Charles Gabriel Seligman and the Hamitic Hypothesis

Charles Gabriel Seligman

Charles Gabriel Seligman

On December 24, 1873British physician and ethnologist Charles Gabriel Seligman was born. Seligman‘s main ethnographic work described the culture of the Vedda people of Sri Lanka and the Shilluk people of the Sudan. He was a proponent of the Hamitic hypothesis, according to which, some civilizations of Africa were thought to have been founded by Caucasoid Hamitic peoples.

Charles Gabriel Seligman studied medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital. He later worked as a physician and pathologist and then served the 1898 Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Strait. Later expedition included New Guinea, Ceylon, and Sudan. Seligman served as chair of Ethnology at the London School of Economics from 1913 to 1934.

Charles Seligman is probably best known for his ethnographic work on the races of Africa. He recognized four major distinct races of the African continent: Bushmanoids (Bushmen), Pygmies, Negroids, and Caucasoids (Hamites). Further, the Hottentots, according to Seligman are a mixture of Bushmanoid, Negroid and Hamitic. As a staunch proponent of the Hamitic theory, in his work Seligman asserts that Hamitic Caucasoid North and Northeast Africans were responsible for introducing non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages (Berber-Cushitic-Egyptian) into Africa, as well as civilization, technology and all significant cultural developments.

He did acknowledge varying degrees of Negroid admixture amongst the Hamitic groups, but emphasized throughout his major works the essential racial and cultural unity of the various Hamitic peoples. In his Some Aspects of the Hamitic Problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (1913), he writes that the Northern and Eastern Hamitic “groups shade into each other, and in many parts a Negro admixture has taken place, nevertheless, culturally if not always physically, either division stands apart from its fellow.” The Hamites in general, and the Northern Hamites in particular, he asserted, have close “kinship with the European representatives of the Mediterranean race”. Drawing from Coon, Seligman also discusses fairer features observed amongst a minority of Berbers or Northern Hamites, such as lighter skin, golden beards and blue eyes. Races of Africa, however, notably questions the belief held by some anthropologists in the early 20th century that these fairer traits, such as blondism, were introduced by a Nordic variety. Seligman’s most famous work Races of Africa is regarded the first major published work in English on the ethnography of Africa, widely regarded as an “ethnological classic”.

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