Christopher Ehret

Christopher Ehret (born July 27, 1941), a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a writer on African history and African historical linguistics, particularly known for his efforts to correlate linguistic taxonomy and reconstruction with the archeological record. He has published eight books and around seventy scholarly articles on a wide range of historical, linguistic, and anthropological subjects. He has also contributed to a number of encyclopedias on African topics and on world history.

Ehret’s historical books emphasize early African history. In An African Classical Age (1998) he argues for a conception of the period from 1000 BC to 400 AD in East Africa as a "classical age" during which a variety of major technologies and social structures first took shape. His Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (2002), brings together the whole of African history from the close of the last ice age down to the end of the eighteenth century. With the archaeologist Merrick Posnansky, he also edited The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History (1982), at that time a state-of-the-field survey of the correlation of linguistic and archaeological findings in the different major regions of the continent.

His linguistic works include A Comparative Reconstruction of Proto-Nilo-Saharan (2002), Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (1995), and The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (1980). These reconstructions are impeccably Neogrammarian in their insistence on regular sound changes, but have been criticized for sometimes postulating surprising semantic shifts. Ehret has also written monographic articles on Bantu subclassification, on internal reconstruction in Semitic, on the reconstruction of proto-Cushitic and proto-Eastern Cushitic, and, with Mohamed Nuuh Ali, on the classification of the Soomaali languages. These works all provide data-rich treatments of their subjects and large bodies of primary evidence useful to other scholars.

In recent years Ehret has carried his work in several new directions. One of these has been the reconstruction of the history and evolution of early human kinship systems. A second interest has been to apply the methods of historical reconstruction from linguistic evidence to issues in anthropological theory and in world history. He has also collaborated with geneticists in seeking to correlate linguistic with genetic findings (e.g., Sarah A. Tishkoff, Floyd A. Reed, F. R. Friedlaender, Christopher Ehret, Alessia Ranciaro, et al., “The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans,” Science 324, 22 May 2009) and in developing mathematical tools for dating linguistic history (e.g., Andrew Kitchen, Christopher Ehret, Shiferew Assefa, and Connie Mulligan, "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, July 2009).

Contents

Sudanic Nilo-Saharan Religious Traditions

General Description

According to Ehret, there was a marked change in the religion of one part of Nilo-Saharan peoples to what he calls the Sudanic Religion.

The Northern Sudanians developed religious ideas strikingly different from the nontheistic beliefs we attributed (in chapter 2) to their ancestors in the earlier Middle Nile Tradition. Their Sudanic religion, as we will term it here, was monotheistic. At the core of the belief system was a single Divinity, or God. Divinity was identified metaphorically with the sky, and the power of Divinity was often symolized by lightning. There was no other category of spirits or deities. (...) The sudanic belief viewed evil as a Divine judgment or retribution for the wrong that a person, or a person's forebears, had done in life. The ancestors passed after death into some kind of vaguely conceived afterlife, but they had no functional role in religious observances or rituals.[1]

In part of the Sudanic peoples, a tradition of sacral kingship or chiefship developed in which the position of the king was justified by a divine law given by Divinity. This aspect of the Sudanic religion entailed the sending of servants into the afterlife along with the deceased chief. This aspect of Sudanic civilization had a strong influence on Egypt. The roots of the later Egyptian "divine" kingship lay in this Sudanic innovation.[2]

According to Ehret, the Sudanic religion also began having a strong influence on the original Afrasan religion of the Cushites after the seventh millennium BC.[3]

Maasai religion

A contemporary example for a variety of the Sudanic religious tradition is the monotheistic religion of the Maasai.

Meroitic religion

The religion of ancient Meroe is a variety of the Sudanic religion with some Egyptian influence.[4]

Khoisan Religious Traditions

General Description

In reference to Khoisan spirituality, Ehret asserts that:

The Khoisan, like the earliest Nilo-Saharans, adhered to a nontheistic religious outlook. Their beliefs recognized the existence of an impersonal condition of spirit, a force that existed outside human beings as well as in some animals. In the thought of the particular Khoisan peoples who have lived in southern Africa since 5,000 BCE, this force could be tapped by means of the trance-dance and used to heal sickness and to relieve social and individual stress and conflict. In this procedure, a person recognized for special religious talents, a kind of shaman whom we may call a trance-healer, dances until he or she goes into a state of trance, which might last for many hours. The trance healers were not full-time specialists... If no trance dance was being performed, and that means the great majority of the time, the healer held no special position and engaged in the usual pursuits like anyone else.[5]

Afro-Asiatic (Afrasan) Religious traditions

General Description

According to linguist Christopher Ehret, traditional religion among Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples was originally henotheistic in nature.[6] In this sense, each clan gave allegiance to the community's own god while still accepting that other gods (i.e. ways of venerating/respecting the One/Ultimate God) also exist.[6] Each Afrasan clan community was headed by a hereditary ritual leader.[7] With regard to major groupings of the Erythraite peoples and the Cushites, Ehret refers to this ritual priest as the '*wap'er'. The '*wap'er' carried out the traditional spiritual rites for each group, but was by no means a political chief or accorded significant political authority.[7] Rather, the role of the clan *wap'er was to preside over the community rituals directed toward that deity and to act for the community as the intercessor and interpreter of the deity.[7] Ehret states that in the founding Afro-Asiatic spiritual tradition, evil was seen as being caused by petty or demonic 'spirits' that dwelled among humans.[6]

Egyptian Religion

Ancient Egyptian religion developed as a branch of the Afro-Asiatic religious tradition with some influences from the Sudanic religion. The ancestors of the Egyptians, who came from the direction of the beginning of the Nile in Kenya[citation needed] well before 10.000 BC and spoke an Afro-Asiatic language directly ancestral to ancient Egyptian brought with them the belief in Clan deities. When the clan territories were later merged into Egypt, these clan deities were merged into a pantheon of a new polytheistic religion. A contribution came from the Sudanic inhabitants of what became the southernmost province of Egypt, [Ta-Seti]. The concept of a sacral King and the sending of servants into the grave alongside the King, a custom only stopped during the 3rd dynasty, are of Sudanic origin (see below section on Sudanic religion).[8] The Sun god as creation god and the divine law [Maat] connected to the sun god and justifying the rule of the King also show Sudanic influence.

Cushitic Religion

According to Ehret, the religious beliefs of the proto-Cushites were a mixture of two distinct religious traditions. Probably as early as the seventh millennium BCE, the Cushites in parts of eastern Africa blended their traditional Afro-Asiatic religion with aspects of the religious tradition of their Sudanic neighbours. Specifically, they exchanged their belief in a clan deity with the Sudanic concept of "Divinity", expanding the use of the old Cushitic root for "sky" (waak'a) to also extend to "Divinity". However, they retained their older institution of a clan priest-chief (or *wap'er), with the *wap'er's religious duties now re-directed toward Divinity. The Cushites also retained the old Afrasan practice of ascribing unfortunate occurrences to maleficent spirits, but also sometimes viewed evil as Divine retribution.[3]

Omotic Religion

Among the Omotic peoples of southwestern Ethiopia (whom Ehret and many other linguists consider to be Afrasan-speaking) Afrasan henotheism has been preserved relatively unchanged.[6]

References

  1. ^ Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 66. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  2. ^ Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, pages 92-94. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  3. ^ a b Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 79. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  4. ^ Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 207. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  5. ^ Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 54. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  6. ^ a b c d Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 41. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  7. ^ a b c Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 40. University Press of Virginia. 2002.
  8. ^ Ehret, C. The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800, page 92-94. University Press of Virginia. 2002.

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