Ethnicity and Race
Ethnicity is a broad term for a group defined by an idea of common kinship among its members and a history (which is sometimes more fictional than not) that evokes a common origin. Like other identities, ethnic groups are only coherent if their membership is recognized by those inside and outside the group.
Ethnic groups can differentiate themselves from others in a wide variety of ways. In the ancient Middle East, physical difference (“race”) was rarely a source of differentiation, and language more often (but not always) distinguished groups. Material culture, such as styles of clothing, art, or architecture, also sometimes differentiated ethnic groups, and can be a clue to archaeologists and historians about ancient identities.
Ancient sources, when they mention it at all, view ethnicity as a long-lasting and unchanging identity. Some ethnic groups that existed in antiquity—Arabs and Persians, for example—still exist today. But more often, ethnic identities changed over the course of history; Sumerians, Gutians, and Hittites have all disappeared from the Middle East, but their culture is preserved to some degree by ancient texts and artifacts.
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What kinds of things relate to or contribute to a person’s sense of identity? How is an understanding of identities crucial to the study of history?
2. What were some of the various ways that people in the ancient Middle East identified themselves?
3. Why is our tendency today to use religious affiliation as a main part of one’s identity a misleading approach when looking at the ancient Middle East?