Thursday 16 May 2024

The African Origins of Phoenicians

Around c. 14,000 – c. 12,500 BP, during the Epipaleolithic period, an Afroasiatic African culture called the Mushabian culture arose from a population of Northeast African, and moved into Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and mixed with an earlier descendants of Africans - a Levant culture called the Kebarian culture - to create the Natufian culture.

The culture is named after Wadi Mushabi and probably derives from the Nizzanian culture of the Negev.# Mushabian must have been a culturally, social and politically dominant culture since the imprints of Afroasiatic culture have been found on the material records.

We have archaeological, DNA, written, linguistic, and political evidence of the African influence on the Phoenicians.

Archaeologists' opinions:

According to Ofer Bar-Yosef :

"A contemporary desertic entity was labeled "Mushabian," and was considered to be, on the basis of the technotypological features of its lithics, of North African origin. The fieldwork done in recent years in northern Sinai and the Negev has shown that the forms of the Mushabian microliths (mainly curved and arched backed bladelets) and the intensive use of the microburin technique was a trait foreign to previous Levantine industries, but instead is closer to the Iberomaurusian."[1]

According to Thomas Levy:

"The Mushabian is commonly considered to have originated in North Africa, largely on the basis of habitual of the microburin technique and general morphological similarities with some assemblages in Nubia(Phillips and Mintz 1977; Bar-Yosef and Vogel 1987."[2]

According to Eric Delson:

"A different industry, the Mushabian, is marked by steeply arched microliths and the frequent use of the microburin technique. The Mushabian is found exclusively in the arid interior southern Levant (e.g., Sinai), suggesting it could represent an arid-land adaptation. Some researchers have noted stylistic continuities between the Mushabian and the Ibero-Maurusian of North Africa, suggesting the Mushabian may represent a migration of African groups into the southern Levant."[3]

According to Deborah Olszewski:

"At the time that Henry and Garrard analyzed and published the Tor Hamar assemblage, it was commonly believed that microburin technique appeared relatively late in the Levantine Epipaleolithic sequence, perhaps being derived from microburin technique in Egypt. Since then, however, several Jordanian sites have produced evidence of microburin technique well in advance of the latter part of the Epipaleolithic sequence. These include Wadi Uwaynid 18 and Wadi Uwaynid 14 in the Azraq region of Jordan, with radiocarbon dates between 19 800 and 18 400 uncal. BP, Tor at-Tareeq in the Wadi al-Hasa area of Jordan, with radiocarbon dates between 16 900 and 15 580 uncal. BP, and Tor Sageer, also in the Wadi al-Hasa area, with radiocarbon dates between 22 590 and 20 330 BP.

This new evidence clearly documents the use of the microburin technique in the inland Levant during the earliest phases of the Epipaleolithic. Thus, its presence at sites such as Wadi Madamagh and Tor Hamar cannot necessarily be used to link these sites to the Mushabian Complex, a fact also noted by Byrd".[4]

According to Nigel Goring-Morris:

"Another technological shift is reflected in the approach to microlith fabrication, when backed microliths replaced finely retouched types, sometimes using the microburin technique. The introduction and systematic use of this technique in the Levant (i.e., Nebekian, Nizzanan, and later the Mushabian, Ramonian, and Natufian) are an endemic phenomenon, originating east of the Rift Valley".[5]

Dna evidence:

We also have the genomics findings which trace the arrivals of humans to Phoenicia from East African male M35 snp carriers and female M1, N and L3 snp carriers.

Genetic studies have shed light on the origins of the Phoenicians, suggesting a complex ancestry with influences from various in situ populations - East African, North African, Natufian, Neolithic, Pastoral, Chalcolithic (meaning “copper” from “Kal-kuh” and “stone”) and Hunter-gatherer populations. Research on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line, has indicated a common ancestry with other East Mediterranean populations, including North Africans. This genetic connection could be attributed to historical interactions and migrations between North Africa and the Levant, facilitated by trade, conquest, and cultural exchange.

Ancient witnesses:

Herodotus: "For it is plain to see that Colchians are Egyptians; and this that I say I myself noted before I heard it from others. When I began to think on this matter, I inquired of both peoples; and the Colchians remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Colchians; the Egyptians said that they held the Colchians to be part of Sesostris' army. I myself guessed it to be so, partly because they are dark-skinned and woolly-haired; though that indeed goes for nothing, seeing that other peoples, too, are such; but my better proof was that the Colchians and Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only nations that have from the first practised circumcision. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine acknowledge of themselves that they learnt the custom from the Egyptians, and the Syrians of the valleys of the Thermodon and the Parthenius, as well as their neighbours the Macrones, say that they learnt it lately from the Colchians. These are the only nations that circumcise, and it is seen that they do even as the Egyptians. But as to the Egyptians and Ethiopians themselves, I cannot say which nation learnt it from the other; for it is manifestly a very ancient custom. That the others learnt it from intercourse with Egypt I hold to be clearly proved by this — that Phoenicians who hold intercourse with Hellas cease to imitate the Egyptians in this matter and do not circumcise their children."

Some Greek sources claim the Phoenicians traced their ancestry to various figures, including the god Baal Hammon (called Cronus in Greek) and his descendants, particularly his grandson Cadmus, who was credited with introducing the alphabet to Greece. However, it's essential to note that mythological accounts often blend fact with fiction and should be approached with caution.

Linguistic evidence:

Linguistically, the Phoenician language belonged to the Afroasiatic language family, a linguistic group that includes languages spoken across North Africa and the Middle East. This linguistic affiliation suggests a connection to other ancient civilizations in the region, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and the Mesopotamians. The use of an Afroasiatic script, particularly the Phoenician alphabet, which served as the basis for numerous other writing systems including Greek and Latin, further underscores the cultural and linguistic ties of the Phoenicians to the Northeast African Protoafroasiatic Homeland and later the the broader Afroasiatic-speaking world.

3rd and 2nd millennium impact of Egyptian economic and military dominance:

The periods of Egyptian occupation during the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom likely contributed to cultural and genetic exchanges between the Phoenicians and the Egyptians. Egypt's influence on Phoenician culture, religion, architecture, and technology during these periods is well-documented, with evidence of trade relations, diplomatic exchanges, and even military campaigns. Phoenician architecture was influenced by Egyptian styles, particularly evident in temple architecture and monumental construction techniques.

Religious similarities:

Melqart and Astarte, prominent deities in Phoenician mythology, share similarities to two deities in the Egyptian pantheon in their roles as powerful figures associated with aspects of fertility, protection, and divine influence. Melqart, revered as the patron god of Tyre, embodies maritime prowess, trade, and the city's prosperity, while Astarte symbolizes love, war, and fertility. Similarly, Khnum and Neith, deities in ancient Egyptian mythology, are associated with creation, craftsmanship, and protection. Khnum, often depicted as a ram-headed god, represents fertility and the Nile's annual inundation, while Neith is revered as a goddess of war, weaving, and wisdom. Despite these similarities, each deity possesses distinct attributes and domains, reflecting the unique cultural contexts of Phoenician and Egyptian civilizations.

In conclusion, the roots of Phoenician civilization extend deep into Africa, specifically with the emergence of the Mushabian culture around 14,000 to 12,500 years ago. This Afroasiatic culture left indelible marks on the material and genetic records of the Levant, shaping the development of Phoenician society. Through archaeological, DNA, linguistic, and historical evidence, we see a rich tapestry of influences from North Africa, the Levant, and beyond, highlighting the interconnectedness of ancient civilizations and the complexity of Phoenician origins.

# Fellner 1995, p.25

(1). Annual Review of Anthropology. Annual Reviews Incorporated. 1972. pp. 121.

(2). Levy, Thomas (1995-01-01). Arch Of Society. A&C Black. p. 161.

(3). Delson, Eric; Tattersall, Ian; Couvering, John Van; Brooks, Alison S. (2004-11-23). Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory: Second Edition. Routledge. p. 97.

(4). Olszewski, D.I. Issues in the Levantine Epipaleolithic : The Madamaghan, Nebekian and Qalkhan (Levant Epipaleolithic). Paléorient, 2006, Vol. 32 No. 1, p. 19-26.

(5). Goring-Morris, Nigel et al. 2009.The Dynamics of Pleistocene and Early Holocene Settlement Patterns in the Levant: An Overview. In Transitions in Prehistory: Essays in Honor of Ofer Bar-Yosef (eds) John J. Shea and Daniel E. Lieberman. Oxbow Books, 2009.

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