The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
The name Sabean appears in the Torah and the Qur'an. The name appears in various old sources but with little detail, and the name was apparently applied to more than one people, nation or geographical area. In many discussions about this term, there is no attempt to deal with the complexity of usage of the term in different contexts and sources.
For instance, a host of unreflective writers seem unaware that the texts of the Bible were written over a period of hundreds of years, and contain sources thousands of years old, according to specialists in the ancient texts. Usage of names and terminology changes over centuries, even decades. Empires come and go, powers fall and names are taken up by new powers.
Reuse of Names
Legendary or mythical references are combined and blurred with historical and modern references, ignoring the difference in the type of text, cultural or historical context. causing a general muddle about what it is the term Sabean refers to, along with a similar confusion of related terms like "Cush."
Usages of names from ancient texts are treated as though they were written in the modern era in western analytical terms like modern science and history. This disregard for the integrity of each source and the disrespect for the character of ancient sources is troubling.
Simplistic readers and writers assume that a name in any text always refers to the same political entity or ethnic people. Why should we expect that to be true? Names are borrowed and reused. Like the modern state of Macedonia, for instance. The inhabitants are not Greek, but predominantly Slavic.
Modern Macedonia has no relation to the ancient land of the Macedonian people, a branch of the Hellenic peoples, whose young king Alexander went on to conquer and combine the Greeks proper and much of his ancient world, firmly establishing the already extensively-distributed Greek speech as the common reference language of virtually the whole civilized world, including parts of China. Macedonia is not Macedonia. The same thing has happened throughout human history.
The original people called "Macedonians" were a genetically mixed Greek-speaking people who got that name from a place of origin of their leader, king and military commander Philip of Mecadon. By the time of Philip and his son Alexander, Greek had already been long established among the Etruscans and Romans, with Greek trading colonies all over the Mediterranean and Iberia from early human history.
Greek was already the language of culture, literature and commerce in the Roman Republic before it started its conquest of the Mediterranean world. Alexander's Empire extended the reach and consolidated Greek as the common interlanguage of much of Asian and northern Africa, as well. The Romans kept Greek in place as the dominant interlanguage of the areas they conquered, simply incorporating the Greek/Macedonian political, cultural and commercial structures already in place.
The modern Macedonians are the descendants of Slavic invaders from Asia, related to the Bulgarians, Russians, Czechs and other Slavic peoples now established in Eastern and Central Europe. They chose the term "Macedonia" for their area in very recent times, as a defensive identification with the Greek/Macedonian history of the area in their conflict with the modern Greeks over the area and the Slavic presence in this traditional Greek area under the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the 20th century events in the area. All this is common knowledge and you can easily find extensive information on the details.
These same patterns occurred in the societies and peoples of Eastern African and southern Arabia and along the Nile River. So let's not get hung up on terms and names, as though some name has to always have only one and the same meaning.
Ancient names are often taken up by later political or ethnic entities with different seats of power. It is not a grade-school topic. For instance, a modern ethnic state expands to conquer neighboring peoples in the Horn of Africa, and chooses to take a new name for itself, choosing an ancient Nile kingdom of a different ethnic and racial people.
Thus modern Amhara kings adopted the name "Ethiopia" from the ancient empire of the Nubians in MeroŽ, along the upper Nile River north of Khartoum. Ethiopia is not Ethiopia. When "Cush is used of modern Ethiopia, it does not mean the same thing as when "Cush" might have been used for MeroŽ.
Likewise "Sabean" may be used differently or imprecisely by various ancient writers, or understood differently by people of any particular nation.
Some commentators have proposed that the Sabeans were Cushites, while others have thought they were Semites. Behind this may be a confusion of language names and categories and ethnic or political categories of classification. In legendary and prehistory texts, the term "Cush" was used ambiguously and with varying reference. This very approach is plagued by a niggling ambiguity of just what "Cush" means.
The term Cush seems also to be used in ancient references sometimes for southern Arabia as well as a section of the Nile area, perhaps what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea and the neighbouring area of Sudan.
It should be noted also that it will be misleading if one takes the brief references in Genesis and assumes the names are used the same way in modern scientific endeavors related to ethnic and language history. The term also seems to be used differently in the early references in Genesis from later more historical texts.
The ancient empires included different ethnic and linguistic peoples. What language the Sabeans spoke is a separate matter from the question of who they were descended from, and the two matters of analysis should be clarified to correspond with established bodies of knowledge to avoid confusion.
Languages and cultures are not directly related to any genetic origins in any particular generation or people. Peoples move or are conquered or merge for other reasons all the time, mixing their varied genes. But language and culture streams are more traceable and identifiable.
The name form Sheba or Seba, like many place names or personal names, is found related to multiple peoples or the eponymous ancestors. There are at least two individuals by that name or a variation referred to in biblical texts, both representing nations. One must be sure which reference is in focus in any one discussion. This biblical redundance or ambivalence matches the varied, sparse references in historical sources now known to scholars.
Descendants of Seba, son of Cush (Genesis 10:7)
Descendants of Sheba, the son of Raamah (Genesis 10:7) or Joktan (Genesis 10:28; compare Genesis 25:3)
The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia notes that two peoples or areas in history were known by similar names:
"This Saba (Sheba) must not be confounded with Saba (Seba) in Ethiopia of Isaiah 43:3 and 45:14. It lies in the Southern Arabian JŰf about 200 miles north-west of Aden. The Sabeans are mentioned in the Bible as a distant people (Joel 3:8), famous traders (Ezekiel 27:22-3; 38:13; Job 6:19), who exported gold (Isaiah 60:6; Psalm 73:15; Ezekiel 38:13), precious stones (Ezekiel 27:22), perfumes (Jeremiah 6:20), incense (Isaiah 60:6), and perhaps slaves (Joel 3:8), and practised brigandage [Saba and Sabeans]."
The Arabs were not the only Semitic influence on the Ethiopian language and culture. The Amharic and Tigrinya (and related languages) themselves have roots back into ancient history, before any identifiable connection with what we know as Arabic speech or cultural/genetic mixture.
They speak Semitic languages, but this does not tell us the full story of their rich biological heritage. Anyone with any gene set can speak any language, as individuals of Japanese descent born in the US, who learn English with an American accent as their native language.
Whatever name the early Semitic-speaking settlers of the Horn of Africa were known by, the dominant cultural stream that planted the predecessor to Ge'ez (from which Amharic developed) in the Horn of Africa, it was a Semitic language and thus a Semitic-speaking people.
Their racial or national origins are not in focus, though this might also be of interest if we had reliable historical testimony to their physical characteristics. We can only interpolate from the visual appearance of the current speakers of the related languages.
But these Semitic speakers mixed with local peoples of whatever origin, presumably Cushite speakers, similar to the Beja or Afar and others there now. Of course, all the ethnic groups we know now developed since that time, so there is no one-to-one relationship there either.
And the term Cushitic or Semitic have no genetic or racial meaning in this context. These terms are primarily linguistic and thus cultural. One or two have suggested that the Semitic genetic input in the Horn of Africa comes only from Arab infusion. But this is wrong. This discussion does not limit itself to the Arabs. The movement of Arabs into the area was comparatively recent in history. Genetic sources in the region are richly mixed.
In addition, the extensive DNA comparisons and reconstructions indicate firmly that the ancient movement of humans was across that narrow water channel from East Africa to the southern Arabian peninsula, first outward from Africa in the original human movement, then back and forth constantly through history. A simple internet search will produce a rich list of resources and discussions on this pre-historical genetic distribution. A substantial list of resources is provided at the end of this article.
One confusing term in this connection is the vague term "hamite" or "hamitic." One reader referenced the Genesis comment that the Sabeans or Shebans could not be Semites, or Shemites, because Sheba was first mentioned in the Bible as a descendant of Cush. Cush was a son of Ham, he stated, and thus the Sabeans were Hamites not "Shemites" or Semites.
This is not the context in which historians are speaking. The names in this ancient scriptural text are not directly tied to the uses of similar terms in any modern academic context. The term, Hamite or hamitic is not even used.
The term "hamite" or "hamitic" is not used as a technical term in ethnic and linguistic classification, due to its mythological use in different contexts and ambiguity in different historical cultural contexts of oral traditions of origin.
The term 'hamitic" was used questionably and abused grossly in earlier modern circles and lost any viability in academic discussions in the 20th century. Early misguided and prejudiced theories applying this name to various African peoples has muddied the waters of serious investigation, discrediting the term for any meaningful purposes.
Most popular discussions ignore the complexity of the linguistic and cultural factors and assume a one-to-one relationship between similar-sounding names in different sources. Some people take such a simplistic approach that they dishonor the Bible and other ancient texts by trying to reduce them to the analytical demands of western science.
This attempt to graft modern classifications and terminology to the Genesis personages in a linear historical connection mixes two cultural frames of references and subjugates the Biblical references to the dictates of modern scientific history. This violence to the ancient sources does not help us much.
Note similarly that the term "Cush" or "Kush" and its forms such as "Cushitic" are also used with differing meanings in different academic contexts and traditional or popular usages. The use of "hamitic" or "semitic" in regard to language and culture classification that you will find referenced in standard language and research usages will not match the direct application of the biblical names of nations as you have referenced them here.
There is no one-to-one relationship between the use of these similar terms in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, discussing the nations of the regions by names called then, and modern disciplines of study using similar names differently. So it is a question of the context of usage.
The name "Cush" is used differently in historical periods also. Appropriation of older names of nations or empires by later powers confuses the issue also for uncareful readers and would-be pundits.
For instance, popular writings commonly interchange Ethiopia, Cush, Abyssinia or related names without regard to the different ethnic, political or geographical entities they referred to through history.
This lack of care supports a general popular mythical idea of "Cush" that ties it to the modern state called Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia. The ancient Greek writers called the Nubian kingdom of MeroŽ "Ethiopia." This was on the Nile River south of Upper Egypt.
The term Cush was also used for this MeroŽan empire. Uncritical or uncareful use of the name reading backwards from the modern nation that took the old name in recent times has led some to a naive identification of ancient Cush with modern Ethiopia. Similarly the name Abyssinia, and an honest confusion perhaps between ancient Axum and MeroŽ.
The term "Semite" and related "Semitic" are terms referring to a language grouping primarily, and not an ethnic term, though there is a cultural cluster associated with the language grouping. Various technical distinctions are very recent distinctions made using various traditional and mythical terms.
So the discipline and context of usage is important for the use or meaning of a word in any certain reference context. But as commented earlier, peoples change language streams fairly easily.
There are traditional usages associating the term "Seba" "Sabean" or "Sheba" that give inconsistent perspectives on who the Sabeans were and what language they spoke. It seems this indicates multiple, mixed cultural origins, as is the case with most historical peoples and cultures we know.
The use of this name in various historical sources does not provide enough detail to clearly identify the people. There are various theories that have tried to make sense of these limited references.
"The Sabaean kingdom was located in what is now the Aseer region in southwestern Yemen. The Sabaean kings made their capital at Marib, and built great irrigation works such as the Marib dams, whose ruins are still visible" [Former Things].
This source goes on to say that the Sabeans left inscriptions in the Musnad South Arabian script and documents in the cursive Zabur script.
The Holman Bible Dictionary notes that "Sabeans could have become a general term for foreign or nomadic merchants."
The Semitic contribution to the peoples of the Horn of Africa is decidedly not only because of the migration of Arabs. The primary Semitic source is the ancient Sabeans or closely related people in early history before the time of Christ.
This is found primarily in the peoples now known as Amhara, Tigray, Tigrinya and Tigre, descendants of the ancient people of the Empire of Axum. There has been migration back and forth across the Red Sea between Africa and Asia (the Arabian peninsula) since the prehistory of homo sapiens, and continually through history into modern times. My various articles discuss the genetic, historical and traditional evidence for that.
An Arab contribution occurred in more recent history, mostly from the 1600s to 1800s, notably from the Yemeni-based Hassaniya, many of them Muslim missionaries, according to historical commentators. The latter would have affected mainly the Somalis and perhaps the Oromos, and some others incidentally, but not to any appreciable degree.
And not, as far as I know, among the Amhara or other Semitic speakers. There was some Arab mixing from the north among many peoples of the Sudan, including the Beja and the Tigre of Eritrea, specifically with the Jaaliyya Arabs.
There was an appreciable Arab contribution, even from before the time of Islam, among the coastal Bantu peoples farther south, along the eastern African coast, notably Kenya and Tanzania, but all the way from the Brava coast of Somalia down to the islands and coast of Mozambique.
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Genetics Out of Africa
How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
The Oromo: What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
Our Genetic Journey Ė Reviewing The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
Shared Significant Experiences: Culture and Experience
The Somali Peoples
The Somali Bantu
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya ó Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
Related on the Internet:
Saba and Sabeans
The Sabeans and Cush - Isaiah 45
SABEAN -- Holman Bible Dictionary
For More on Genetics, History and Ethnicity
Africa's Genetic Secrets Unlocked
Africa's Great Ethnic Migrations (ca. 1520-1660)
Blood of the Isles Website on British Genetics by Bryan Sykes
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey ó See the book on Amazon
The Language of Life by Francis S. Collins (New book on the role of DNA, human populations and heritable characteristics affecting health)
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes (UK Title: Blood of the Isles)
First addressed in an email exchange July 13, 2010
Topic developed in December 2011 and March 2012
Article finalized and posted 10 March 2012
Last developed 10 July 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.