The African Presence in Asia

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THE AFRICAN PRESENCE IN ASIA: INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
by
RUNOKO RASHIDI

"What became of the Black people of Sumer?' the traveler asked the old man, for ancient records show that the people of Sumer were Black. `What happened to them?' `Ah,' the old man sighed. `They lost their history, so they died."

--A Sumer Legend

This Sumer legend we think is a fitting way to begin this Introduction to the latest collection of essays on the African presence in Asia for it speaks to the consequences that face us when we fail to document our history and refuse to tell our story. This Introduction and this book are part of the very much needed chronicle of the African presence in Asia. It is a story that must be told. Indeed, the story of the African presence in Asia is as fascinating as it is obscure.  It is a story that begins, it would strongly appear, more than 100,000 years ago.

RECENT SCIENTIFIC STUDIES

In truth we now know, based on recent scientific studies of DNA, that modern humanity originated in Africa, that African people are the world's original people, and that all modern humans can ultimately trace their ancestral roots back to Africa.  Were it not for the primordial migrations of early African people, humanity would have remained physically Africoid, and the rest of the world outside of the African continent absent of human life.  Since the first modern humans in Asia were of African birth, the African presence in Asia can therefore be demonstrated through the history of the Black populations that have inhabited the Asian land mass within the span of modern humanity. 

Two recent DNA studies strongly substantiate this. According to the first report, entitled Chinese Roots lie in Africa:Most of the population of modern China--one fifth of all the people living today--owes its genetic origins to Africa, an international scientific team said today in research that undercuts any theory that modern humans may have originated independently in China.

Populations from East Asia always derived from a single lineage, indicating the single origins of those populations. It is now probably safe to conclude that modern humans originating in Africa constitute the majority of the current gene pool in East Asia.

Although few scholars today dispute the idea that the earliest ancestors of the human species evolved in Africa, there still is considerable debate over how modern humanity evolved from its more primitive ancestors.

Many anthropologists believe that humans may have migrated out of Africa in waves. More than a million years ago, humanity's primitive ancestors, known as Homo erectus, walked out of Africa to colonize Europe, the Middle East and Asia. On that everyone agrees.

Then several hundred thousand years later, some theorize, a second wave of more sophisticated tool-using humans migrated out of Africa and overwhelmed those earlier ancestors. According to that theory, modern humans are descended solely from those especially sophisticated tool-users (1).

An equally important report, entitled An Ancient Link to Africa Lives on in Bay of Bengal, focuses on the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands (a remote archipelago east of India), and states that they are the direct descendants of the first modern humans to have inhabited Asia. Their physical features  short stature, dark skin, peppercorn hair and large buttocks  are characteristic of African Pygmies. They look like they belong in Africa, but here they are sitting in this island chain in the middle of the Indian Ocean, writes Dr. Peter Underhill of Stanford University, a co-author of the report (2).

Only four of the dozen or so tribal groups that once inhabited the island survive, with a total population of about five hundred people. This was before the December 2004 tsunami. These include the Jarawa (the largest group), who still live in the forest, the Onge, who have been settled by the Indian government, the Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese.
These studies of the Andamanese suggests that they are part of what is described as a relict Paleolithic population, descended from the first modern humans to leave Africa (3).

Dr. Underhill, an expert on the genetic history of the Y chromosome, said the Paleolithic population of Asia might well have looked as African as the Onge and Jarawa do now, and that people with the appearance of present-day Asians might have emerged only later (4).
 

AFRICAN CIVILIZATION IN ASIA

But not only were African people the first inhabitants of Asia.  There is abundant evidence to show that African people within documented historical periods created, nurtured or influenced some of ancient Asia's most important and enduring classical civilizations. Sumer, considered the first great civilization of Western Asia, is perhaps the most prominent example.

Flourishing during the third millennium B.C.E. between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumer set the guidelines and established the standards for the kingdoms and empires that followed her including Babylon and Assyria. She has been acknowledged as an early center for advanced mathematics, astronomy and calendars, writing and literature, art and architecture, religion and highly organized urban centers, some of the more notable of which were Kish, Uruk, Ur, Nippur, Lagash, and Eridu.

While Sumer's many achievements are much celebrated, the important question of the ethnic composition of her population is frequently either glossed over or left out of the discussion altogether. As topical as Iraq is today and since the civilization of ancient Sumer has been claimed by other peoples, it is important to set the record straight and we believe that we can state without equivocation that Sumerian civilization was but an extension of Nile Valley civilizations "of which Egypt was the noblest-born but not the only child (5)."

RACIAL CLASSIFICATION

For well over a century, Western historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and other such specialists have generally and often arbitrarily used such terms as Negroid, Proto-Negroid, Proto-Australoid, Negritic and Negrito in labeling populations in Asia with Africoid phenotypes and African cultural traits and historical traditions.  This has especially been the case with Black populations in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Far East Asia.  In Southwest Asia, on the other hand, terms like Hamites, Eurafricans, Mediterraneans and the Brown Race have commonly been employed in denoting clearly discernible Black populations.  In this work, we have chosen to reject such deliberately confusing nomenclature as obsolete and invalid, unscientific and racially motivated, and it is our intention to comprehensively explore the full impact and extent of the African presence in the human cultures and classical civilizations of early Asia.

Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, whose work has in so many ways formed a model for much of our research efforts, expressed a keen understanding of the nature and ramifications of the phenomena. In a November 1985 interview with the Journal of African Civilizations, Charles S. Finch pointed out that, There seems to be a growing consensus or idea in the literature of anthropology that there is no such thing as race (6). Continuing, Dr. Finch noted that One consequence of this thinking is the idea that Black people in India, Asia and the Pacific Islands who have almost the identical physical characteristics as Africans--that is, black skins, kinky hair, full lips, broad noses, etc.--are said to be totally unrelated to Africans (7). In his response, Dr. Diop, speaking deliberately and uncompromisingly, pointed out that:

A racial classification is given to a group of individuals who share a certain number of anthropological traits, which is necessary so that they not be confused with others. There are two aspects which must be distinguished, the phenotypical and genotypical. I have frequently elaborated on these two aspects.

If we speak only of the genotype, I can find a black who, at the level of his chromosomes, is closer to a Swede than Peter Botha is. But what counts in reality is the phenotype. It is the physical appearance which counts. This black, even if on the level of his cells he is closer than Peter Botha, when he is in South Africa he will live in Soweto. Throughout history, it has always been the phenotype which has been at issue; we mustn't lose sight of this fact. The phenotype is a reality, physical appearance is a reality.

Now, every time these relationships are not favorable to the Western cultures, an effort is made to undermine the cultural consciousness of Africans by telling them, `We don't even know what a race is.'

It is the phenotype which as given us so much difficulty throughout history, so it is this which must be considered in these relations. It exists, is a reality and cannot be repudiated (8).

WHAT IS TO BE DONE IN RESPECT TO THE AFRICAN PRESENCE IN ASIA

In this work we have tried to survey, at least to some extent, most of the major geographical regions in Asia and yet so very much, obviously, remains to be done. And there are so many parts of Asia that are virtually crying out for detailed study. For example, someone recently asked me about the African presence in Sri Lanka. My response was essentially, It all depends on what you mean by African. The majority Sinhalese population of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is itself very dark. Then you have the Tamils from South India residing in Sri Lanka. They, also, are very dark people. They are Dravidians with some of them being quite black. These are the Blacks currently fighting the Sinhalese Sri Lanka government for independence or at least a greater degree of autonomy.

Then you have the group of Blacks arrived more recently from Africa in Sri Lanka called "Kaffirs." They are very similar to the African populations in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, and known in Pakistan as Sheedis and India as Siddis and Habshis. There seems to be only a few thousand of these Kaffirs in Sri Lanka but they represent the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the island within the past several hundred years. These Blacks have distinct recollections of Africa.

And certainly not to be left out of the discussion are the descendants of probably the original people of Sri Lanka and these people are generally called Veddas or Veddoids and have a strong resemblance to Aboriginal Australians. In respect to phenotype all of these populations are Black.

Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam should be special areas of research. On a 2002 visit to Myanmar my tour guide informed me that twenty miles south of Yangon resides a community of African pearl divers. Other guides in Southeast Asia have informed me of unmixed Black people in east-central Cambodia. The Black presence in Vietnam has scarcely even been looked at and very much the same thing could be said about Bangladesh and the aboriginal people and later migrants to that country. And what about the 13,000 islands of Indonesia, stretching from mainland Asia into the Pacific Ocean? What about Siberia? What about Korea? What about the Black presence in Jordan and Palestine? What about African people in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the high plateaus of Central Asia? So much of the work that must be done has scarcely even been outlined.

Perhaps it was expressed best by Dr. Chancellor Williams in his classic Destruction of Black Civilization: According to Dr. Williams, in respect to the African presence in Asia:

I only made passing reference in the work to Blacks scattered outside of Africa over the world--not from the slave trade, but dispersions that began in prehistory. This fact alone indicates the great tasks of future scholarship on the real history of the race. We are actually just on the threshold, gathering up some important missing fragments. The biggest jobs are still ahead.

Ancient China and the Far East, for example must be a special area of African research. How do we explain such a large population of Blacks in Southern China--powerful enough to form a kingdom of their own? Or the Black people of the Malay peninsula, Indo-China, the Andamans and numerous other islands. The heavy concentration of Africans in India open still another interesting field for investigation. Even the `Negroid finds in early Europe appear not to be as challenging as the Black population centers in Asia. Our concern is with great and dominant populations. These are the Blacks who have so puzzled Western scholars that some theorize that Asia or Europe may be the homeland of Africans after all. The African populations in Palestine, Arabia, and Mesopotamia are better known, although the centuries of Black rule over Palestine, South Arabia, and in Mesopotamia should be studied and elaborated in more detail. All of this will call for a new kind of scholarship, a scholarship without any mission other than the discovery of truth, and one that will not tremble with fear when that truth is contrary to what one prefers to believe (9).

In summation, in brief, we contend that the history of the African presence in Asia, including the African presence in classical Asian civilizations, is one of the most significant, challenging and least written about aspects of the global African experience, and that even today, after an entire series of holocausts and calamities, the African presence in Asia may exceed three hundred million people.  The works of pioneer historians and scholars like Rufus Lews Perry, James Marmaduke Boddy, Alphonso Orenzo Stafford, George Wells Parker, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, Joel Augustus Rogers, John Glover Jackson, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor James Williams, Clyde-Ahmad Winters, James E. Brunson, Wayne B. Chandler, and numerous others, to varying degrees, have stressed this for years.  We intend to continue to energetically carry this work forward.

It is in this light and with this in mind that we present this volume. It is a search for answers and an attempt to examine and survey several core areas. Among the most fundamental of these areas are:

1. The peopling and settlement of Asia from Africa, identifying African people as Asias first modern human populations. That African people--Black people--are the aborigines of Asia, and that subsequent and period migrations and movements of African people into Asia occurred throughout antiquity.

2. The impact and extent of the African presence in the human cultures and classical civilizations of early Asia.

3. Discernible African elements and underpinnings of the major religions and philosophical movements in Asian antiquity.

4. Historical, anthropological, and linguistic relationships between Asians, Africoid, Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Semitic populations.

5. The enslavement and subjugation of African people in Asia.

6. Ancient and modern documentations and historiography of the African presence in Asia.

7. Major population centers and geographic locations of African populations in Asia from antiquity to modern times.

8. Nomenclature and designations for African people in Asia.

9. The numbers and proportions of African people in Asia from antiquity to modern times.

10. The status of African people in Asia today.

11. Are all of the Black people in Asia Africans?

And so with that, for now, we close the book and leave it to the reader. Or, to state it more eloquently and in the words of the great scholar Dr. Ivan Van Sertima (to whom this volume is dedicated): "On that note we close. The Black role in Asia, as elsewhere in the world, has been submerged and distorted for centuries. But it has not been totally eclipsed and it rises now like a star which was hidden by a cloud but never faded into the oblivion of the night" (10).

NOTES

1. Robert Lee Holts, Chinese Roots Lie in Africa, Research Says, Los Angeles Times, 29 Sep 1998.

2. Nicholas Wade, An Ancient Link to Africa Lives on in Bay of Bengal, New York Times, 11 Dec 2002.

3. Wade.

4. Wade.

5. Ivan Van Sertima, Egypt Revisited (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1982), 8.

6. Charles S. Finch, Great African Thinkers, vol. 1: Cheikh Anta Diop, (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1986), 285.

7. Finch.

8. Cheikh Anta Diop, Great African Thinkers, vol. 1: Cheikh Anta Diop, (New Brunswick: Transaction Press,1986), 285.

9. Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1971), xxii.

10. Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early Asia (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1995), 17.

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