Fascinating People From Fascinating Human History

    If you haven’t read Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, and you find this website remotely interesting, you GOTTA GO OUT AND READ THAT BOOK.  NOW.  Among the many cool tidbits you can find in this amazing book is the surprising fact that there are indigenous, aboriginal tribes living in Southeast Asian countries, people who were the original inhabitants of the area before later immigration nearly wiped them out.  People such as the Aeta tribes in the Phillipines, who physically resemble the Aboriginal group in Australia.  As a raging intellectual white-guilt liberal of the highest order, I was both fascinated and disappointed with myself that I had never heard of them.  You can thank my uber-liberalism for this article on some fascinating and generally ignored/oppressed/downtrodden ethnic groups around the world.

Who exactly are the Gypsies?

Today’s younger generation, with their X-Boxes and their Gas Station EZ Pay Dongles, might have never had this interesting experience:  the warning from parents or other adults that “gypsies are in the neighborhood, so watch out.”  It sounded anachronistic, bordering on racist to me when I first heard it 25 years ago, and seems even more preposterous now.   There is no encampment of fortune-telling Gypsies in the back of your suburb, waiting to raid your house while you water your plants.  There is, however, a specific ethnic group commonly called the Gypsies.  While the word “Gypsy” has come to mean any nomadic people (particularly with criminal connotations), the original Gypsies are a remarkably close-knit ethnic group more properly called the Romani or Roma, who emigrated from Eastern Europe around what is now Romania.

                The Romani seem to have originated in India in the middle ages – as they immigrated into Europe, the dark-skinned Romani were confused for Egyptians – the origin of the term “Gyspy”.  Even today their language is closely related to the Indian Punjabi dialect.  They have a centuries-long history of persecution and prejudice in Europe, no doubt causing them to develop an insular and protective society with not much assimilation with whatever other culture was surrounding them.  Like many other minority groups, they didn’t fare well in Nazi Germany.  The European prejudice lingers to this day in America, which has a Gypsy population of somewhere in the hundreds of thousands.  The word “gypped”, meaning conned or tricked out of something valuable, originates from the bigoted view of Gypsies as thieves.

                Anti-Gypsy racism seems a ludicrous and anachronistic holdover from the days when even the Irish were too “ethnic” for America.  In a day when my neighbors are Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Hispanic, being leery of “thieving Gypsies” seems preposterous.

Lemba — South African jews

                The Lemba are an African tribe that, by their own oral tradition, are descended in part from Jews from Israel.  According to their tradition, they’re descended from a  group of Jewish settlers who came from a town called Sena, a city in modern-day Yemen that was itself founded by Jewish settlers from Judea about 2500 years ago.  While they’re generally assimilated into African culture (looking African, speaking African Bantu languages, etc), they have certain religious practices similar to Judaism.

                I’m thrilled to report this is one of those times when concrete evidence confirms the 25-century-old oral tradition.  Astoundingly, the Lemba’s recollection of their own origins seems to be accurate – despite the couple millennia that have passed, genetic testing has confirmed the Lemba tribe does indeed share some ancestry with modern-day Jewish communities.  Modern-day Lembas appear to be mostly African in heritage, with a small but distinct contribution from Jewish ancestry, presumably from the earliest settlers intermarrying with local African tribes.  What’s more, the Lemba have a priestly clan (called the Buba) that is a particularly strong genetic match to Jewish priestly Kohanim.  How the hell did they remember this origin so accurately for so long?

The Aryans

                Of course I can’t talk about interesting ethnic groups without once again brushing up against a history of racism.  And in this case, arguably the most evil person in human history.  When you think of “Aryan” you think of Hitler, of course, who believed this hypothetical race to be the “superior race”, the blond & blue-eyed pure white race (who ironically didn’t look much like him, if we believe his descriptions of them).  He was nuts, of course, but did he make them up completely, or did he co-opt an existing ancient culture for his purposes?

                Actually, yes – the term “Aryan” did refer to a specific ethnic group before the Nazis got ahold of it, though not much was really known of the group in question.  The term “Aryan” originally meant the hypothetical ethnic group that served as the progenitors of both Europe and India, who split into two different groups centuries years ago.  Of course we now know all human races are descended from the same origin in Africa, but that wasn’t always known.  The first dawning realization that this might be possible was the discovery that Caucasoid Europeans and Indians of South Asia had diverged from the same ethnic group centuries ago.  Someone noticed the suspicious similarities in European and Indian languages – that’s why (if you’re a linguistics fan) you hear about the Indo-European family of languages, a taxonomic branch of language that includes English, French, and German, as well as Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu.  Originally, “Aryan” referred to the “missing link” ethnic group from which Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Indians diverged.

                The reason you’ve heard the term “Aryan”, of course, is that it was identified as the “superior race” by Hitler’s Nazis and other racist groups to this day.  The Nazi’s completely incorrect belief was that the Aryans were a tall, blond, blue-eyed race from North Europe, clearly a case of ignoring scientific evidence completely so they can drop the “master race” conveniently in their own neck of the woods.  In reality, as you might guess, Aryans would more likely resemble Middle Easterners in appearance.  These days we know that human history behind the origin of Europe and India is much more complicated (so complicated that I’m not going into it here), and the term Aryan is no longer used among legitimate scientists.

The Basques in Spain

                One really fascinating topic to dive into in this area is the many examples of original inhabitants of a particular land, who were later surrounded and overtaken by invaders.  And by “fascinating” I of course mean “depressing” and “shame-inducing”, as comes to mind with the plight of Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals.  But there are other, lesser-known ancient aboriginal cultures still around today.  One of them has survived so long in present-day Europe that we’ve long since forgotten they were a separate group.

                As I mentioned, we know that Indian, Middle Eastern, and European ethnic groups all derive (more or less) from the same source that we used to call “Aryan”, and we know this because we see the historical record in languages – by comparing languages, we can tell how long ago two different ethnic groups diverged.  Pretty much every language in Europe has found its place on the same historical family tree (as part of the Indo-European language family).  Pretty much… except there’s this one European culture that straddles the Pyrrenees in Spain & France, who speak a language that doesn’t fit into this language family tree.  At all.

                The Basques, known currently as a strong, independent group who run their own semiautonomous region within Spain, have apparently been a strong independent group since before proto-Indo-European people came to Europe!  Basque people, and in particular their language, are the rock stars of the linguistic & historical community, as they’re a completely unique isolate in the middle of Europe.  They’ve maintained a coherent separate ethnic identity for millennia, surviving today despite later migratory groups taking over the entire continent.  They already prospered in Western Europe by the time the Roman empire spread through the area, and some evidence suggests.  This is by no means a settled fact – the Basques are clearly distinct but have coexisted in Europe with later Spanish and French populations, and it is quite possible they were part of the Indo-European migration after all.  But there’s strong genetic and archaeological evidence they have maintained a cohesive ethnic community in the same part of the world since 35,000 years ago.

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