The Semites of Africa

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Introducing Semitic Speakers:

Semitic languages are presently accepted as one of the branches of Afro-Asiatic languages. Together with other language sub-groupings such as Chadic, Berber, Nilotic, Omotic etc, the Semitic groups of languages are definitely African in origin. It used to be accepted that all the branches of the Afro-Asiatic language were clearly developed in Africa with the exception of Semitic over which there had been some dubious contention. But not any more as scholarly studies have dovetailed with common sense and logic in placing the original homeland of the Semitic speakers in Africa.

These Semitic speakers definitely were not white Africans.

The term Semites as an expression is applied to a group of peoples closely related in language, whose habitat is Africa extending into Asia. The expression is derived from the Biblical table of nations (Genesis 10), in which most of these peoples are recorded as descendants of Noah’s son Shem; although some who are designated as Semites in the modern times belong to peoples originally recorded as the children of Ham, the brother of Shem (i.e. the Phoenicians).

The term Semite was first proposed for the languages related to the Hebrew by Ludwig Schlazer, in Eichhorn’s Repertorium, vol. VIII (Leipzig, 1781), p. 161. Through Eichhorn the name then came into general usage (cf. his Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Leipzig, 1787), I, p. 45. He also used it in his Gesch. der neuen Sprachenkunde, pt. I (Gattingen, 1807).

Schlozer assumed that Abraham the eponymous Hebrew ancestor was of Semitic origin based upon the information in the Bible. He wrongly reasoned that since Abraham spoke Hebrew (a language which unknown to Schlozer was indigenous to Canaan) Hebrew should be a Semitic language. His work laid the grounds for the automatic but uncorroborated association of ancient Hebrews with the Caucasian family of nation. The flimsy foundation of this entire argument has run into problems with wider distributed access to source works that underlie scholarly research.


Proto-Semitic is the hypothetical proto-language of the Semitic languages. Proto-Semitic probably originated in Ethiopia or Central Sahara and was one of the first languages to branch off the Afro-Asiatic phylum.

In the hey days of racist scholarship when it was considered erudite to routinely erase the role of Africa in the development of world history, it used to be considered with arrogant irrationality that the most probable Proto-Semitic language was Urheimat, which probably developed in the Arabian peninsula. This hypothesis was based on fact that the Canaanite, Aramaic, and Arab nomadic tribes are recorded to have emerged from Arabia.

However this thesis is not supported by a plausible theory of geographical dispersion of Afro-Asiatic languages. It must be stressed that Semitic is but a sub group of the African language group Afro-Asiatic.

The distribution of the related Afro-Asiatic languages such as Berber, Hausa, Omotic, and especially the Egyptian branch which is most closely related to Semitic, suggest an Ethiopian language as the original Proto-Semitic language. It has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubts that there were several waves of immigration of the Proto-Semites from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.

Current Authorities:

Alan Gardiner in his book Egyptian Grammar, (1950, p.2) argued that ancient Egyptian had structural similarity to Canaanite and various African languages like Galla, Somali and Berber. Moustapha Gadalla in his book The Essence of Hispania denoted the very close linkages between ancient Egyptian and classical Arabic.

In linguistic terms, Ehret has presented a phylogenetic history for Afro-asiatic languages, based on shared phonological innovations. His scheme makes a primary division between the Omotic languages of Ethiopia and an Erythraean (Red Sea) subgroup that includes all other Afro-Asiatic languages (including Semitic and Ancient Egyptian). His thesis, thus, suggests an African origin for the Semitic language family. See, C. Ehret, Reconstructing Proto-Afro-Asiatic (University of California Press, Berkeley, C.A.,1995).

According to Christopher Ehert, world renowned linguist, the early Semites were just a few Africans arriving to find other people already in the area.

Christopher Edens and T.J. Wilikinson in a 1998 article published in the Journal of World Prehistory (South west Arabia During the Holocene: Recent Archaeological Developments), by the Bronze Age, there was a well-attested cultural ferment in Southwest Arabia exemplified by village and town settlements occupied by sedentary farmers.

Edens and Wilikinson argue that a continuous archaeological record can now describe parts of Yemen. Evidence of literate culture goes back to between 3600 and 2800 B.C. and perhaps earlier. These societies relied on food production from large scale irrigation systems dependent upon the Wadi floods. They concluded that those Bronze Age settlements showed very strong linkages to the Horn of Africa.


Nicolas Faraclas, in his book They Came Before the Egyptians: Linguistic Evidence for the African Roots of Semitic Languages suggests that the roots of Semitic languages, which are classified as part of the Afro-Asiatic language family, lie in the Darfur-Kordofan region on the eastern edge of the Chad-Sudan border. He uses linguistic, archaeological, and climatic evidence to trace the routes by which Afro-Asiatic languages seem to have spread. The Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Afro-Asiatic languages all seem to have diverged in a migration that commenced with the Last Major Wet Spell of the Sahara, which ran from 10,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C.

Joseph H. Greenberg, one of the earliest European linguists to work in Africa was the first to identified five different branches of the Hamito-Semitic (now called Afro-Asiatic) group of the African languages: Cushitic, Egyptian, Berber, Chadic and Semitic. Given that those languages were so obviously interrelated it was assumed by colonial scholars of Europe that the relationship of these languages stemmed from Caucasian invaders into Africa from the Middle East. Greenberg’s research contradicted this assumption.

Greenberg realized that the Cushitic branch languages were far more differentiated from each other than were those of any other branch. Such sharp differences indicated that the sub-branches of Cushitic had differentiated from each other at a very early date and had been evolving independently for much longer than any of the other branches.

The implication being that the Hamito-Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) language had evolved in Kush (Ethiopia) longer than anywhere else.

Consequently, Ethiopia (Africa) should be the original homeland of all Hamito-Semitic languages. Clearly the original Semites were Africans.

A developing consensus among scholars suggest that perhaps as early as 12,000-10,000BC, African proto-Cushitic speakers migrated from Ethiopia/Central Africa spreading out into the rest of Africa and the Near East. This proto-Cushitic tongue evolved not only into Cushitic, Egyptian, Berber, and Chadic tongues, but into the Semitic branch as well. This included Hebrew, Phoenician, Arabic and Assyrian.

Although some Semitic speakers, including the Hebrews speakers migrated from Africa to the Middle East, others like the Gurage group of language, Amharic language, Tigrinya language and a host of others continued to develop in Africa. Greenberg renamed this Cushitic derived family group of language and called it Afro-Asiatic. (Time Life World Maps, Black Spark, White Fire by Richard Poe, Languages of Africa by Joseph Greenberg)

A Bit of Genetics:

A critical reading of genetic data analyses, specifically those of Y chromosome phylogeography and TaqI 49a,f haplotypes, supports the hypothesis of populations moving from the Horn or southeastern Sahara northward to the Nile Valley, northwest Africa, the Levant, and Aegean. See S.O.Y. Keita, History in the Interpretation of the Pattern of p49a,f TaqI RFLP Y-Chromosome Variation in Egypt: A Consideration of Multiple Lines of Evidence, American Journal of Human Biology 17:559567 (2005).

The geography of the M35/215 (or 215/M35) lineage, which is of Horn/East African origin, coincides with the range of Afro-Asiatic languages. Underhill speculated that this lineage might have been carried from Africa during the Mesolithic.

The distributions of the Afro-Asiatic branches and this lineage can best be explained by invoking movements that originated in Africa and occurred before the emergence of food production, as well as after. It is noteworthy that gene flow from Africa to Middle East occurred not only in the prehistoric time but continued through to historical times. See . P. Underhill et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 65, 43 (2001). See also G. Lucotte, G. Mercier, Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 121, 63 (2003). See O. Semino et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 74, 1023 (2004).

Jide Uwechia

March 13, 2006

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3 thoughts on “The Semites of Africa”

  1. You put Phoenician by Semitic category, but they are Greek nor Japhetite Europeans who live in modern day Lebanon.

  2. I found your assertions about the African origins of Semitic languages refreshing. I share your views. Can you give me some references on the African origins of Semitic languages from linguistics, please?

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