Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Afro-Asiatic Linguistic Origins From Historic and Linguistic Perspectives

The Afro-Asiatic languages are one of the major language families in existence today. Its main subfamilies are Semitic (e.g. Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic (Levant), Ahmaric (Ethiopia), Maltese), Chadic (most Hausa, the language of a group of Sahel peoples who were traditionally pastoralists), Berber (particularly Tuareg, a group of North African pastoralists), Cushitic (generally in the vicinity of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia), Omotic (a small language family spoken in a small area on the Western fringe of the Cushitic area), and Coptic (once the language of ancient Egypt, now a liturgical language of Coptic Christians).

This language family includes some of the oldest languages attested in writing.

The ancient Semitic Akkadian language and related dialects just documented in the Assyrian Dictionary completed this year has a rich written record dating back to around 2500 BCE. The Phoenicians who produced the predecessor to the modern Roman alphabet had a Semitic language, as did the Punic peoples spoke Semitic languages.

Coptic is the second oldest attested written language with hieroglyphs using it dating back to before 3000 BCE. Coptic writing is know to have existed at least five hundred years earlier than the earliest Akkadian writing.

Reconstructions of proto-Afro-Asiatic languages suggest origins at least as late as the Neolithic and probably Cacholithic (i.e. copper age).

One of the oldest cities known to the archaeological record, Jerico, is in the heartland of the Semitic linguistic area.

We know that the Egyptian Neolithic started around 6000 BCE, a couple of thousand years after it began in the Fertile Crescent from which the Egyptian Neolithic derived. One of the notable Egyptian specific contributions was the domestication of the donkey. It is plausible to think that languages and food production technology spread together as part of an overall Neolithic culture expansion (with and/or without a demic component) from the Fertile Crescent. Much of the Levant was subject to Egyptian political dominance for centuries during the Bronze Age.

A story of Afro-Asiatic language family expansion linked to food production technology is somewhat complicated by the fact that agriculture was developed independently in the Sahel with a set of crops different from those of the Fertile Crescent. But, there is less than a perfect consensus regarding when this happened. Some sources seem to indicate that it arose roughly contemporaneously with Fertile Crescent agriculture, while some indicate that it happened much later. It is possible that Sahel agriculture was made possible, in part, by the arrival of domesticated animals from the Fertile Crescent Neolithic complex.

At any rate, it is not necessarily the case that Fertile Crescent agriculture was the sole source of food production technology in Africa. Ethiopia was also an innovator with a number of crop domestications of its own (e.g. coffee and certain local grains), but the timing of these domestications is fuzzy, although Ethiopian domestications were probably later than those in the Fertile Crescent and those of the Sahel.

Sahel crop domestication is tempting to associate with the development of the Niger-Congo languages.

Likewise, tropical food production can be associated pretty strongly with the later Bantu expansion (the largest subset of the Niger-Congo languages) and perhaps also with Austonesians who brought foods of Indonesian origin, like the bananna, with them across the Indian Ocean, and provided one of the main source populations of Madagascar.

All of this evidence suggests that linguistically, one theory that makes sense would be one in which the Afro-Asiatic languages have their roots either in Egypt or the Levant and spread with herding and/or farming from there. Egypt's dominion extended roughly to modern day Lebanon when it met its northern most match with the Hittites (the first historically attested linguistically Indo-European polity of any consequence in Anatolia).

Egypt's influence and trade connections also extended as far south as Ethiopia and Uganda. We have only a little information about the origins of non-Semitic, non-Coptic Afro-Asiatic languages. Archaeological cultures based on old pots and bones and tools have been described in the regions where these languages are spoken, although often not with the same level of detail as contemporaneous archaeological cultures of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. We have ancient Egyptian documents. The Egyptians described three kingdoms to the South of them: Cush, Punt and Yam, and described in detail the goods that they acquired from each.

There are Egyptian documents describing official delegations sent at least as far west as Lake Chad. Some historians of religion argue that the geography of the mythical Egyptian land of the dead corresponds to that of the Lake Chad region that this delegation describes, which is to towards the setting sun from the Nile basin, where Egyptian mythology would have expected the land of the dead to be located.

There is very little evidence, however, to suggest that Afro-Asiatic languages were ever spoken in Anatolia or that they were spoken in Mesopotamia prior to the arrival of Akkadian, although there are a handful of apparently Semitic root words in some of the oldest Sumerian documents, and some of the oldest cave wall art of the Caspian Sea region does depict boats that look very much like Egyptian ones in design.

There is likewise no evidence to support the possibility that Afro-Asiatic languages ever spread beyond the Mesopotamian plain. The Elamite language spoken in Persia in the time of Alexander's reign appeared to show no Afro-Asiatic influences.

I am not aware of any really good studies that pin down the strength and depth of the relationship between Coptic and Akkadian, the oldest written versions of two of the main Afro-Asiatic language families, for which there is the most suggestive evidence to support a case that one is the oldest Afro-Asiatic language family.

Even if the Afro-Asiatic languages originated in the Middle East (e.g. in Jerico, the oldest city known to mankind), it is entirely possible that all known Afro-Asiatic languages, including Semitic, are derivative of Coptic and that any earlier Fertile Crescent Afro-Asiatic languages died before they were noted in any historical records.


Tonal languages appear in the Omotic, Chadic, and Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic, according to Ehret (1996). As a prior post today noted, there is also an mtDNA L3 subhaplogroup connection between Chadic and Cushitic populations (that study probably didn't have an Omotic sample at all).

The Semitic, Berber, and Egyptian branches do not use tones phonemically.

How much weight to give to this tonality is hard to say. There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence, when you look at patterns of semantic tone use globally in all sorts of languages, to suggest that tonality is more of an areal feature than it is an indicator of the ancestral source of a language. Neighboring languages that come from different families often share the feature of semantic tonality, while languages within the same language family often differ in their use of semantic tonality.

There have also been suggestions that tonality is part of a total phoneme set for a language and should be looked at as part of an evaluation of points like a languages consonant and vowel and click inventory. There are also been suggestions that the local climate and ecology can make certain phoneme sets better in some places than in others, that the nature of one part of a phoneme set influences the nature of other parts of the phoneme set, and that there are specific non-random factors that favor particular subtypes of phonemes in particular conditions.

Still, ultimately, a point of similarity between two languages is still a point of similarity and tends to indicate some connection between the two of some kind, and points of dissimilarity between two languages still tends to indicate a separation for some reason. Certainly, the fact that Chadic languages and Cushitic languages sometimes both have semantic tone, while Berber and Coptic and Semitic languages do not, does not hurt the argument that Chadic and Cushitic languages might have broken off from each other later than they broke off from other Afro-Asiatic languages.

North Semitic Languages

Akkadian and the related language Eblamite, appear to have their origins in the North Levant before becoming predominant in the formerly Sumerian language speaking Mesopotamian area which retained Sumerian as a liturgical language until about 100 CE, but made its first conversion to Akkadian around 2000 BCE (and later reverted temporarily to a non-Semitic language during a period of Kassite rule).

The Hebrew Bible doesn't really connect with historical accounts until the Iron Age. For example, the Philistines don't arrive in the Levant until around 1180 BCE (they were exiles from Mycenean Greece during Bronze Age collapse and were one of the "Sea Peoples"). The Biblical date for the arrival of the Jewish people in Egypt (using the Biblical estimate of 430 years from Jospeh to Exodus) roughly coincides with the rule of Egypt by Semitic Hyksos foreigners. Some of the oldest stories in the Bible, such as the Garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the story of Moses, have well documented earlier strong parallels or geographic links to the Sumerian mythology of Mesopotamia. Hebrew is by most linguistic accounts one of the youngest branches of the Semitic language tree and Arabic is one of its closet linguistic relative, among language both living and dead.

Ethio-Semitic Languages

Linguists have pointed to all of the Ethio-Semitic languages within the Semitic language family arising from the introduction of a single proto-Ethio-Semitic language, probably from southern Arabia and have dated its rapid diversification in Ethiopia and Eritrea to around 800 BCE, although linguistic methods for dating the origin of languages is far from an exact science.

The oldest extant Ethiosemitic language is Ge'ez which survives primarily as a liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Ethiopian Catholics and Beth Israel Jews. As noted in the link to Wikipedia above:

The Ge'ez language is classified as a South Semitic language. It evolved from an earlier proto-Ethio-Semitic ancestor used to write royal inscriptions of the kingdom of Dʿmt in Epigraphic South Arabian. Ge'ez language is no longer thought, as previously assumed, to be an offshoot of Sabaean or Old South Arabian, and there is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia since at least 2000 BC.

However, the Ge'ez alphabet later replaced Epigraphic South Arabian in the Kingdom of Aksum (Epigraphic South Arabian letters were used for a few inscriptions into the 8th century, though not any South Arabian language since Dʿmt). Early inscriptions in Ge'ez and Ge'ez alphabet have been dated to as early as the 5th century BC, and in a sort of proto-Ge'ez written in ESA since the 8th century BC. Ge'ez literature properly begins with the Christianization of Ethiopia (and the civilization of Axum) in the 4th century, during the reign of Ezana of Axum.

The oldest surviving Ge'ez manuscript is thought to be the 5th or 6th century Garima Gospels.

Almost all texts from this early "Aksumite" period are religious (Christian) in nature, many of them translations from Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and later also Arabic. The translation of the Christian Bible was undertaken by Syrian monks known as the Nine Saints, who had come to Ethiopia in the 5th century fleeing the Byzantine persecution of the Monophysites. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these Books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Moses and Tobit. The Book of Enoch in particular is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language.

Also to this early period dates Qerlos, a collection of Christological writings beginning with the treatise of Saint Cyril known as Hamanot Rete’et, or De Recta Fide, the theological foundation of the Ethiopic Church. Another work is Ser'ata Paknemis, a translation of the monastic Rules of Pachomius. Non-religious works translated in this period include Physiologus, a work of natural history also very popular in Europe.

The Kingdom of D'mt from around 700 BCE to 400 BCE in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia had a succession of about four kings (or possibly four dynasties), and was notable for its irrigated farming, plows, millet, and iron age technology. It collapsed into multiple successor states in different regions that were reunited into the Kingdom of Axum starting before 100 CE and lasting until around 960 CE.

One study links Ethio-semitic to Y-DNA haplogroupJ1c3 and there are distinguishable population genetic differences between Ethio-semitic linguistic populations and Cushitic and Omotic linguistic populations that indicate recent Eurasian admixture to a greater degree in Ethio-semitic populations.

The Baysean estimate of 860 BCE for a common Ethio-semitic, which roughly corresponds to proto-Ge'ez, is probably too young.

Cushitic and Omotic Languages

It is tempting to see the trade relationships of Egypt with these regions as the source of the Cushitic and Omotic languages (with Omotic possibly showing a mix of Nilo-Sharan languages such as Maasi, and Cushitic influence on the Cushitic fringe).

Records of trade expeditions to Punt seem to be a reasonable good fit for Somolia or Lake Albert, had a long running and strong trading relationship with Egypt (myhrr was one of its major exports), and trade with it is attested as far back as the 25th century BCE in Egyptian records (and probably dates back centuries earlier). So, Punt was a Kingdom that probably pre-dated the appearance of Ethio-Semitic languages in Africa and may have been a place where early Cushitic languages were spoken.

Yam appears to be a reasonably good fit for Northern Uganda and was a source for many animals and products associated with tropical Africa. Yam may also have been a major source of copper for Egypt, and in one instance was noted a the Kingdom from which a pygmy individual was brought to Memphis in Egypt.

Indeed, all of the presents attributed to the "Wise Men" in the Nativity story (gold, frankincense and myhrr) could reasonably have come from Punt and Yam, which are black African countries.

Cush was probably north of Punt and Yam and while being South of Nubia (in present day Sudan).

Berber languages

It is tempting to associate the Berber languages with the arrival of pastoralism from Egypt to the region. But, Berbers are genetically distinct from Arabs and Egyptians and show considerable genetic continuity with pre-Neolithic North African hunter-gatherers.

Chadic languages

Chadic languages may be appropriate to associate with the appearance of pastrolist, ceramic cultures that appeared in the region where they are now spoken around 4000 BCE.

There are a few references that seem to be to ancient Egyptian expeditions to Lake Chad, but there does not appear to have been regular, robust trade between Egypt and Chadic peoples in the same way that there as to Kingdoms like Punt and Yam. Some linguistics have hypothesized, however, that Chadic and Cushitic are part of the same branch of the Afro-Asiatic languages with a common linguistic origin in a single proto-language.


A 2010 paper by Cruciani, et al., has a nice summary of the Paleoclimatic factors in the Sahara against which the historical migrations and expansions would have played out (citations included):

Over the past thousands of years, the Sahara has undergone dramatic climatic oscillations including arid phases, during which it was largely uninhabitable, and humid episodes, which transformed the desert into a fertile landscape.1 After a hyper-arid period about 23–14.5kya, the Saharan region experienced a monsoonal moist climate, characterized by increased rainfall.2, 3 During the Holocene Climatic Optimum (about 10–5kya), a few thousand years after the beginning of the humid period, flora and fauna repopulated the desert, and a mosaic of savannah and woodland became well established throughout much of the Sahara.3 At the same time, the Sahara was home to giant lakes,4 the largest of which, the paleolake Megachad, may have possibly covered an area of at least 400000km2, more than the Caspian Sea, the biggest lake on earth today.5 This greening scenario was interrupted by a number of arid episodes, and at about 5–6kya, the region experienced a rapid onset of dryer conditions. These marked the beginning of a shift towards permanent aridity, with variations in the distribution and timing of these changes between the eastern and central/western Sahara.3 Human–environment interactions in the Sahara have been greatly influenced by these climate fluctuations.1

Close links between climatic variations and prehistoric human occupation of the Sahara during the early mid Holocene (10–5kya) are documented by archeological6, 7, 8 and paleoanthropological9, 10 evidence.

1.Brooks N, Chiapello I, Di Lernia S, et al. The climate-environment-society nexus in the Sahara from prehistoric times to the present day. J North Afr Stud. 2005;10:253–292.
2.Talbot MR. Late Pleistocene rainfall and dune building in the Sahel. Palaeoecol Afr. 1983;16:203–213.
3.Burroughs WJ. Climate Change in Prehistory. The End of the Reign of Chaos. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; 2005.
4.Damnati B. Holocene lake records in the northern hemisphere of Africa. J Afr Earth Sci. 2000;31:253–262.
5.Drake N, Bristow C. Shorelines in the Sahara: geomorphological evidence for an enhanced monsoon from palaeolake Megachad. Holocene. 2006;16:901–911.
6.Breunig P, Neumann K, Van Neer W. New research on the Holocene settlement and environment of the Chad Basin in Nigeria. Afr Archaeol Rev. 1996;13:111–145.
7.Huysecom E, Ozainne S, Raeli F, Ballouche A, Rasse M, Stokes S. Ounjougou (Mali): a history of Holocene settlement at the southern edge of the Sahara. Antiquity. 2004;78:579–593.
8.Kuper R, Kröpelin S. Climate-controlled Holocene occupation in the Sahara: motor of Africa's evolution. Science. 2006;313:803–807.[PubMed]
9.Tafuri MA, Bentley RA, Manzi G, Di Lernia S. Mobility and kinship in the prehistoric Sahara: strontium isotope analysis of Holocene human skeletons from the Acacus Mts. (southwestern Libya) J Anthropol Archaeol. 2006;25:390–402.
10.Sereno PC, Garcea EAA, Jousse H, et al. Lakeside cemeteries in the Sahara: 5000 years of Holocene population and environmental change. PLoS One. 2008;3:e2995. [PMC free article][PubMed]

Were The Post-Holocene Arid Period Gobero People Chadic?

The abstract of the paper in footnote ten (also free access) provides (headings omitted) that:

Approximately two hundred human burials were discovered on the edge of a paleolake in Niger that provide a uniquely preserved record of human occupation in the Sahara during the Holocene (~8000 B.C.E. to the present). Called Gobero, this suite of closely spaced sites chronicles the rapid pace of biosocial change in the southern Sahara in response to severe climatic fluctuation.

Two main occupational phases are identified that correspond with humid intervals in the early and mid-Holocene, based on 78 direct AMS radiocarbon dates on human remains, fauna and artifacts, as well as 9 OSL dates on paleodune sand.

The older occupants have craniofacial dimensions that demonstrate similarities with mid-Holocene occupants of the southern Sahara and Late Pleistocene to early Holocene inhabitants of the Maghreb. Their hyperflexed burials compose the earliest cemetery in the Sahara dating to ~7500 B.C.E.

These early occupants abandon the area under arid conditions and, when humid conditions return ~4600 B.C.E., are replaced by a more gracile people with elaborated grave goods including animal bone and ivory ornaments.

The principal significance of Gobero lies in its extraordinary human, faunal, and archaeological record, from which we conclude the following:

1.The early Holocene occupants at Gobero (7700–6200 B.C.E.) were largely sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers with lakeside funerary sites that include the earliest recorded cemetery in the Sahara.
2.Principal components analysis of craniometric variables closely allies the early Holocene occupants at Gobero with a skeletally robust, trans-Saharan assemblage of Late Pleistocene to mid-Holocene human populations from the Maghreb and southern Sahara.
3.Gobero was abandoned during a period of severe aridification possibly as long as one millennium (6200–5200 B.C.E).
4.More gracile humans arrived in the mid-Holocene (5200–2500 B.C.E.) employing a diversified subsistence economy based on clams, fish, and savanna vertebrates as well as some cattle husbandry.
5.Population replacement after a harsh arid hiatus is the most likely explanation for the occupational sequence at Gobero.
6.We are just beginning to understand the anatomical and cultural diversity that existed within the Sahara during the Holocene.

The climate sequence described is suggestive of an association of the Chadic populations with the newcomers ca. ~5200-4600 B.C.E. who repopulated Gobero in Niger after the mid-Holocene arid period in the Sahara abated.

This time frame is particularly attractive because it is the most recent case of clear population replacement in the archaeological record in the Sahel, where the Chadic language speaking people are found, until the recent historic period. Similarly, early time frames are unattractive, because they are not in clear population continuity with modern populations, and because the population genetics of the Chadic people, mentioned in a separate post, are suggestive of a population that was intrusive to the region.

This date is also not too far out of line with the estimated split between Y-DNA haplogroups R1a and R1b, which is the timeframe that one would expect from a basal branching off from European R1b haplogroups.

In contrast, the Sahara's Holocene Climatic Optimum seems more plausible to associate with the emergence of the Niger-Congo language speaking people who would be displaced to the South in order to maintain their lifestyle as the Sahara aridified, and their Sahel agriculture. The current population of the Sahel shouldn't overlap too much with the pre-mid-Holocene arid period population there. The Niger-Congo linguistic community, unlike the Chadic linguistic community, also doesn't show clear signs of Eurasian genetic links.

The Gobero People's Contemporaries In Egypt

The Neolithic revolution appears in Egypt around 6000 B.C.E. and the Egyptian historic record goes back to about 3100 B.C.E., so these dates would be in a pre-historic period in Egypt, after it had adopted farming and herding, but before it had adopted writing.

Specific, the possibly proto-Chadic people at Gobero would be at the tail end of the Faiyum A culture in Egypt (ca. 6000 B.C.E. to 5000 B.C.E.). As Wikipedia explains regarding this culture:

Continued desiccation forced the early ancestors of the Egyptians to settle around the Nile more permanently and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. The period from 9000 to 6000 BC has left very little in the way of archaeological evidence. Around 6000 BC, Neolithic settlements appear all over Egypt. Studies based on genetic, and archaeological data have attributed these settlements to migrants from the Fertile Crescent returning during the Egyptian and North African Neolithic. However, some morphological and post-cranial data has linked the earliest farming populations at Fayum, Merimde, and El-Badari, to local North African Nile populations.* The archaeological data suggests that Near Eastern domesticates were incorporated into a pre-existing foraging strategy and only slowly developed into a full-blown lifestyle, contrary to what would be expected from settler colonists from the Near East. Finally, the names for the Near Eastern domesticates imported into Egypt were not Sumerian or Proto-Semitic loan words, which further diminishes the likelihood of a mass immigrant colonization of lower Egypt during the transition to agriculture.

Weaving is evidenced for the first time during the Faiyum A Period. People of this period, unlike later Egyptians, buried their dead very close to, and sometimes inside, their settlements.

Although archaeological sites reveal very little about this time, an examination of the many Egyptian words for "city" provide a hypothetical list of reasons why the Egyptians settled. In Upper Egypt, terminology indicates trade, protection of livestock, high ground for flood refuge, and sacred sites for deities.

* The sources cited for this statement are: Smith, P. (2002) The palaeo-biological evidence for admixture between populations in the southern Levant and Egypt in the fourth to third millennia Bce. u: Egypt and the Levant: Interrelations from the 4th through the Early 3rd Millennium BCE, London-New York: Leicester University Press, 118-128; Keita, S.O.Y. (2005) "Early Nile Valley Farmers from El-Badari: Aboriginals or "European" Agro-Nostratic Immigrants? Craniometric Affinities Considered With Other Data". Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 191-208; and Kemp, B. 2005 "Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation. Routledge. p. 52-60.

Or, it could have coincided with the early part of the Merimde culture of Egypt (ca. 4800 B.C.E. to 4200 B.C.E.) which appears to have been derived from the Faiyum A culture. But, the funerary practices of the Merimde culture seem entirely unlike those described in the post-arid period people at Gobero. The Merimde people did not have cemetaries or have grave goods, both of which were distinctive aspects of the Gobero burials that were unearthed.

Gobero doesn't have metal artifacts, which would suggest that any Egyptian links may have predated the dawn of the copper age in Egypt ca. 4400 B.C.E. Timewise and based on geography, the Tasian culture of Upper Egypt, ca. 4500 B.C.E. coincides pretty closely with the emergence of post-arid period populations at Gobero.

The post-arid period people at Gobero would seem to predate the Badari culture of Egypt (4400 B.C.E. to 4000 B.C.E. and possibly as far back as 5000 B.C.E.) which is the first one in which direct evidence of agriculture is found. Given that the Badari culture showed strong signs of influences from the Western Desert, it isn't impossible that the Chadic people could have been an important source for the Badari culture, rather than visa versa.

The Gobero People's Contemporaries In The South Levant

The contemporaneous archaeological culture of the South Levant is called the Pottery Neolithic (see also here) and conventionally dated from about 5500 B.C.E. to 4500 B.C.E.

The Gobero People's Contemporaries In Europe

The contemporaneous archaeological cultures in Europe are the Linear Pottery Culture and late Cardium Pottery culture. Thus, this would envision the Chadic people as appearing in the African Sahel around the same time that the Fertile Crescent Neolithic spread to Europe, but in an expansion that was much less dominant in Africa than its European counterparts, presumably because the Fertile Crescent package was nearing its geographic extreme of usefulness there and because the Fertile Crescent package had competition from an indigeneous Sahel Neolithic associated with the Niger-Congo language family there.

The Chadic people may have had less local admixture, particularly patriline local admixture, than other Afro-Asiatic peoples, because the mid-Holocene arid period had left them with a largely vacant region of land to repopulate, while Neolithic migrants bearing the Fertile Crescent package elsewhere in the Afro-Asiatic region may have had to compete with proto-Neolithic populations that had sedentary fishing, hunting, pottery, jewelry, and perhaps even the gathering of pre-domesticated plant that were tended to some extent. Thus, an absence of early populations to dilute them could partially account for Chadic genetic distinctiveness.

However, the parallels between the Chadic arrival and the European early Neolithic shouldn't be overstated, because the Chadic mtDNA signature is closer to that of the Cushitic people than it is the early Neolithic populations of Europe.

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