Afroasiatic Urheimat

Afroasiatic Urheimat

The term Afroasiatic Urheimat refers to the place where Proto-Afroasiatic speakers lived in a single linguistic community, or complex of communities, before this original language dispersed geographically and divided into distinct languages. Afroasiatic languages are spoken today in many parts of Africa and western Asia. (Urheimat means "original homeland" in German.)

There is no agreement on when and where this Urheimat existed, though the language is generally believed to have originated somewhere in or near the region stretching from the Levant to Kenya, and from the Eastern Sahara to the Red Sea, and most commonly thought to have been in the area of Ethiopia and Sudan.[1][2][3][4][5]



Notable hypotheses include the following:

  1. The Horn of Africa, particularly the area of Ethiopia and Eritrea, has been proposed by many linguists because it includes the majority of the diversity of the Afroasiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Within this region there are several variants:
    • Christopher Ehret has proposed the western Red Sea coast from Eritrea to southeastern Egypt. While Ehret disputes Militarev's proposal that Proto-Afroasiatic shows signs of a common farming lexicon, he suggests that early Afroasiatic languages were involved in the even earlier development of intensive food collection in the areas of Ethiopia and Sudan. In other words, he proposes an even older age for Afroasiatic than Militarev, at least 15,000 years old and possibly older, and believes farming lexicon can only be reconstructed for branches of Afroasiatic.[6][7][8][9]
    In the next phase, Ehret proposed an initial split between northern, southern and Omotic. The northern group includes Semitic, Egyptian and Berber (agreeing with others such as Diakonoff). More controversially, he proposed that Chadic stems from Berber (some other authors group it with southern Afroasiatic languages such as Cushitic ones).
    • Roger Blench has proposed Southwestern Ethiopia, in or around the Omo Valley. Compared to Militarev and Ehret he proposed a relatively young time-depth of approximately 7,500 years. Like Ehret he accepts that Omotic is Afroasiatic and sees the split of northern languages and Omotic as an important early development, but he did not group Egyptian or Chadic with any of these.
    • Martin Bernal originally proposed the area around the Kenya-Ethiopia border, before moving his focus south to the Great Rift Valley.[3]
  2. The Eastern Sahara. Igor Diakonoff proposed this region, specifically the southern fringe of the Sahara.[3][4]
  3. Sudan. Lionel Bender proposed the area near Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile.[3][4] The details of his theory are widely cited but controversial, and involves the proposal that Semitic originated in Ethiopia and crossed to Asia directly from there over the Red Sea.
    A more typical proposal is that Semitic is an offshoot of a northern family of Afroasiatic languages, including Berber, and possibly Egyptian. It then entered the Levant and was possibly spread by what Juris Zarins calls the Syro-Arabian nomadic pastoralism complex,[10] spreading south along the shores of the Red Sea and northeast around the edge of the "Fertile Crescent". It is thought that Semitic speakers then crossed from South Arabia back into Eritrea.[11]
    In contrast, Bender proposed on linguistic grounds that Cushitic (found in the Horn of Africa) shares important innovations with Semitic and Berber, and that these three split off early from the others, while still near the homeland of all Afroasiatic.
  4. The Levant. Supporters of a non-African origin for Afroasiatic are particularly common among those with a background in Semitic or Egyptological studies,[1] or amongst archaeological proponents of the "farming/language dispersal hypothesis" according to which major language groups dispersed with early farming technology in the Neolithic.[12][13] The leading linguistic proponent of this idea in recent times is Alexander Militarev. Arguments for and against this position depend upon the contested proposal that farming-related words can be reconstructed in Proto-Afroasiatic, with farming technology being thought to have spread from the Levant into Africa.
    Militarev, who linked proto-Afroasiatic to the Levantine Natufian culture, that preceded the spread of farming technology, believes the language family to be about 10,000 years old. He wrote (Militarev 2002, p. 135) that the “Proto-Afrasian language, on the verge of a split into daughter languages”, meaning, in his scenario, into “Cushitic, Omotic, Egyptian, Semitic and Chadic-Berber”, “should be roughly dated to the ninth millennium BC”.
  5. The Great Rift Valley. More controversially, Martin Bernal came to argue for this Urheimat further south based upon perceived connections between Afroasiatic and Khoisan languages, chiefly the presence of sex-based grammatical gender in contrast to other African languages. This appeared in his controversial work Black Athena, and has not been extensively cited as a mainstream theory.[3]

Population genetics

Frequency of haplogroup E1b1b in select Afro-Asiatic speakers [14][15]
Language (Region where historically spoken) Frequency
Cushitic 32–81%
Egyptian languages 36–60%
Berber languages 40–91%
Semitic languages 7–29%
Omotic languages >50%

Using genetics to make a linguistic argument about a language urheimat and linguistic prehistory is still controversial among linguists.[16]

The migration of Afroasiatic languages from their original homeland is often thought to have also involved the movements of significant numbers of people. Therefore, attempts have been made to associate Afroasiatic language groups with genetic markers.

The most commonly cited genetic marker in recent decades has been the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son along paternal lines in un-mixed form, and therefore gives a relatively clear definition of one human line of descent from common ancestors.

Several branches of humanity's Y DNA family tree have been proposed as having an association with the spread of Afroasiatic languages.

1. Haplogroup E1b1b is thought to have originated in East Africa. In general, Afroasiatic speaking populations have relatively high frequencies of this haplogroup, with the notable exception of Chadic speaking populations. Christopher Ehret and Shomarka Keita have suggested that the geography of the E1b1b lineage coincides with the distribution of Afroasiatic languages.[17]

2. Haplogroup J1c3 (Y-DNA), formally known as "J1e", is actually a more common paternal lineage than E1b1b in most Semitic speaking populations, but this is associated with Middle Eastern origins and has apparently been spread from there after the original dispersion of Afroasiatic.[18]

Frequency of Sub-Haplogroup R1b1a in select Afro-Asiatic speakers[19]
Chadic languages 28.6-95.5%
Berber languages 0-26.9%
Semitic languages 0-40%
Egyptian languages About 14% of Sudanese Copts had R1b[20] although they were not typed for the V88 marker which defines R1b1a

3. Haplogroup R1b1a (R-V88), and specifically its sub-clade R-V69, has a very strong relationship with Chadic speaking populations, who unlike other Afroasiatic speakers have low frequencies of Haplogroup E1b1b. This was announced in 2010 by Cruciani et al.[21] The majority of R-V88 was found in northern and central Africa, in Chadic speaking populations. It is less common in neighbouring populations. The authors also found evidence of high concentration in Western Egypt and evidence that the closest related types of R1b are found in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent southern Europe. They proposed that an Eastern Saharan origin for Chadic R1b would agree with linguistic theories such as those of Christopher Ehret, that Chadic and Berber form a related group within Afroasiatic, which originated in the area of the Sahara.[21]

In contrast to the evidence from paternally inherited Y DNA, a recent study has shown that a branch of mitochondrial haplogroup L3 links the maternal ancestry of Chadic speakers from the Sahel with Cushitic speakers from East Africa.[22]

Other mitochondrial lineages that are associated with Afroasiatic include mitochondrial haplogroups M1 and haplogroup U6. Gonzalez et al. 2007 suggest that Afroasiatic speakers may have dispersed from East Africa carrying the subclades M1a and U6a1.[23]

Nostratic hypothesis

The Nostratic language family is a proposed macrofamily grouping together a number of language families including Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, and more controversially Afroasiatic. Following Pedersen, Illich-Svitych, and Dolgopolsky, most advocates of the theory have included Afroasiatic in Nostratic, though criticisms by Joseph Greenberg and others from the late 1980s onward suggested a reassessment of this position.

Ilya Yabonovich and other linguists, in examining the differences between the various members of the Afroasiatic family have realised that all of the old etymologies for this group were inherently semitocentric. The differences between Chadic, Omotic, Cushitic and Semitic, were wider than those seen between any members of the Indo-European family and as wide as some of the differences seen within and between separate language families, for example, Indo-European and Altaic. Certainly the exclusion of Afroasiatic from the controversial Nostratic family has simplified matters of phonemics, not having to include the complex patterns seen in Afroasiatic languages.

Allan Bomhard (1994) retains Afroasiatic within Nostratic, despite his admission that Proto–Afroasiatic is very different from the other members of the proposed linguistic Nostratic superfamily.[24] As a result he suggests it was probably the first language to have split from the Nostratic linguistic superfamily. Recently, however, a consensus has been emerging among proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis. Greenberg in fact basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' (his Eurasiatic) and a southern 'tier' (principally Afroasiatic and Dravidian). The American Nostraticist Allan Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Afroasiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin (2002) arrives at a tripartite overall grouping: he considers Afroasiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else.[25] Sergei Starostin's school has now re-included Afroasiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic, while reserving the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping which comprises the rest of the macrofamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Dravidian and Kartvelian.

See also


  1. ^ a b Blench R (2006) Archaeology, Language, and the African Past, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-7591-0466-2, 978-0-7591-0466-2,
  2. ^ Ehret C, Keita SOY, Newman P (2004) The Origins of Afroasiatic a response to Diamond and Bellwood (2003) in the Letters of SCIENCE 306, no. 5702, p. 1680 DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5702.1680c
  3. ^ a b c d e Bernal M (1987) Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3655-3, 9780813536552.
  4. ^ a b c Bender ML (1997), Upside Down Afrasian, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 50, pp. 19-34
  5. ^ Militarev A (2005) Once more about glottochronology and comparative method: the Omotic-Afrasian case, Аспекты компаративистики - 1 (Aspects of comparative linguistics - 1). FS S. Starostin. Orientalia et Classica II (Moscow), p. 339-408.
  6. ^ Ehret, Christopher (1982), "On the antiquity of agriculture in Ethiopia" Journal of African History (Univ. of Calif. Berkeley Press)
  7. ^ Ehret C (1995) Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-09799-8, 978-0-520-09799-5
  8. ^ Ehret C (2002a) The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800, James Currey Publishers, ISBN 0-85255-475-3, 978-0-85255-475-3
  9. ^ Ehret C (2002b) Language Family Expansions: Broadening our Understandings of Cause from an African Perspective, in Bellwood and Renfrew (2002 eds).
  10. ^ Zarins, Juris (1990), “Early Pastoral Nomadism and the Settlement of Lower Mesopotamia”, (Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research)
  11. ^ Kitchen, Andrew, Christopher Ehret, et al. 2009. "Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276 no. 1665 (June 22)
  12. ^ Diamond J, Bellwood P (2003) Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions SCIENCE 300, DOI: 10.1126/science.1078208
  13. ^ Bellwood P, Renfrew C (2002 eds) Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.
  14. ^ Keita (2008). "Geography, selected Afro-Asiatic families, and Y chromosome lineage variation". In Hot Pursuit of Language. 
  15. ^ Lancaster, Andrew (2009). "Y Haplogroups, Archaeological Cultures and Language Families: a Review of the Multidisciplinary Comparisons using the case of E-M35". Journal of Genetic Genealogy 5 (1). 
  16. ^ For example, Lyle Campbell and Mauricio J. Mixco, A Glossary of HIstorical Linguistics (2007, University of Utah Press) does not include genetics as one of the tools or methods used to locate a linguistic homeland. The linguistic conclusions of Cavalli-Sforza in Genes, Peoples, and Languages (2001, University of California Press) have been widely shown to be incorrect and unsupportable in many respects.
  17. ^ Ehret, Christopher; Shomarka Keita (2004). "The Origins of Afroasiatic". Science 306 (5702): 1680; author reply 1680. doi:10.1126/science.306.5702.1680c. PMID 15576591. 
  18. ^ Chiaroni et al. (2010). "The emergence of Y-chromosome haplogroup J1e among Arabic-speaking populations". European Journal of Human Genetics 18 (3). doi:10.1038/ejhg.2009.166. PMC 2987219. PMID 19826455. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ . doi:10.1002/ajpa.20876. PMID 18618658. 
  21. ^ a b Cruciani et al.; Trombetta, B; Sellitto, D; Massaia, A; Destro-Bisol, G; Watson, E; Beraud Colomb, E; Dugoujon, JM et al. (2010). "Human Y chromosome haplogroup R-V88: a paternal genetic record of early mid Holocene trans-Saharan connections and the spread of Chadic languages". European Journal of Human Genetics 18 (7): 800–7. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2009.231. PMC 2987365. PMID 20051990. 
  22. ^ Cerny, V; Fernandes, V; Costa, MD; Hájek, M; Mulligan, CJ; Pereira, L (2009). "Migration of Chadic speaking pastoralists within Africa based on population structure of Chad Basin and phylogeography of mitochondrial L3f haplogroup". BMC evolutionary biology 9: 63. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-63. PMC 2680838. PMID 19309521. 
  23. ^ Gonzalez et al, AM; Larruga, JM; Abu-Amero, KK; Shi, Y; Pestano, J; Cabrera, VM (2007). "Mitochondrial lineage M1 traces an early human backflow to Africa". BMC genomics 8: 223. doi:10.1186/1471-2164-8-223. PMC 1945034. PMID 17620140. 
  24. ^ Bomhard, Alan and John Kerns (1994) "The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship" (Walter de Gruyter)
  25. ^ George Starostin, On the genetic affiliation of the Elamite language


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