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Hamitic

From Academic Kids

de:Hamitentheorie The term Hamitic refers to peoples traditionally believed to have been descended from Ham, one of Noah's sons. (See: Sons of Noah) Over history there have been several separate but interrelated interpretations of the term. In the Bible the sons of Ham are peoples who were traditionally enemies of the Jews, notably the Egyptians. Not all such people lived to the south, but typically Ham's sons were said to have fathered the southern peoples of Africa. During the Middle Ages and up until the early 19th century the term 'Hamitic' was used by Europeans to refer indiscriminately to Africans. In the 19th century the definition was refined. A Hamitic language group was proposed, uniting various, mainly North-African, languages. A Hamitic race was also identified, referring to those Africans that Europeans considered "advanced", or most similar to themselves and to Semitic peoples.

Today the Hamitic concepts have been widely discredited and are often referred to as the Hamitic Myth. The term itself is considered by many to be pejorative. The Hamitic language group is no longer considered a useful concept, though the phrase Semito-Hamitic is a dated term for the Afro-Asiatic group. The notion of a Hamitic race is similarly problematic.

The Hamitic Myth was used as a justification for European colonial policy in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the slave trade in earlier times.

Contents

Earlier uses of the Term

Early interpretations of the Bible led many Western scholars to believe that all of humanity was descended from Noah. (Again, see Sons of Noah) The bible verse (Genesis 9:18-27) concerning the sons of Noah makes no specific mention of the race of Noah's children, however the name of Cush, Ham's eldest son, means 'black' in Hebrew. Noah curses Ham and Canaan, Cush's brother, saying that he and his descendants would be a "servant of servants". Hebrew scholars used this passage to justify the Israelite subjugation of Canaan. These scholars, working around the 6th century AD, introduced the idea that the sons of Ham were marked by dark skin.

In the middle ages Christian scholars picked up on the idea. Again, the depiction of the "sons of Ham" as cursed, "blackened" by their sins suited the ideological interests of the European elite; especially as the principal enemy of Christendom was Islam, which dominated North Africa. Despite the fact that Islam originated with the Semitic Arabs, European imagery often stressed the blackness of the Islamic Moors and associated them with the 'cursed' sons of Ham. Later, with the emergence of the slave trade, it justified the exploitation of a ready supply of black African labour.

Post Egyptian Use

After Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, European interest in that country increased dramatically. With the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the rapid increase in knowledge of Ancient Egyptian civilization, European academics became increasingly interested in the origin of the Egyptians and their connection to other groups to the West, South, East and North. The traditional Biblical genealogy associated the Egyptians with other descendents of Ham, notably the black-skinned Cushites in Ethiopia.

Theologians reexamined the Book of Genesis and determined that all Ham's children had not in fact been cursed; only Canaan had been cursed. Therefore the other children of Ham, including Cush and Mizraim were not cursed and their descendents were capable of greatness. Such scholars identified Egyptians as descendents of Mizraim.

Non-religious and Darwinian writers also theorised that the Biblical stories contained an element of truth about the ancestry of some black African populations, who may have migrated into Central Africa from the North. These peoples were assumed to be racially superior to other Africans.

Hamitic Theory as an Ideology within Colonialism

As a result of this reevaluation Hamitic took on a new, more positive connotation for Europeans. During the 19th century Europeans explored more and more of Africa. In their travels they found many different physical types, and they valued those that appeared most like themselves or had a redeeming cultural characteristic. These types were declared "Hamitic". As well as the ancient Egyptians, the Tutsis of Rwanda were deemed Hamitic because they were more Caucasian in appearance, and thus destined to rule over the Hutus. Although the actual origin of Tutsis is disputed, if they had once been a ruling-class of invaders, as was claimed by colonial race-theorists, they had long since lost that social position.

Soon the Hamitic theory became an important ideological instrument of colonialism, especially in German politics.

The term "Hamitic" is used for the first time in connection with languages by the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf (1810-1881), but with regard to all languages of Africa spoken by black people. It was the Berlin Egytptologist Karl Friedrich Lepsius (1810-1877), who restricted it to the non-Semitic languages in Africa which are characterized by a grammatical gender system.

As racial theories became increasingly complex and convoluted the term Hamitic was used in different ways by different writers, and was applied to many different groups from Ethiopians to Berbers, Nubians, the Masai, Abyssinians, Somalis and many others.

Racial theory was very hierarchical; Europeans saw these peoples as leaders within Africa, "teaching" lesser peoples the ways of civilization, just as they saw themselves teaching the Hamitic peoples (See: White man's burden).

However, the allegedly Hamitic peoples themselves were often deemed to have 'failed' as rulers, a failing that was sometimes explained by interbreeding with non-Hamites. So, in the mid-20th century the German scholar Carl Meinhof (1857-1944) claimed that the Bantu race was formed by a merger of Hamitic and Negro races. The 'Hottentots' (Nama or Khoi) were formed by the merger of Hamitic and Bushmen (San) races (both being termed nowadays as Khoisan peoples). Such theories are now completely outmoded.

Hamitic Theory Today

In this way Europeans again justified their own exploitation of the African continent. These ideas were still in wide circulation until the mid 20th century. The Hamitic hypothesis is widely rejected today on a multitude of grounds. Most "scientific" observations of the time were heavily culturally biased and generally returned results that suited European prejudices. Many observations of the time have been corrected since then to reveal a much more complex picture of ethnic groups than was initially thought. Nonetheless, the term Hamitic is still used in some anthropological nomenclature.

The term's linguistic use was effectively terminated by Joseph Greenberg (The Languages of Africa) in the 1950s.

See Also

  • Meinhof, Carl: Die Sprache der Hamiten, Hamburg, 1912.
  • Sanders, Edith "The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin in Time" in Problems in African History: The Precolonial Centuries. Ed. Robert O. Collins. New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-55876-059-8
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