Here is the full transcript of historian of science and exploration Michael Robinson’s TEDx Talk: A Theory You’ve Never Heard Of at TEDxUniversityofHartford conference.
Michael Robinson – Historian of Science and Exploration
Today, I’m going to be talking about a theory you’ve never heard of, and hopefully by the end of it, you’ll think, as I do, that it really is something that nobody talks about, and yet it has changed the world and continues to change the world. It’s called the Hamitic hypothesis.
It’s an idea that developed over hundreds of years, became very popular in the 19th century, but continues to affect parts of the world today, particularly Africa. It’s the subject of a book that I’ve written, that will be coming out in a couple of months, called The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent.
This story – Well, I should tell you, I’m a historian of exploration, and that’s my job. I look at explorers, expeditions, and cultural encounters with people around the world, and why people think these expeditions are so important, back home.
And this story of the lost white tribe, which I’m going to be talking about, and the Hamitic hypothesis, really grew out of a book I wrote about ten years ago called The Coldest Crucible, and that was about Arctic exploration. And in a way, I never would have imagined that this book about the Arctic would have led me to the project I’m working on now, because this book is about the Arctic, and the Hamitic hypothesis is really about Africa, but it actually grew out of part of that earlier topic I was writing about Arctic exploration.
I was particularly interested in American explorers, and how in the 1800’s, American explorers found it so interesting to go to the Arctic, a really dangerous place. Many dozens of Americans lost their lives going there, either to try to find a Northwest Passage or to get to the North pole.
But I found this story of one explorer, his name was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and he went to the Arctic, not to try to get to the North pole, but to find undiscovered peoples.
While he was in the upper region of Canada in a place called Victoria Island, he discovered a group of Inuit, which he described when he came back as being blond, of being what he called blond Eskimos. I thought this was the most bizarre story, but I could not stop reading about it.
There were stories all over the US at the time. In fact, the worldwide press took up the story of the Blond Eskimos of Victoria Island. Some people thought it was a complete fake, that it was a hoax. Other people thought it was an amazing kind of discovery that needed to be explained.
But I had nothing that I could do with it, it had no part to play in the story I was telling. So I tucked it away in a file, and what I found was that over the next six years or so, I started finding more and more kind of stories of these white tribes that people had discovered all over the world.
So for example, in Panama, Richard Marsh finds a group that he calls the white Indians. In Central Asia, there is a group of people who said they found Tibetans who looked Aryan. In parts of Africa, people were finding white tribes as well.
And in Japan, people discovered in the late 19th century, a group called the Ainu in the northern island of Japan, which they said looked like Caucasians.
So, by the time I got to about 2008, I had this giant file of kind of weird white tribe discoveries, and I figured now is the time to do something with it.
But there was one story in particular that I was interested in, and that was the story of a discovery that took place in East Africa in the 1870s – in that red box you see there. It happened just to the west of Lake Victoria, one of the largest lakes in the world, and it was made by a very famous explorer, Henry Morton Stanley.
Now, Stanley may have been familiar to you as the guy who discovers Livingstone, or rescues Livingstone, in the heart of Africa in 1869. In fact, the phrase “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” was supposedly something that Stanley said to Livingstone when they met. This was one of the most famous expeditions of the 19th century. But, Stanley went back to Africa and went back many times, and on his subsequent expedition to Africa, he went not to find Livingstone, but to try to discover the source of the Nile.
People knew by the late 1800s that there were many lakes in the areas of East Africa, what we call the Rift Valley of East Africa, and that one of these lakes would have been the source of the Nile, something that geographers had been searching for, for 2,000 years.
But Stanley said, “I’m going to figure out which of these lakes it actually is.” So he treks into East Africa, and he determines with great confidence that Lake Victoria is the ultimate source of the Nile, 4,000 miles of Nile River, and that is the source.
But what he also discovers is something that in a sense creates a new mystery, which is he finds that there are members of an African soldier force that are protecting him, which look white, and he calls them “Greeks in white shirts”. He can’t believe how light complected these Africans are.
He asks other members of his expedition party, “Who are these men?” and they say, “They come from the mountains to the West on a mountain called Gambaragara.” So he writes about this and sends these reports back home, and the illustrations of his narrative actually show Mount Gambaragara over on the left-hand side of the illustration, you can see it in the background. This became a huge story, back home, this lost white race that Stanley had found in the heart of Africa.
How in God’s name would Stanley have explained this in the late 18th century? What kind of theoretical background could people use or information? Why you would find a group of white people living in the heart of Africa? In fact, Stanley, very much as a man of the 1800s, was at this transition moment between people who use the Bible as a way of explaining the history of the world and people who use science as a way of explaining the history of the world.
So when Stanley thought about it, he actually looked back to the Middle Ages, when people tried to explain the differences that we saw in the peoples of the world, what we would call racial differences, and look to the stories of Genesis, in particular the story of Noah.
And in the story of Noah, we all know about Noah and the flood, but a lot of people don’t know what happened after the flood, which was Noah parks the Arch on the top of Mount Ararat, disembarks with his family as well as his three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham. And it was really these three sons that many people in the Middle Ages – by that, we’re talking about Jews, Christians, and Muslims – all look to this story as a kind of explanation for how the world got repopulated after it was annihilated in Genesis 9.
And as you see here, this is a medieval map showing the three sons of Noah on the three known continents of the world. Asia, on the top – you see the little arch there at the very top, hanging out on the top of Ararat. And Sem, the base of the word Semitic comes from Sem, Noah’s son.
And then in the bottom left corner is Europe – this map is rotated east, by the way. On the bottom left, you see, Europe, and that’s Japheth. And then the forerunner of all Africans, people thought, were the descendants of Ham. So when Stanley talks about this white tribe, he says, “Somehow they must be related to the tribe of Ham,” and they became known as Hamites. But this was a transition point.
And Stanley was a very smart man; he was also not just reading his Bible, he was also reading Darwin, and he was reading Charles Lyell, who were beginning to, in a sense, dismantle a kind of biblical history of the world. Guys like Darwin and Lyle said, “The world was not 6,000 years old; it’s hundreds of thousands of years old” – they had no idea how old it really was. But it was very, very old, and in addition to that, species maybe didn’t stay fixed over time, maybe species changed over time, maybe in fact, human beings were once resembled something else.
So Stanley began to try to adopt these old ideas and graph them to new ideas. And a lot of other people at that time did as well.
Strangely enough, the Hamitic hypothesis, this idea that all Africans came from the descendants of Ham, that son of Noah, somehow got weirdly flipped to “No, Hamites are not all Africans, Hamites are some invasion of white people that happened in the ancient past, and that this invasion of white people explains why we are finding white tribes all over the world.”
Now, if this sounds a little bizarre, let me kind of reinforce. This was not some wacky idea, like, you know, scientists who go looking for Sasquatch or people trying to prove ColdFusion. This was anthropologists, linguists, paleontologists, all kinds of scientists from across the spectrum were interested in this. This is a map, for example, of an anthropologist named Griffith Taylor, who is actually trying to describe what he saw as the racial dispersion of groups out of Asia around the world.
Now you look, and it kind of looks like a swirling map, but just to orient you here, the middle of the map is Asia. And as you see, there are these kind of initial flows outward of darker races. Now, Griffith Taylor believed that the first races of the human species were primitive, and that the later races of the species were more advanced. And like most 19th century Europeans and North Americans, when they thought about primitive and advanced, they saw it also as a racial ladder, and that primitive meant dark skinned and advanced meant light skinned.
So they created a kind of color map of the world: to give you another example, he called this the Lava Flow analogy, that all of the races of the human species emerged first in Asia, and then gradually, the later, more advanced, races – i.e. the white race – kind of rolled over the other races and spread itself out as it conquered and overcame and drove to the edges the darker raced peoples of the world, either intermarrying with them or conquering them.
So this was the idea that could somehow explain why you would find white tribes in weird areas. It also happened to fit very nicely with what was happening in the late 19th century, which was new white tribes were taking over other places in the world. Europeans were madly scrambling for colonial possessions from Asia to Africa.
In fact, this map of Africa from the late 19th century shows, essentially, the color codes here are different color codes for European countries: brown is France, green is Great Britain, blue is Belgium, and purple is Germany. Literally, all of Africa had been carved up by European countries as they tried to grab colonies.
So, the idea that there had been white ancestors who had done this before kind of fit the mode of European thinking at the time, and as European colonists came into these parts of Africa, and they looked at various groups of Africans, they said, “These are the Hamites; these are the proto-white people. Let’s treat them slightly different than these people that we think of as being black African.”
So, over the course of the late 19th century, some groups, like the Bahima, the Batusi of Rwanda, the Nyamwezi of Tanzania were called white, and other groups were called, like the Bahutu of Rwanda, were called black.
Now, at the time, Africans themselves did not have the same idea of racial concept, right? They thought mostly in terms of ethnic or clan terms, and yet, these ideas caught on. And it also allowed Europeans and North Americans, when they looked at the great kind of legacy of African civilizations, when they looked, for example, at Great Zimbabwe or the great Pyramids, they said, “Clearly, black cultures couldn’t have created these. These must have been the Hamites, right? Those ancient, highly advanced white invaders who were here thousands of years ago.
So this Hamitic hypothesis became a way of explaining, justifying, white colonization, as well as all of this cool stuff that you find in Africa, and that was essentially taken away from Africans themselves. There is a very dark side to the Hamitic hypothesis as well, which is this: even after Europeans left Africa in the 1960s and these countries became independent, even after the Hamitic hypothesis essentially was exploded as not being true, even after that time Africans themselves had started to adapt and adopt the Hamitic hypothesis as a part of their own history.
So for example, the Batusi of Rwanda considered themselves as having an origin outside of Africa, and other groups in Africa as well. The Iraqw of Tanzania see themselves as having a Mediterranean origin, not an African one. And this racial conflict between the two groups was something that became important in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was much easier for the Hutu to see the Batusi as foreign, as literally non-African invaders of their own country, and made it that much easier for them to exterminate them. I’m not saying that’s the only reason for the Rwandan genocide, but it was one of the important factors. So that’s the sad part of the story.
But there’s another part and I want to end on this other part, which is an interesting part of the story, which is we really haven’t actually gotten back to the original question, which was: if these things aren’t true, if Stanley wasn’t actually seeing white people in the heart of Africa, then what was he seeing?
So I went to Africa in 2013, and I actually climbed that mountain that Stanley was looking at, which I was totally unprepared for I mean, I run; I thought I was in pretty good shape, but this mountain is 17,000 feet high! There is a glacier on the top of it, and I wasn’t really prepared for that.
But here I am before I got to that point. And I wanted to see, as I told my guide, I wanted to see what Stanley saw, and my guide, who was a member of the Bakonzo tribe, he looked at me and said: “There’s no white people on the top of that mountain, man.”
And I said, “I know that there aren’t.” But I want to think about what Stanley saw. I came up with a provisional hypothesis, and the provisional hypothesis is this: I think Stanley did see difference; I think he did look at people and said, “These people do not look anything like these people.” We now know that in terms of human diversity, Africa is the most diverse continent in the world. There’s more human diversity, i.e. physical diversity, in Africa than any other place because within Africa is a much longer evolutionary period of time for the human species than outside of it.
So I think he did see human difference, and then it was filtered through – this is my own theory, and I’m very proud of it – it filtered what I call the Mr Magoo Hypothesis. So for those of you who are too young to remember Mr Magoo, he was this Don Quixote-like figure who was so nearsighted that you would stick him in a room, and he wouldn’t really know where he was, and he thought he was somewhere else, but everything that he, like, bumped into or knocked into, he interpreted as if he was in that other place because his expectations of where he was were so strong it filtered virtually all information coming in.
And I think that almost all explorers – probably all tourists – suffer from the Mr Magoo hypothesis, which is that they too, in a sense, filter everything they see through their expectations of what they should see. And I think Stanley, in a sense, wanted to see people who were like him, who were European. He was a desperately lonely man; he was living in Africa for three years, oftentimes without anyone else from Europe or North America, and I think in a sense, he wanted to identify with people and saw this difference – cheekbones, aquiline nose, lighter skin color – and traced that as white.
Ultimately, to finish it off, why should we remember this strange hypothesis? OK. It was a kind of inkblot test for the way people looked at the world. But ultimately, I think we should remember the Hamitic hypothesis because when we think about master races and Aryan domination, we think about kind of the very short, very violent history of Nazi Germany. But in fact, there was a much longer and a much more profound racial theory that continues to exist today, and that is the Hamitic hypothesis.
Thanks very much.
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