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Title: Ethnogenesis  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Ethnic group, Race (human categorization), Historiography and nationalism, Lev Gumilyov, Origin myth
Collection: Ethnicity, Ethnology, Kinship and Descent, Race (Human Categorization)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Ethnogenesis (from Greek ethnos ἔθνος, "group of people, nation", and genesis γένεσις, "beginning, coming into being"; plural ethnogeneses) is a process in which a group of people acquire an ethnicity, that is, a group identity that identifies them as an ethnic group. This can originate through a process of self-identification as well as come about as the result of outside identification.


  • Passive or active ethnogenesis 1
  • Inclusive or exclusive nationalism 2
  • Language revival 3
  • Religion 4
  • Geography 5
  • Specific cases 6
    • The Goths 6.1
    • The Amerindian North American Southwest 6.2
    • Southeastern North American Indians 6.3
    • Creation of the Moldovan identity in the Soviet Union 6.4
  • Ethnogenesis in historical scholarship 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9

Passive or active ethnogenesis

Ethnogenesis can occur passively, in the accumulation of markers of group identity forged through interaction with the physical environment, cultural and religious divisions between sections of a society, migrations and other processes, for which ethnic subdivision is an unintended outcome. It can occur actively, as persons deliberately and directly 'engineer' separate identities to attempt to solve a political problem – the preservation or imposition of certain cultural values, power relations, etc. Since the late eighteenth century, such attempts have often been related to language revival or creation of a new language, in what eventually becomes a "national literature".

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, societies challenged by the obsolescence of those narratives which previously afforded them coherence have fallen back on ethnic or racial narratives as a means of maintaining or reaffirming their collective identity, or polis.[1]

Inclusive or exclusive nationalism

Ethnogenesis can be promoted to include or exclude any ethnic minority living within a certain country. In France, the integrationalist policy of the French Republic was inclusive; their laws stated all persons born and/or legally residing in France proper (including overseas departments and territories) were "Frenchmen". The law did not make any ethnic distinctions nor racial categories in between the "French" people. All people in France were Frenchmen and became citizens of the French Republic as far the country's law was concerned.

Language revival

Language has been a critical asset for authenticating ethnic identities. The process of reviving an antique ethnic identity often poses an immediate language challenge, as obsolescent languages lack expressions for contemporary experiences. In Europe in the 1990s, examples of proponents of ethnic revivals were from Celtic fringes in Wales and nationalists in the Basque country. Activists' attempts since the 1970s to revive the Occitan language in southern France are a similar attempt.

Similarly, in the 19th century, the Fennoman Grand Duchy of Finland aimed to raise the Finnish language from peasant-status to the position of an official national language, which had been only Swedish for some time. The Fennoman also founded the Finnish Party to pursue their nationalist aims. The publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, was a founding stone of Finnish nationalism and ethnogenesis. Finnish was recognized as the official language of Finland only in 1892. Fennomans were opposed by the Svecomans, headed by Axel Olof Freudenthal (1836–1911). He supported continuing the use of Swedish as the official language (it had been a minority language used by the educated elite in government and administration.) In line with contemporary scientific racism theories, Freudenthal believed that Finland had two "races", one speaking Swedish and the other Finnish. The Svecomans claimed that the Swedish "Germanic race" was superior to the majority Finnish people. In Ireland, revival of Gaelic was part of the reclaiming of Irish identity in the republic.

Language has been an important and divisive political force in Belgium between the Dutch/Germanic Flemings and Franco-Celtic Walloons since the country was created in 1831. Switzerland's polity is somewhat divided among German-speaking "Alemmanic" or Schweiz against the French-speaking Romandies or Arpitians, and the Italian/Lombard and Romansh-speaking minorities in the south and east.

In Italy there were ethnological and linguistic differences between regional groups, from the Lombardians of the North to the Sicilians of the south. Mountainous terrain had allowed the development of relatively isolated communities and numerous dialects before unification in the 19th century.


The set of cultural markers that accompanies each of the major religions may become a component of distinct ethnic identities, although they do not usually exist in isolation. Ethnic definitions are subject to change over time, both within and outside groups. For example, 19th-century Europeans classified Jews and Arabs as one 'ethnic' bloc, the Semites or Hamites. Later the term Hamites came to be associated with Sub-Saharan Africans instead.

Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim followers have historically been aligned with ethnicities (and later nations) speaking different languages and having different cultures. arise on the basis of the languages which followers of each religion historically favoured: (Latin and Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Arabic, respectively). The sources of religious differentiation are contested among sociologists and among anthropologists, as much as between the faith groups themselves.

The line between a well-defined religious sect and a discrete ethnicity cannot be sharply defined. Sects which most observers would accept as constituting a separate ethnicity usually have, as a minimum, a firm set of rules related to maintenance of endogamy, censuring those who 'marry-out' or who fail to raise their children in the proper faith. Examples might include the Amish, Druze, Mormons, Sikhs, Yazidi and Zoroastrians[2]


Geographical factors can lead to both cultural and collective identity.

Specific cases

The Goths

Herwig Wolfram offers "a radically new explanation of the circumstances under which the Goths were settled in Gaul, Spain and Italy".[3] Since "they dissolved at their downfall into a myth accessible to everyone" at the head of a long history of attempts to lay claim to a "Gothic" tradition, the ethnogenesis by which disparate bands came to self-identify as "Goths" is of wide interest and application. The problem is in extracting a historical ethnography from sources that are resolutely Latin and Roman-oriented.

The Amerindian North American Southwest

With the arrival of the Spanish in southwestern North America, the Native Americans of the Jumano cultural sphere underwent social changes partly in reaction, which spurred their ethnogenesis, Clayton Anderson has observed.[4] Ethnogenesis in the Texas plains and along the coast took two forms: a disadvantaged group identified with a stronger group and became absorbed into it, on the one hand, and on the other hand, cultural institutions were modified and in a sense reinvented. The seventeenth-century Jumano disintegration, a collapse in part due to widespread deaths due to introduced diseases, was followed by their reintegration as Kiowa, Nancy Hickerson has argued.[5] Exterior stresses that produced ethnogenetic shifts preceded the arrival of the Spanish and their horse culture: recurring cycles of drought had previously forced non-kin to band together or to disband and mobilize. Inter-tribal hostilities forced weaker groups to associate with stronger ones.

Southeastern North American Indians

From 1539-1543, a Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto departed Cuba for Florida and the American southeast. Although asked to practice restraint, Soto led six hundred men on a violent rampage through present-day Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and east Texas. Frustrated with not finding gold or silver in the areas suspected to contain such valuable materials, they destroyed villages and decimated native populations. Despite his death in 1542, Soto's men continued their expedition until 1543 when about half of their original force reached Mexico. Their actions introduced European diseases that further weakened native populations. The population collapse forced natives to relocate from their cities into the countryside where smaller villages and new political structures developed, replacing the older chiefdom models of tribal governance. By 1700, the major tribal settlements Soto and his men had encountered were no more. Smaller tribes began to form loose confederations of smaller, more autonomous villages. From this blending of many tribes, ethnogenesis led to the emergence of new ethnic groups and identities for the consolidated natives who had managed to survive the invasion of European people, animals, and diseases. After 1700, most North American Indian "tribes" were relatively new composite groups formed by these refugees who were trying to cope with massive epidemics and violence brought by the Europeans who were exploring the area.[6]

Creation of the Moldovan identity in the Soviet Union

The separate Moldovan ethnic identification was promoted under Soviet rule when the Soviet Union set up an autonomous Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. It was set apart from the Ukrainian SSR on part of the territory between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers (Transnistria). The scholar Charles King concluded[7] that this action was in part a prop to Soviet propaganda and help for a potential communist revolution in Romania. At first a Moldovan ethnicity supported territorial claims to the then-Romanian territories of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. The claims were based on the fact that the territory of eastern Bessarabia with Chisinau had belonged to Russian Empire between 1812-1918. After having been for 500 years part of the Romanian Principality of Moldova, Russia was awarded the East of Moldova as a recompensation for its losses during the Napoleonic Wars: this was the beginning of the 100 years Russian history in East Moldova. After the Soviet occupation of the two territories in 1940, potential re-unification claims were offset by the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the establishment of the Moldaivan ASSR, Chișinău was named its capital, a role which it continued to play after the formation of the Moldavian SSR in 1940.

The recognition of Moldovans as a separate ethnicity, distinct from Romanians, remains today a controversial subject. On one side, the Moldovan Parliament adopted in 2003 "The Concept on National Policy of the Republic of Moldova", which states that Moldovans and Romanians are two distinct peoples and speak two different languages, that Romanians form an ethnic minority in Moldova, and that the Republic of Moldova is the legitimate successor to the Principality of Moldavia. However "The Concept on National Policy of the Republic of Moldova" was written during a communistic government, and it is meant to keep the Moldovian population divided from the Romanian one, so that Russia does not loose any of its influence over Moldovian territories. Moldovans are recognized as a distinct ethnic group only by former Soviet states.

Moreover, in Romania, people from Wallachia and Transylvania call the Romanians inhabiting western Moldavia, now part of Romania, as Moldovans. People in Romanian Moldova call themselves Moldovans, as subethnic denomination, and Romanians, as ethnic denomination (like Kentish and English for English people living in Kent. Romanians from Romania call the Romanians of the Republic of Moldova Bessarabians, as identification inside the subethnic group, Moldovans as subethnic group and Romanians as ethnic group. The subethnic groups referred to here are historically connected to independent Principalities. The Principality of Moldavia/Moldova founded in 1349 had various extensions between 1349-1859 and comprised Bucovina – and Bessarabia as regional subdivisions. This way, Romanians of southern Bukovina (today part of Romania and formerly part of the historical Moldova) are called Bukovinans, Moldovans and Romanians.

In the 2004 Moldovan census, of the 3,383,332 people living in Moldova, 16.5% (558,508) chose Romanian as their mother tongue, whereas 60% chose Moldovan. While 40% of all urban Romanian/Moldovan speakers indicated Romanian as their mother tongue, in the countryside barely one out of seven Romanian/Moldovan speakers indicated Romanian as his mother tongue.[8]

Ethnogenesis in historical scholarship

Within the historical profession, the term "ethnogenesis" has been borrowed as a neologism to explain the origins and evolution of so-called barbarian ethnic cultures,[9] stripped of its metaphoric connotations drawn from biology, of "natural" birth and growth. This view is closely associated with the Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram and his followers, who argued that such ethnicity was not a matter of genuine genetic descent ("tribes").

Rather, using Reinhard Wenskus' term Traditionskerne ("nuclei of tradition"),[10] ethnogenesis arose from small groups of aristocratic warriors carrying ethnic traditions from place to place and generation to generation. Followers would coalesce or disband around these nuclei of tradition; ethnicities were available to those who wanted to participate in them with no requirement of being born into a "tribe". Thus questions of race and place of origin became secondary.

Proponents of ethnogenesis may claim it is the only alternative to the sort of ethnocentric and nationalist scholarship that is commonly seen in disputes over the origins of many ancient peoples such as the Franks, Goths, and Huns.[11] It has also been used as an alternative to the Near East's "race history" that had supported Phoenicianism and claims to the antiquity of the variously called Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac peoples.

See also


  1. ^ Geary, Patrick J. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  2. ^ Harrison, p. 121
  3. ^ Wolfram, Thomas J. Dunlap, tr.History of the Goths (1979, 1988) Preface, p. x
  4. ^ See Clayton Anderson, The Indian Southwest, 1580-1830: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press) 1999; a broader scope is included in the articles in Jonathan D. Hill (ed.), History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press) 1996.
  5. ^ Nancy Parrott Hickerson, The Jumanos: Hunters and Traders of the South Plains (University of Texas Press) 1996.
  6. ^ Taylor, Alan (2001). American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 72–74.  
  7. ^ Charles King, The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, Hoover Institution Press, 2000:54.
  8. ^ National Bureau of Statistics of the Republic of Moldova: Census 2004
  9. ^ Walter Pohl. "Aux origines d'une Europe ethnique. Transformations d'identites entre Antiquite et Moyen Age". Annales HSS 60 (2005): 183-208, and Pohl, "Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies" Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings, ed. Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein, (Blackwell), 1998, pp 13-24.( On-line text).
  10. ^ Wenskus' comparative study of German ethnogeneses is Stammesbildung und Verfassung (Cologne and Graz) 1961
  11. ^ Michael Kulikowski (2006). Rome's Gothic Wars. Cambridge University Press. Page 53
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