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a term introduced into scholarly literature by the German scholars A. L. Schloezer and J. G. Eichhorn in the 1780’s to designate the ancient peoples whose languages belonged to a single family and who shared a common area of settlement, common features of religion, and a similar material culture and way of life. The term was drawn from the Old Testament, where a number of peoples are called by the common name “sons of Shem.” In modern scholarly literature, the term is used in two ways. First, it is applied to a reconstructed ethnic community that spoke a language ancestral to the languages of many peoples who created a number of states in Southwest Asia (Proto-Semites). Second, it is used to refer to the ancient and modern peoples who speak languages belonging to the Semitic language group; a more correct term would thus be “Semitic-speaking peoples.”
On the basis of certain scholarly evidence, it appears probable that the Proto-Semites were nomads and cattle breeders who once inhabited the northern Sahara. Scholars theorize that the Proto-Semites began moving eastward in the early fifth millennium B.C because of great changes in the climate. According to the German scholar T. Nöldeke and the British scholar W. R. Smith, the Semites gradually settled the Arabian Peninsula and during the following millennia penetrated in successive waves to Mesopotamia and the Syrian steppe as far as the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. I. M. D’iakonov of the USSR and other scholars believe that, after crossing the Nile delta, some of the Semites turned south and settled Arabia and others went to the north and northeast. J. Kupper of Belgium and a number of other scholars suggest that, after migrating from the Sahara, the Semites remained a community for some time in the Syrian steppe. According to this view, it was from the Syrian steppe that the dispersal of the Semites began. Still other scholars believe that all of the Semito-Hamitic peoples originated in Arabia.
The most widely accepted view is that the Semites became divided by language into two large groups—Eastern and Western—in the late fourth and early third millennia B.C The Eastern (Northeastern) group first settled in the northern part of southern Mesopotamia and came into contact with the Sumerians in the early third millennium B.C Representatives of this group spoke Accadian. In the middle of the third millennium B.C, the Accadians began moving southward into southern Mesopotamia, and soon the language of the Northeastern group of Semites displaced Sumerian. The subsequent fate of this group of Semites is bound up with the history of Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria.
The Western Semites became divided into two or three groups. The Northwestern group settled in Palestine, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia in two successive waves of migration. The first known representatives of this group (third and second millennia B.C) were the Amorites and Canaanites; later representatives included the Phoenicians and Hebrews (from the late second millennium B.C) and a special subgroup, the Aramaeans. Certain tribes of Aramaeans, known as Chaldeans, may have penetrated to southern Mesopotamia and may even have crossed the Tigris River. A South Semitic group inhabited the Arabian Peninsula in the second millennium B.C At the time, the southern subgroup of the South Semites probably consisted of the inhabitants of ancient southern Arabian states, including the Minaeans, Sabaeans, Qatabanians, and Hadhramis. It is also possible that members of this subgroup settled Ethiopia in the first millennium B.C In the second and first millennia B.C, the northern subgroup of the South Semites comprised the Lih-yanites, Thamud, and other peoples; no later than the early first millennium B.C, these peoples came to be designated as Arabs. The expansion of the Arabs beyond the borders of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century A.D. during the Arab conquests is viewed as the last and largest wave of Semitic dispersion.
The Semitic-speaking peoples include the Arabs, the Maltese, the descendants of the ancient representatives of the southern subgroup of South Semites in southern Arabia (the Mahri, Shihri, inhabitants of Socotra, and others), the Amhara and Tigre peoples of Ethiopia, the Israelis, and the Syriac-speaking Syrians.
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G. M. BAUER