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Who Were the Carthaginians

Who Were the Carthaginians

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Published by Brandon S. Pilcher
Were the ancient Carthaginians black or Mediterranean? This article, drawing upon historical and anthropological evidence, argues that the answer lies somewhere in between.
Were the ancient Carthaginians black or Mediterranean? This article, drawing upon historical and anthropological evidence, argues that the answer lies somewhere in between.

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Published by: Brandon S. Pilcher on Aug 15, 2011
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Who Were the Carthaginians?By Brandon Pilcher
Actor Vin Diesel has recently announced that he and Denzel Washington will star in two movies that are both directed by Tony Scott and set in the ancient northwestAfrican city of Carthage. Diesel says he will play the famous general HannibalBarca, the man who led an army of elephants across the Alps towards Rome, inthe second movie whereas Washington will be Hannibal's father Hamilcar in thefirst movie (WorstPreviews 2010). The decision to cast the dark-skinned African-American Washington as a Carthaginian leader brings to mind a heated debate thathas surrounded the Carthaginians: were they black Africans?Perhaps the first man to bring up the question of Hannibal and his compatriots'ethnic background was the Jamaican-born journalist Joel Augustus Rogers (1883-1965), who in numerous writings asserted that a number of famous historicalfigures traditionally portrayed as “white” were really black or had recent black ancestry. Hannibal was among the many individuals Rogers claimed were black or mulatto (Adams 2005), his logic being that since Hannibal lived in Africa, he musthave been black. Not only is this poor reasoning, but it betrays a lack of knowledge aboutCarthage's origins. What Rogers overlooked is that Carthage was not anindigenous African civilization in the way ancient Egypt, Mali, and GreatZimbabwe were, but was rather a colony founded by Phoenician settlers from thearea now called Lebanon in 814 BC. Those people were no more African than theDutch settlers who would become South African Boers; their true biological andcultural affinities lay with the Middle East.That said, the Carthaginians did eventually expand their empire to cover much of the northwest African coastline, so no doubt they assimilated some indigenous populations. There is thus no guarantee that the Barcas' bloodline was purelyPhoenician. For Hannibal or anyone in his family to be black, we must assume thatthey mixed with black peoples who were already living in northwestern Africa prior to Phoenician colonization, raising the question of just who were the peopleaboriginal to that part of the continent.Given that northern Africa has historically been invaded and settled many timesnot only by Phoenicians but also Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Turks, andothers from Europe and the Middle East, and given the extensive importation of  both sub-Saharan and European slaves into the area during the Islamic period, itwould be naïve to conclude that the original northwest African populationnecessarily resembled the area's modern inhabitants. A better solution would beanalyzing the skeletal remains left behind by northwest Africans who lived in
 
ancient times, for populations vary in skeletal morphology and especially thefeatures of the skull (or cranium). What does this type of anthropological analysishave to say about the biological relationships of the ancient northwest Africans?It appears that coastal northwest Africans like the ones whom the Carthaginianswould have ruled have been physically distinct from black African populations aslong as recorded history. For example, one study carried out by Pierre M.Vermeersch (2002) compared the skulls of ancient northwest Africans with thoseof ancient Egyptians, Sudanese, prehistoric Saharan, and sub-Saharan Africans.He found that while the Egyptians, Sudanese, and Saharans were closely affiliatedwith sub-Saharan peoples, those from the northwestern coastline had a verydistinct appearance from the rest. Another researcher named SOY Keita (1990)reported similar results, finding that while ancient Egyptians and Sudanese were predominantly of sub-Saharan affinity, northwest Africans were more varied:some did resemble sub-Saharans, but others were more similar to Europeans, andgenerally the northwest Africans had a morphology intermediate between sub-Saharan and European populations.Why would northwestern Africans look any different from other Africans? Theanswer becomes clear when we look at the region's geography. The northwestAfrican coastline is cut off from the rest of the continent not only by the SaharaDesert (which admittedly has only existed for roughly five thousand years) butalso the Atlas Mountains. By contrast, the Iberian Peninsula is comparably astone's throw away---in fact, one can actually see northwest Africa from the top of Gibraltar Rock in southern Spain. It would have therefore been much easier for southern Europeans to populate the area north of the Atlas Mountains than for Africans living further south.This is not to say that black people were completely absent from the CarthaginianEmpire. Not only did Keita find some skulls with sub-Saharan traits in northwestAfrica mixed with the more European or intermediate-looking ones as mentionedearlier, but Pittard (1924) does cite one example of a “Negroid” (i.e. sub-SaharanAfrican) skeleton being found in an ancient sarcophagus belonging to aCarthaginian priestess. Furthermore, Bovill and Hallet (1995) report that black Africans were present in the Carthaginian army which invade Sicily in the earlyfifth century BC, while the Greek writer Diodoros claimed that one Greek militaryleader campaigning in what is now Tunisia came across people similar inappearance to “Aethiopians” or Sudanese (Mokhtar 1990).The totality of the evidence indicates that northwestern Africa in ancient times wasethnically heterogeneous, neither wholly black nor completely free of a black  presence. If the Barca family ever interbred with the local northwest Africans, thenHannibal or his father Hamilcar having significant black ancestry, while not

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