Online Review: Book

Ethnicity in Mediterranean Protohistory

Emily Miller Bonney


By Wim van Binsbergen and Fred C. Woudhuizen (BAR-IS 2256). Pp. 519, figs. 82, tables 46. Archaeopress, Oxford 2011. £70. ISBN 978-1-4073-8023-4 (paper).

The volume under review is the collaborative effort of two scholars who previously have worked in quite different traditions with significant consequences for this project. Van Binsbergen has spent more than 35 years as an anthropologist and development sociologist in south-central and North Africa and has produced more than 200 publications, including most recently studies on intercultural epistemology and long-range reconstructions of history. While he sees much to admire in Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, N.J. 1987), in his own view the similarities between the Aegean and Egypt in the Bronze Age result from the spread into both regions (and on into Sub-Saharan Africa) of peoples, linked linguistically and culturally, from west or Central Asia in the Upper Paleolithic, ca. 30,000 B.C.E. Woudhuizen, whose doctoral thesis van Binsbergen helped to supervise, trained in Mediterranean pre- and protohistory with a particular interest in Luwian. He contributed to The Phaistos Disc: A Luwian Letter to Nestor (W. Achterberg et al. [Amsterdam 2004]) and completed his dissertation (“The Ethnicity of the Sea People,” Erasmus University), in 2006, a revised version of which constitutes section 2 of this book. The authors’ differing perspectives—van Binsbergen, the Africanist, looking into the deep past for explanations, and Woudhuizen relying on more recent pre- and protohistory—account for some of the problems in this volume. But there also are serious methodological issues both in the authors’ treatment of mythology as history and in their analysis of linguistics. To the extent that they herewith make available the textual references to the Sea Peoples, the strongest part of the book, they have made a positive contribution. Suggesting that the rest will be controversial understates the situation. The book consists of four major sections: “Ethnicity in Mediterranean Proto-History: Explorations in Theory and Method,” by van Binsbergen (17–191); “The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples: An Historical, Archaeological and Linguistic Study,” by Woudhuizen (191–330); “The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples: A Second Opinion,” by van Binsbergen (331–94); and “The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples: Towards a Synthesis, and in Anticipation of Criticism,” by both authors (395–419). There is a final section of nearly 100 pages of references. Within each section, the text is arranged in a topical hierarchy, each section divided into chapters and the chapters (usually) further divided into subsections and (occasionally) sub-subsections. These topical analyses are for the most part hermetic, with no clear link to the next topic; these independent stand-alone arguments cause the chapters to lack a coherent narrative arc. The conceptual framework is equally fragmented, so that sections 1 and 2 in particular seem completely unrelated. What follows is an extremely compressed summary of the authors’ densely argued case.

In section 1, van Binsbergen outlines his theoretical model. According to him, analysis of the ethnic composition of the Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.) must consider the linguistic consequences of the departure of anatomically modern humans from Africa in 70,000–60,000 B.C.E. with a return from western Asia some 30,000 years later (74–5). Speaking languages descended from the Borean macrofamily (van Binsbergen follows Starostin here), these people shared mythemes that were spread through the eastern Mediterranean and into Sub-Saharan Africa. The subsequent replacement of a “Separation of Water and Land” cosmogony by one founded on the “Separation of Heaven and Earth” left etymological traces (104). During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (ca. 11,000–1200 B.C.E.), a Pelasgian collection of cultural traits expanded from the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia to encompass Europe, the Eurasian steppe, and much of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is through this aggregate of lenses that van Binsbergen proposes to investigate Mediterranean ethnicity, which he defines as a sociopolitical process that involves both ethnogenesis and ethnicization (32–41). Having spent the first four chapters articulating his theoretical framework, he turns to two documents as case studies—the Homeric Achaean “Catalogue of Ships” (ch. 5) and the biblical “Table of Nations” (ch. 6). He concludes that the former expresses an overall Achaean identity broken down into smaller regional units, each associated with particular symbolic and cultic features but indistinguishable in terms of congenital somatic characteristics (115). The “Table of Nations,” which van Binsbergen investigates through comparative mythology and long-range linguistics (141), does appear to contain “extensive positive evidence of one comprehensive ethnic classification system” (184), although its structure as a genealogy precludes identification of actual social-political structures relevant to ethnogenesis and ethnicization.

In part 2, Woudhuizen takes over with the goal of determining the ethnicity of the Sea Peoples. Unlike van Binsbergen, Woudhuizen focuses on ethnicity within the Bronze Age not in terms of Paleolithic roots. Relying primarily on textual material but adducing pottery or other archaeological data when the written sources fail, Woudhuizen claims that the Sea Peoples, as named in the historical inscriptions of Merneptah at Karnak (1208 B.C.E.) and Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu (events from 1179 and 1176 B.C.E.), comprised nine distinct ethnic groups from the central and eastern Mediterranean. The peoples in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Italic peninsula, pressed by the Urnfield population encroaching on the peninsula perhaps ca. 1300 B.C.E., traveled east, associating with other groups during the violent episodes recorded in the sources and settled ultimately in the Levant with new ethnic identities.

In part 3, van Binsbergen responds to Woudhuizen’s proposal. He contends that we can best understand the Sea Peoples as a diverse, peripheral, and archaic segment situated in the eastern Mediterranean, sharing a Pelasgian background or toolkit and reacting against the perceived threat of the Hittite and Egyptian states. While the latter subscribed to the newer cosmogony of the Separation of Earth and Heaven, the Sea Peoples, as demonstrated by the swans on the prows of their symmetrical ships, shared an archaic adherence to a cosmogony of the Separation of Earth and Water. Although linguistically and ethnically distinct, the shared Pelasgian traits of these groups drew them together in a unified cause.

In part 4, the authors jointly claim to reconcile their competing views of the origins of the Sea Peoples by arguing that although there are differences in where they would situate these groups and hence in how they might perceive the movement of the subgroups (i.e., east to west [Woudhuizen], and both east and westbound [van Binsbergen]), there may be a synthesis, they claim, if one assumes widespread Pelasgian affinities predating the Sea Peoples episode that allowed these separate groups to recognize one another for purposes of collaborating in the attacks.

This brief summary cannot convey the tortuous route by which the authors reach their final synthesis, a state of affairs that results from both the structure of the text described above and the difference in perspective between the authors noted at the beginning of this review. Van Binsbergen devotes more than 90 pages to the explication of his theory of ethnicity originating in the Paleolithic. Recognizing that his argument is open to challenge, he deploys myth, genetic evidence, linguistics, and texts ancient and modern to portray, among other things, an antiquity in which links between the Mediterranean and Africa extended into deep prehistory. The result is dazzling as he moves without hesitation from one type of evidence to the next. Woudhuizen likewise incorporates substantial amounts of excursus to shore up his fundamentally linguistic arguments. His approach, sharply criticized by Masson (rev. of Ancient Scripts from Crete and Cyprus, by J. Best and F. Woudhuizen, Syria 68 [1991] 473–75), relies on linking words and word fragments independent of the internal logic of the language in question so that these linguistic bits can, as Masson observes, be manipulated to Woudhuizen’s convenience. His technique results in an array of at best dubious claims and at worst incredible statements, such as his assertion that the region around Hagia Triada and Phaistos ca. 1500 B.C.E. was “inhabited by Luwians, who adopted the Semitic language [Cretan hieroglyphics] in religious and official matters in order to adapt to the international standards of the time” (280). Woudhuizen’s decision to address such additional topics as the saga of Aeneas and the decipherment of Cretan hieroglyphic in separate chapters only compounds the confusion. It is not surprising, although still dismaying, that in a 58-page bibliography, more than three full pages consist of works written by either van Binsbergen or Woudhuizen and relied on to support some of their most controversial conclusions. One would have liked more independent support for their claims.

For all its shortcomings, only incompletely identified here, the book may be of use to those interested in the archaeology of ethnicity (an emerging field) or in the history and identity of the Sea Peoples, and van Binsbergen, at least, articulates original and provocative claims. Whether the £70 investment is worth it depends on the prospective reader’s interest in taking on a complex and problematic work.

Emily Miller Bonney
Department of Liberal Studies
California State University–Fullerton
Fullerton, California 92834

Book Review of Ethnicity in Mediterranean Protohistory, by Wim van Binsbergen and Fred C. Woudhuizen

Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 117, Number 2 (April 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1172.MillerBonney

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