Ancient Semitic-speaking peoples

Ancient Semitic-speaking peoples were West Asian people who lived throughout the Ancient Near East, including the Levant, Mesopotamia, Arabian peninsula, and Horn of Africa from the third millennium BC until the end of antiquity.

The languages they spoke are usually divided into three branches: East, Central, and South Semitic.Proto-Semitic was likely spoken in the 4th millennium BC, and the oldest attested forms of Semitic date to the mid-3rd millennium (the Early Bronze Age).

Speakers of East Semitic include the Akkadians and the descended cultures of Assyria and Babylonia. Central Semitic combines Northwest Semitic and Arabic. Speakers of Northwest Semitic were the Canaanites (including the Phoenicians and the Hebrews) and the Aramaeans. South Semitic peoples include the speakers of South Arabian and Ethiopic.

Origins

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum
Page from a 15th-century Bible in Ge'ez (Ethiopia & Eritrea)

The region of origin of the reconstructed Proto-Semitic language, ancestral to historical and modern Semitic languages in the Middle East, is still uncertain and much debated. A 2009 Bayesian analysis identified an origin for Semitic languages in the Levant around 3750 BC with a later single introduction of Ge'ez from what is now South Arabia into the Horn of Africa around 800 BC, with a slightly earlier introduction into parts of North Africa and southern Spain with the founding of Phoenician colonies such as ancient Carthage in the ninth century BC and Cádiz in the tenth century BC.[1][2][3] The earliest records of Semitic languages are from 30th century BCE Mesopotamia.

Other theories include origins in the Arabian Peninsula or North Africa.

The Semitic family is a member of the larger Afroasiatic family, all of whose other five or more branches have their origin in North Africa or the Maghreb. Largely for this reason, the ancestors of Proto-Semitic speakers were originally believed by some to have first arrived in the Middle East from North Africa, possibly as part of the operation of the Saharan pump, around the late Neolithic.[4][5] Diakonoff sees Semitic originating between the Nile Delta and Canaan as the northernmost branch of Afroasiatic. Blench even wonders whether the highly divergent Gurage languages indicate an origin in Ethiopia (with the rest of Ethiopic Semitic a later back migration). Identification of the hypothetical proto-Semitic region of origin is therefore dependent on the larger geographic distributions of the other language families within Afroasiatic, whose origins are also hotly debated. According to Christy G. Turner II, there is an archaeological and physical anthropological reason for a relation between the modern Semitic-speaking populations of the Levant and the Natufian culture.[6]

In one interpretation,[citation needed] Proto-Semitic itself is assumed to have reached the Arabian Peninsula by approximately the 4th millennium BC, from which Semitic daughter languages continued to spread outwards. When written records began in the late fourth millennium BC, the Semitic-speaking Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians) were entering Mesopotamia from the deserts to the west, and were probably already present in places such as Ebla in Syria. Akkadian personal names began appearing in written record in Mesopotamia from the late 29th century BC.[7]

The earliest positively proven historical attestation of any Semitic people comes from 30th century BC Mesopotamia, with the East Semitic-speaking peoples of the Kish civilization,[8][9] entering the region originally dominated by the people of Sumer (who spoke a language isolate).