not only due to weather but also due to intermarriage with the local Africans.”
This kind of racial explanation is also attributed to the Ethiopian Semitic people, who are wrongfully thought to be migrates around the middle of the first millennium BCE (see Hetzron 1972, Taddese 1972 and Ullendorf 1960 among many others). For these scholars, the current Ethio-Semitic speakers are Cushitic stock that adopted the language of the Semitic immigrants. But the Cushitic people are also Afroasiatic. Moreover, when it comes to Ethiopia except few Nilo-Saharan groups in the Western, Southern and Northern parts of the country, around ninety-eight percent of the population belongs to the Afroasiatic phylum. Assuming early migration to Cushitic and Omotic and attributing their darkness to both climate and mixture with an unknown African tribe or tribes, the migrated Semitic people in Ethiopia became then dark does not answer the linguistic, cultural and biological facts. What is really the physical difference between the Semitic group in Asia, who are considered as Caucasian but the Cushitic, Omotic, etc. including the Ethiopian Semitic black is only a slight color difference but not any other major physical structure as also noticed throughout history by even European travlers:
“While the tint of the pure Ethiopian variesbetween light olive-green and intense black, he possesses none of the striking Negroid characteristics save that of color. In thickness of skull, facialformation, shape of the foot, and notably of the heel,the Ethiopian is quite unlike the Negro” (Skinner 1906).
See also the following from Ullendorf:“the predominantEthiopian type reveals fairly close anthropometric affinities to that commonly found among the Arabs of South Arabia, i.e. medium staturee, long face, and a fairly straight and thin nose-all characteristics not encountered among the neighboring African peoples. The hair is curly or frizzy; lips are thinerand very much less protruding than is otherwise the case in Africa. The color of the skin varies a good deal, but is generally rather light, somewhere between olive and light brown” (Ullendorff 1960).
In fact, for some, Ethiopians are black caucasians. One can see Marcus (1979) for discussion and relevant references.If we continue to draw a distinction between races in terms of physical characteristics, we will most likely end up having a continuum. For those who see everything into two colors Barak Obama and Bob Marley are black although the mother of the former and the father of the latter are whites. Such labeling, in fact, has a double face:
“While, in American society, the notorious one drop (of ‘Negro’ blood) rule renders a person ‘Black’, one drop of white blood does not make a person ‘White’. However, in the Eurocentric and racialist view of Nile Valley history, a little Asiatic blood is enough to render them ‘White’, while many drops of ‘Negro’ (or sub-Saharan) blood is simply not sufficiently ‘Black’” (Fluehr-Lobban and Rhodes 2004).
The distinction of people in terms of two-color-based races has no scientific explanation what so ever. The unfortunate fate is its entrance in academics and even religion which does not spare the Bible where, for instance, what has been “I am black and beautiful” becomes “I am black but beautiful” in later versions (Song of Solomon 1:5).
The prejudice towards downgrading any achievement in Africa is at play even today. In his recent work, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, G. W. Bowersock (2013) addresses one of the greatest Axumite expansions on its historical peak by Emperor Kaleb in the 6th Century of our era. It is a well-researched book. Although almost no evidence is presented in the main body of the book, in the first paragraph of the summary, we find: “this [the conflict between the Ethiopians and the Jewish Arabs] was an international war that involved both Byzantine Empire, which had established Christian churches in Ethiopia, and the Sasanian Empire in Persia, which supported the Jews in what become a proxy war against its longtime foe Byzantium.” In the back cover of the book, the famous historian Peter Brown labeled the Ethiopian rulersas “militant Christian warlords.” We know that the Byzantine did not establish church in Ethiopia. Christianity became official state religion in Ethiopian around 324 CE long before it received similar status in Byzantium.Neither is there any slight evidence that the war was a proxy war.
“Rather, the evidence indicates that there was no competition between the Romans and Sāsānids for influence in South Arabia either before or during the period 518-525. In place of a “Great Game” theory that explains Red Sea history in terms of the Romano-Sāsānid conflict, … Kālēb simply sought to establish Axumite supremacy on both sides of the sea, and that he used both religious and irredentist rhetoric to justify what was nothing more than a war of Aksumite expansion into South Arabia” (Hatke 2011).
As Hatke rightly states the war was just an Axumite expansion. Ethiopia had demonstrated over a millennium old central government by the time Kaleb rose to power. Bowersock’s book is well written, and it is not fair to blame the author for what is written on the cover. We should rather thank the author for writing this wonderful work. However, why did such kind of statements, which even go against the findings of the book, appear on its cover?
Murtonen (1967), Hudson (1977) and (Demeke 2001), among many others, challenged the long-established idea that Ethio-Semitic languages are new comers to Africa.They argued instead in favor of the African origin not only to the Ethio-Semitic languages but also Proto-Semitic and Proto-Afroasiatic languages in general.
The great Axumite civilization was attributed to Semitic immigrants from South Arabia who started settling in the northern part of Ethiopia around 500 BCE. Although this assumption is only speculation, which seems stemming mainly from a racial bias that Africans were incapable of creating such civilization, some great African historians themselves, including Cheikh Anta Diop and some Ethiopian historians such as Tadesse Tamrat, were trapped in it. Among these African scholars some continued to follow the old established argument and others either deny the Semitic status of Ge‘ez, the language of the Axumites, and its sister languages in Ethiopia (AyeleBekeri) or the greatness of the Axumite civilization as in Diop: “To modern minds, the term ‘Ethiopia’ conjures up Addis Ababa. Here again, we must insist on the fact that in this region, except for one obelisk and two pedestals of statues, nothing is found. The civilization of Axum former capital of Ethiopia is more a word than a reality attested by historical monuments” (Diop 1974).
Although the African origin of Afroasiatic and Semitic languages are now almost the accepted norm among linguists, there is much to be done to correct the age-old misconception of this in other fields.
The world as Fleming puts it is hybrid. We all are hybrid as beautifully the PBS program, First Peoples, narrates it. We are intermingled not only within ourselves/humanity but also with extinct human like creatures (such as Neanderthal and Denisovans).If we go by the current Afroasiatic people, their physical type may range from European-like feature to the West African type, and the color of their skin from dark/black to white as in European. The intermediate of this continuum may be found among the Ethiopians both in terms of physical characteristics and skin color. As we all are hybrid the civilization that humanity created is also hybrid. The Akkadian civilization is built on top of the Sumerian; the Egyptian based on, or in close contact with the people in the south what we know as Kushite or Nubian in pre-historic period. AsMokhtarsuggests“itishighlydoubtfulwhethertheinhabitantsthatintroducedcivilizationintotheNilevalleyeverbelongedtoonesingle,purerace.Theveryhistoryofthepeoplingofthevalleyrefutessuchapossibility”(Mokhtar1981).
Editor’s note:Girma A. Demeke (PhD), works mostly on the history and syntax of Ethio-Semitic languages. He has been engaged also in language development projects and in the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages. He is the author of the Origin of Amharic and other books and articles. He is currently working as a Senior Editor and Production Supervisor at Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press, New Jersey, USA.