Ethnogenesis Research Paper

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The term ‘ethnogenesis’ is an obvious construction between two classical Greek roots, ethnos for tribe or nation and genesis for birth or beginning, and consequently the word has been invented and reinvented several times. In general, the term has been used over the last two centuries to describe the processes by which tribes, nations, and ethnicities have come into existence in history and prehistory. However, the various major schools of thought, French, Soviet, Central European, ethnohistorical, and sociocultural, have proceeded using different methodologies, and their subject matter has also been somewhat different. Intellectually, ethnogenetic theories have tended to serve as counterpoints to racial theories of human and national origins. More than most scholarly concepts, these theories have frequently been invoked by one side or another in hotly contested political disputes.

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1. The French Tradition

Probably the first to construct the term ethnogenesis was Andre-Marie Ampere, the French physical scientist who published his Essaivsur La Philosophie des Sciences in 1834. In the course of outlining ‘all human knowledge,’ he created a typology in which the science of ethnology was said to comprise ethnography, geography, and ethnogenie. His conception of ethno-genesis was actually quite modern, since he hypothesized that a new ethnic group would usually arise from people of shared descent, or having common beliefs, or occupying a shared territory. But he did not allege, as later theorists did, that these three characteristics necessarily went together.

Several works of history explicitly labeled ethno-genetic were created later in nineteenth-century France, but it is not clear if they were directly inspired by Ampere. Whether or not, a standard method of ethnogenetic research was invented in this period, called the chronological method, which consisted of the following steps: (a) identification of possible ethnic antecedents for modern and recent nations by analyzing and criticizing ancient writings, particularly those in Latin; (b) evaluation of which antecedents were most influential in creating the culture of a descendant nation, and (c) assertion of the cultural primacy or hegemony of certain sets of cultural institutions over others, for example concluding that France is primarily a Celtic nation, or a Roman one, on the basis of language or legal principles.

A good illustration of this methodology is contained in Les Origines des Aquitains by Alphonse Castaing, published in Paris in 1885. Taking as his challenge the idea that the Aquitains of southwestern France were originally Basques from the Iberian Peninsula, Cas-taing mobilized passages from Caesar and Pliny. He identified ‘cognates’ among the ethnonyms used by classic authors (Galls, Belges, Bretons, Basques, Gas-cons, etc.) and put the cultural and demographic influences of different immigrations into chronological order. Then he concluded that ‘the Aquitains are Gallish, as Caesar declared and as the ancient doctrine admits.’

Another work in the French school is Ethnogenie Gauloise by de Belloguet (1872) that emphasizes linguistic evidence. The author concluded that the langue Gauloise is ‘not Germanic, but entirely Celtic.’ Throughout the French school, we find the assumption that every society has a cultural core which can be reliably assigned to just one antecedent. This assumption is analogous to the premise in historical linguistics that every language has a syntactic and semantic core that can reliably be assigned to one and only one language family.

2. Racial Histories

It is no accident that French ethnogenetic histories appeared soon after the publication of racial histories by Gobineau and other German authors beginning in 1853. In these racial histories, the French and other European nationalities are cast as imperfect Germans, the results of interbreeding between the Nordic or Aryan ‘race’ and indigenous Celtic and Slavic peoples. The more general evolutionary theory is that there were originally in antiquity a small number of allegedly ‘pure’ human races which interacted historically, culturally, and biologically over the centuries to create the distribution of European ethnicities observed in the nineteenth century. In this tradition, which con-tinued through Houston Chamberlain and Herman Wirth, and which finds its ominous climax in the writings of Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg, the defined races are said to be not only biologically distinct, but culturally distinct, and each is endowed with a specific level of intellect, and a unique morality and character (Shipman 1994). While Rosenberg emphasized the superiority of the Nordic ‘Sun-People,’ who he said originated in Atlantis, now sunk between Iceland and Greenland, the Italian Fascists emphasized Roman antecedents for modern Italians, and they alleged that Romans were culturally and biologically superior to Celtic, African, and other especially Mediterranean peoples (Cecil 1972)

These racial histories embodied theories of cultural degeneration that hark back to traditional Christian ideas about the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and the wandering tribes of Israel embraced in previous centuries. The general idea is that once upon a time there were clearly defined races in a world where everyone was in their correct place, geographically and socially. But then migration and interbreeding gradually eroded this cultural balance, producing ‘mixed races’ which were inferior to the originals. These, then, are not theories of cultural evolution, but of cultural devolution, promising that the ‘superior’ races could reemerge under something like the Nazi political program of segregation and genocide. By contrast, the ethnogenetic theories, with some notable exceptions, have tended to be progressive in content. In a manner analogous to biological evolution, new ‘species’ of ethnic groups are said to arise continually, pushing aside preexisting ethnicities until the new ethnic formations are in turn pushed aside. Each new ethnic group is supposed to represent a cultural improvement over previous ones, so that overall this process is supposed to propel the human species toward something called ‘civilization.’

A prominent but bizarre theory of evolution, explicitly labeled ‘ethnogenetic,’ emerged in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Writing in 1940, Domingos Magarinos argued that the human species evolved in the Central Plateau of Brazil during the late Tertiary. Further, ‘languages, alphabets, beliefs, laws, every-thing originated in Brazil and from Brazil it was diffused to the rest of the world.’ As strange as this sounds in light of modern archaeology and palaeontology, such extreme statements call attention to the essentially chauvinist and patriotic nature not only of this book, but of many other essays in the traditions of ethnogenesis and racial history.

3. The Soviet Tradition

The Soviet conception of ethnogenesis or etnogenes was apparently not derived directly from the French tradition, despite some similarities, but developed independently from Marxist discussions of ‘the national question.’ In its Stalinist form, a nation or ‘ethnos’ was defined as ‘… a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psycho-logical make-up manifested in a common culture’ (Stalin 1975). Under Soviet law, those nations and ethnic groups that qualified for non-Russian ethnic status were supposed to be given certain privileges of language and culture, and to enjoy limited autonomy and sovereignty within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Over time, these minority groups were supposed to become increasingly Russified, voluntarily losing their own languages and cultures.

Like the French tradition, the Soviet tradition arose to some extent as a response to racial histories. In this regard it is interesting to note that Alfred Rosenberg was resident in Moscow as a student during the 1917 revolution. Contemptuous of Slavic peoples, Rosen-berg wrote blueprints in the late Nazi period for a territorially expanded Third Reich in which Russians and Poles would serve as manual laborers for the German master race. Rosenberg alleged that the Slavic peoples, as well as the Lithuanians, Hungarians, Gypsies, Czechs, and other ‘inferior races,’ had no history of their own, except that which they derived from interactions with more ‘advanced’ races

After Soviet scholarship was reorganized on a ‘revolutionary’ basis in 1934, the task of writing official histories for the various component nations of the Soviet Union was split between the discipline of history, which included archaeology, and ethnography, which was increasingly focused on Soviet minorities in Siberia and Central Asia. History was especially entrusted with refuting ‘German nationalist’ conceptions of European history, and to this end the theory of ethnogenesis was invoked to describe and explain the actual origins of the Russian people (Mehnert 1952)

To refute the ‘Nordic’ view, Soviet historians denied that the original ‘Rus’ were from Scandinavia, asserting instead that the ethnogenesis of the Russian ethnicity had been entirely ‘autochthonous.’ In this view, the ancient Slavic peoples had always lived where they were located in modern times, and were the same as the Scythians of classical times ( 500 BC). Most importantly, for political purposes, it was alleged that while the ancient Slavs had interacted with Varengian traders from the north and with literate societies such as Byzantium, they had never been under their domination but had always been a coequal partner in the development of Western civilization

To describe ancient Russian and Soviet history, which became more and more synonymous during the Stalin period, historians utilized the evolutionary periods defined by Marx and Engels: primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, and communist. The stages of Russian history and the status of their historical allies and antagonists were also characterized in these terms. Scores if not hundreds of Soviet historians cooperated in this effort, producing hundreds of revisionist and Soviet-flattering books and articles between 1935 and 1990, predominantly in Russian.

While the word ethnogenesis soon faded in Soviet historical studies in favor of a more conventional vocabulary involving ‘nation’ and ‘nationality,’ the word and its embodied theory blossomed in Soviet anthropology. Although the terms ‘ethnos’ and ‘ethno-genesis’ were proposed for Soviet anthropology as early as 1921 by S. M. Shirokogoroff, the theory did not truly catch fire in the Soviet Union until after World War II. In the meantime, there was a complex jockeying for position among Soviet academic disciplines, and there was the ongoing problem of how to maintain a theoretical and philosophical position within an academic discipline that was compatible with the ever-changing party line of official Soviet Marxism-Leninism (Slezkine 1991).

Practically and philosophically, these problems were solved for anthropology in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Soviet theorist Julian Bromley, who proposed that ethnography (which included what we would call ethnology in English) should focus on the ethnos and especially should investigate the processes of ethnogenesis among small-scale Soviet societies. He defined the ethnos in an orthodox Marxist manner which reflected earlier discussions of the national question, as follows: ‘Ethnos (in the narrow sense of the term) can be defined as a firm aggregate of people, historically established on a given territory, possessing in common relatively stable particularities of language and culture, and also recognizing their unity and difference from other similar formations (self-aware-ness) and expressing this in a self-appointed name (ethnonym).’ Contrasting the process of ethnogenesis with racial history, he says that ethnogenesis ‘shows that all modern peoples trace their origins to a diversity of ethnic components and are mixed in composition, and consequently refutes racist, chauvinist inventions about the ‘‘racial purity,’’ ‘‘indigenous ancestry,’’ and ‘‘national exclusiveness’’ of certain peoples.’ This perspective on the various ethnic groups of the Soviet Union gained official support in the Communist leadership, and resulted in increased approval and support for Soviet anthropology. Essentially, the discipline of anthropology was given the franchise for investigating the social and cultural status of Soviet minorities. Their findings and recommendations concerning the language and culture of over a hundred minority groups often found a sympathetic audience among Soviet bureaucrats entrusted with administering the 27 ‘republics’ and ‘autonomous regions’ within the Soviet Union.

As leader of the Institute of Ethnography in Moscow, Bromley commissioned hundreds of anthropological field trips throughout the Soviet Union to collect data on language, demography, biology, economics, and culture, resulting in a large number of publications. Between 1977 and 1982, for example, Soviet anthropologists produced more than 500 books and articles, many of them directly addressed to issues of ethnogenesis. It is no exaggeration to say that during its most active period, anthropologists connected with the Institute produced more pages of ethnogenetic study than the rest of the world before or since. However, because of the Cold War and a lack of literacy in Russian among Western scholars, these publications have not had the academic impact that they might have had under other circumstances.

Ironically, and as a post-Soviet footnote to the era of ethnogenetic studies, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union has seen the use of earlier ethnogenetic theories to deny Russian influences on former Soviet minorities and allies. Recent Romanian historical scholarship, for example, has returned to an emphasis on their Latin roots, minimizing the significance of their historical relationships with Slavic peoples. Peoples of the Caucasus have done the same. And so ethnogenesis is now being used to allege social and even biological ‘purity,’ purposes opposite to those intended by Bromley.

4. The Central European Tradition

Another independent ethnogenetic school of thought developed in the countries of Central Europe after World War II, largely Austrian and mostly published in German. This scholarly florescence was, once again, a reaction against the race-based culture histories offered by Fascist and Nazi historians and pre-historians before 1945. This postwar school of ethnogenese tends to consider the same range of problems as the earlier French ethnogenetic tradition, but without as much concern for general theory or for creating an explicit shared definition of ethnogenesis.

The results of these efforts, presented at periodic Limeskongresses in Central Europe since 1949 and as part of other activities sponsored by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, constitute an important re-consideration of the origins of all European nations as well as a sprinkling of other societies around the world (Wolfram and Pohl 1990). In their vocabulary and range of interests, this network of ethnogenetic scholars is much more historical and archaeological than it is anthropological. Their implicit evolutionary theories are largely progressive and somewhat Euro-centric. They see ‘progress’ in terms in increases in social scale, improvements in infrastructure, the development of capitalist democracy, and higher literacy.

5. Ethnohistory

In recent decades, ethnogenetic studies of tribal ethnohistory have had a renaissance in the United States, inspired largely by a classic 1971 article by William Sturtevant. Taking his cue from Soviet scholars, Sturtevant used the concept to describe the separation of the Seminoles from the Mvskoke Creeks in the period 1780–1820, and he defined ethnogenesis simply as ‘the establishment of group distinctiveness.’ In his writing, he has elaborated this simple definition to include distinctiveness in territory, economy, and political structure.

In the hands of American scholars such as Nancy Hickerson and Ernest Burch, ethnogenetic theory has lost much of its political baggage and become a tool for doing ethnohistory, a hybrid field between history and ethnology which analyzes tribal and ethnic histories during that shadowy period between prehistory and history, where there exist only cursory and distorted ethnographic descriptions. During the period of Spanish colonialism, for example, Hickerson uses Spanish documents to show how the so-called ‘Jumanos’ underwent two centuries of migrations from Mexico to Canada and a series of ecological revolutions and basic ethnonymic transformations before emerging on the Central Plains as the ‘Kiowa Indians’ in the early nineteenth century. On a more limited time scale, Ernest Burch and his colleagues have shown how a group of Athapaskans in Alaska were ethnogenetically transformed into ‘Eskimos’ between 1860 and 1880 (Hill 1996).

6. Sociocultural Approaches

In 1962, American sociologist Lester Singer once again reinvented the word ‘ethnogenesis’ to describe ‘the process whereby a people, that is an ethnic group, comes into existence.’ This theme, and the word, was picked up by other sociologists and some socio-cultural anthropologists for the study of ethnic or national minorities within complex societies. Independently, Belgian anthropologist Eugeen Roosens has developed his own brand of ethnogenetic studies, addressing himself not only to tribal societies but to European immigrant minorities. His work, like that of sociologists, is more clearly inspired by theories of ethnicity than of ethnogenesis, since it considers only a shallow time depth and is not much concerned with evolutionary theory.

7. Remaining Issues

Currently, the global spectrum of ethnogenetic studies ranges from the strictly humanistic to the thoroughly scientific. On the humanistic side, historians and some sociologists are largely indifferent to the task of defining general principles of ethnogenesis. The more politicized scholars of ethnogenesis, in fact, often assert that the processes that produced their particular nation or ethnic group were absolutely unique. At the other end of the spectrum, prehistorians, ethnohistorians, and ethnologists of a scientific orientation are very much preoccupied with developing and refining theories of ethnogenesis that are consonant with and in fact are constituent parts of general evolutionary theory. From the great volume of data already in hand and still being collected, specific and elaborate scientific theories of ethnogenesis, clearly articulated with evolutionary theory, are sure to emerge.

The most imminent current problem for ethno-genetic scientists, however, is determining how many processes of ethnogenesis there might be, and characterizing the differences among them. Perhaps there are some aspects of ethnogenesis that are universally typical of the process, no matter what its scale or geographical location, just as there are recurrent features of millenarian processes and political revolutions. Once these ubiquitous features are accounted for, the more significant problem for theories of cultural evolution is whether the remaining unique or variable aspects of ethnogenesis can be placed in some kind of chronological order, or otherwise seriated in some unilinear or multilinear and universal sequence. If they can, then ethnogenesis can be counted among the most important processes of cultural evolution.


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