The concept of “race” stretches back as long as human civilization. The concept of “racism” also stretches back just as far with it—they seem to be intertwined. There is a consensus, though, the term was constructed during the European Age of Exploration. This claim though, is false. The concept actually goes back at least 5,000 years. By looking at the art and reading the myths of these ancient civilizations, we can see that the social constructivist claim about race—that it is a recent creation—is false. They also described their physical features and also attempted to explain behavioral differences between races based on the limited knowledge they had in their day.
Sarich and Miele (2004) state that the PBS documentary on race—which is largely the main reason why they wrote their book Race: The Reality of Human Difference—claimed that race is a human invention and that since we create it we can then “unmake it.” We can look at art from ancient civilizations and see that they did sort people into groups based on their skin color and other physical characters. Each civilization, of course, thought itself and its racial features to be ‘superior’ to the others they encountered. The ancients used the set of observable features to describe what we now call “races.”
Our first trip on this long journey to understand the history of race is India. The earliest hints of what would become the caste system were written around 5kya. In the Rig Veda, a description of the Arya(n) invasion in the Indus valley where a dark-skinned people lived. The god of the Arya(n)s Indra “is described as “blowing away with supernatural might from earth and from the heavens the black skin which Indra hates” (Gossett, 1997: 3-4). They also called these dark-skinned people “Anasahs” which meant “the noseless people.” They then describe Indra killing all of the dark-skinned people and conquering the Indus for the Arya.
Sarich and Miele (2004: 47-48) note that the peoples that Indra hated were called Dasas—broad-nosed worshippers of the phallus. Even when Alexander the Great’s army reached India and described the Indians in the south of the country as some of the darkest people they have seen, they still made the distinction between Indians and Africans—by their hair type—so this tells us that race is more than ‘skin deep’ to the Greeks. Race, then, was known for thousands of years BEFORE the Age of Exploration.
We can look to ancient China, too, to see instances of racial descriptions and then racism along with it. For instance, a Chinese writer described yellow-haired, blue-eyed people from a distant province, “who greatly resembeled monkeys from whom they are descended” (Gossett, 1997: 4). Another Chinese legend describes differences between themselves and a brabarian tribe. A Chinese emperor stated that he would give his daughter to whomever slayed the chieftan he was having problems with. Then, the palace dog comes back with the head of the chieftan. The emperor did not go back on his word; he gave the dog his daughter and the resulting children were “fond of living in high altitudes and averse to plains” (Gossett, 1997: 4).
Like other civilizations, the ancient Han Chinese regarded other groups they came into contact with as barbarians. They were especially taken aback by the odd appearance of one group, the Yuehzi, because of their hairy, white, ruddy skin and their prominent noses, which the Chinese likened to those of monkeys.
The Han Chinese applied the term “Hu” to barbarians like the Yuehzi who had “deep eye sockets, prominent noses, and beards.” But they did not apply it to the Qiang, another barbarian group, who had a Mongoloid appearance and among whom some of the Yuezhi lived. Both groups were denigrated as uncivilized and inferior to the Chinese, but the Qiang were deemed to belong to the same racial stock, whereas the Yuezhi were viewed as being part of a very different stock, not only barbarian but ugly and monkey-like to boot.
The Egyptians used a color-coding system—red (themselves), yellow (for their eastern enemies), black (Africans), and white (those from the north). The Eygptians also accurately depicted Africans as early as the third century BCE, describing them exactly how 19th-century European anthropologists would. Below is a picture of how the Egyptians depicted these groups.
There is, also, an interesting bit about colorism—discrimination based on skin color—here:
Color prejudice, says one writer, depended on which ethnic group held sway. When the lighter-skinned Egyptians were dominant they referred to the darker group as “the evil race of Ish.” On the other hand, when the darker-skinned Egyptians were in power, they resorted to calling the lighter-skinned people “the pale, degraded race of Arvad.” (Gossett, 1997: 4)
The Jews are some of the oldest peoples on earth, so they should then have some stories about their encounters with different races. One of the oldest, thought to be first, racist sayings was asked by the prophet Jeremiah who said “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” The Jews are said to have ‘invented’ anti-black racism (Gossett, 1997: 5; Sarich and Miele, 2004), but this has been contested (Goldenberg, 1998). Take the full text from Gossett on Ham:
The most famous example of racism among the Jews is found in the legends which greew up concerning Ham, the son of Noah. The account in Genesis tells us of Ham’s expressing contempt for his father because Noah had become drunk and was lying in a naked stupor. Noah’s other sons had covered their father’s nakedness, averting their eyes. Noah blessed the descendants of Shem and Japeth, his other sons, but cursed the descendants of Ham. There is some confusion in the account in Genesis because it is not clear whether the curse was to be visited upon Ham or upon Canaan, Ham being a later insertion. Nothng is said in Genesis about the descendants of either Ham or Canaan being Negroes. This idea is not found untl the oral traditions of the Jews were collected in the Babylonian Talmud from the second century to the sixth centry A.D. In this source, the descendants of Ham are said to be cursed by being black. In the Talmud, there are several contradictory legends concerning Ham—onoe that God forbade anyone to have sexual relations on the Ark and Ham disobeyed this command. Another story is that Ham was cursed with blackness because he resented the fact that his father desired to have a fourth son. To prevent the birth of a rival heir, Ham is said to have castrated his father. Elsewhere in the Talmud, Ham’s descendants are depicted as being led into captivity with their buttocks uncovered as a sign of degredation.
Greeks and Romans
The Greeks and the Romans are really interesting. Being near the intersection of the Medditerranean, they would have seen many different races of people—and this is reflected in their art and legends. The Greek myth of Phaethon, for example, shows that the Greeks knew that skin color was a function of climate.
In the story, Phaethon asked his father to drive the sun chariot, using it only for the day. He could not control the chariot so it came to close to the earth in some regions, burning the people there while for the people in the north he drove too far away from the earth, ligtening their skin. Greek and Roman myths, in fact, show exactly how things change and that if we had a different reference point—like the Greeks and Romans did—we would then create different theories of ‘intelligence’:
“The nations inhabiting the cold places and those of Europe are full of spirit but somewhat deficient in intelligence and skill, so that they continue comparatively free, but lacking in political organization and the capacity to rule their neighbors. The peoples of Asia on the other hand are intelligent and skillful in temperament, but lack spirit, so that they are in continuous subjection and slavery. But the Greek race participates in both characters, just as it occupies the middle position geographically, for it is both spirited and intelligent; hence it continues to be free and to have very good political institutions, and to be capable of ruling all mankind if it attains constitutional unity.” (Pol. 1327b23-33, my italics)
Views of direct environmental influence and the porosity of bodies to these effects also entered the military machines of ancient empires, like that of the Romans. Offices such as Vegetius (De re militari, I/2) suggested avoiding recruiting troops from cold climates as they had too much blood and, hence, inadequate intelligence. Instead, he argued, troops from temperate climates be recruited, as they possess the right amount of blood, ensuring their fitness for camp discipline (Irby, 2016). Delicate and effemenizing land was also to be abandoned as soon as possible, according Manilius and Caesar (ibid). Probably the most famous geopolitical dictum of antiquity reflects exactly this plastic power of laces: “soft lands breed soft men”, according to the claim that Herodotus attributed to Cyrus. (Meloni, 2017: 41-42)
The Roman historian Vitruvius “attributed the keen intelligence of his countrymen to the rarity of the atmosphere and to the heat. The less fortunate northern peoples, “being enveloped in a dense atmosphere, and chilled by moisture from the obstructing air … have but a sluggish intelligence”” (Gossett, 1997: 7). How convenient—people at the time thought they were ‘superior’ to others and then attempted to justify it on the basis of environmental—eventually evolutionary—differences. However, the Greek theory of humors. Such accounts, though, only speak to how the Greeks thought that the environment shaped individuals, not shared traits of the group. Such differences were thought to be almost immediately reversible. They believed that one could take a person who grew up in another environment who, therefore, had a different temperment which could be changed by switching his environment.
Thus if there were, say, a microregion of Germany where “Asiatic” environmental conditions prevailed, a person who settled in that microregion would end up with Asian attributes. Thus, humoral accounts of human diversity focused on the way environments shape individuals, rather than the way populations share traits. (Smith, 2016: 85)
The Greeks and the Romans, ironically, seemed to be really big on environmentalism—the thesis that environment drives the proliferation of traits and that changing the environment can change ones phenotypic traits. While this is not wholly true, there is a kernel of truth here.
Sarich and Miele (2004: 51) describe different ancient scholar’s writings on their observations of racial differences:
The most detailed surviving description of the racially denning characteristics of black Africans from the classical world appears in The Moretum, a poem attributed to Virgil (circa 1st century AD). A female character named Scybale. is described as “African in race—her hair tightly curled, lips thick, color dark, chest broad, breasts pendulous, belly somewhat pinched, legs thick, and feet broad and ample.” In his book Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, Frank M. Snowden comared the description with portrayls by twentieth-century anthropologists E. A Hootn and M. J Herskovits. For example, Hootn described the “outstanding features of the ancient specialized Negro division of manking” as “narrow heads and wide noses, thick lips and thin legs, protruding jaws and receding chins, integument rich in pigment but poor in hairy growth, flat feet and round foreheads, tiny curls and big smiles.”
Snowden concluded: “While the author of The Moretum was writing poetry, not anthropology,” his description of the distinguishing racial characteristics of black Africans “is good anthropology; in fact, the ancient and modern phraseology is so similar that the modern might be considered a translation of the ancient” (emphasis added).
I’m sure most have heard the popular ‘myth’ that God burnt blacks by cooking them too long. Come to find out, there is a real basis for this myth. The Native Americans thought that white people weren’t baked enough, blacks were baked too much and they were—like Goldilocks—juuuuust right:
Earthmaker made the world with trees and fields, with rivers, lakes, and springs, and with hills and valleys. It was beautiful. However, there weren’t any humans, and so one day he decided to make some.
He scooped out a hole in a stream bank and lined the hole with stones to make a hearth, and he built a fire there. Then he took some clay and made a small figure that he put in the hearth. While it baked, he took some twigs and made tongs. When he pulled the figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker nonetheless realized that it was only half-baked. That figure became the white people.
Earthmaker decided to try again, and so he made another figure and put it on the hearth. This time he took a nap under a tree while the figure baked, and he slept longer than he intended. When he pulled the second figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker realized that this figure was overbaked, and it became the black people.
Earthmaker decided to try one more time. He cleaned the ashes out of the hearth and built a new fire. Then he scooped up some clay and cleaned it of any twigs or leaves, so that it was pure. He made a little figure and put it on the hearth, and this time he sat by the hearth and watched carefully as the figure baked. When this figure was done, he pulled it out of the fire and let it cool. Then he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. This figure was baked just right, and it became the red people. (A Potawatomi Story)
The first peoples to describe Africans in a racist manner was not Europeans, it was the Arabs—Islamics. They held slaves long before Europeans; they even castrated their slaves. Jahiz of Basra described Africans as “people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair.”…despite their dimness, their boundless stupidity, their crude prceptions and their evil dispositions” is how Jahiz of Basra described Africans. Ibn Khaldun stated “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage.” Nasir al-Din Tusi stated “Many have observed that the ape is more teachable than the Zanji [African].” (All quotes from Sarich and Miele, 2004: 60).
What this little tour of the concept of race throughout history tells us one thing: The concept ‘race’ is not a European invention—races were not socially constructed in 1492. They were constructed thousands of years in the past by many different peoples who had different explanations for the racial differences they had observed. While some of them, for their time, are great explanations for the observed differences, there was an element of racial prejudice, even all of those thousands of years ago. Yes, race is partly socially constructed (as evidenced here) but that social construction has a real, biological basis behind it.
It is obvious that the concept of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ went hand-in-hand all throughout antiquity. It is only today, it seems, that we can attempt to use the concept of race without having any ‘racist’ undertones. Though, the tour we went on proves one thing: race exists and was known to have existed for thousands of years.