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hat is the cause of physical differences between people and what do these differences reveal about our origin? These questions have troubled the human race since antiquity. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, supported the idea of ​​geographical determinism, arguing that the environment, climate, and other regional factors leave a mark on the physical and behavioral aspects of the entire population. He considered every different race represented by different colors had its own characteristics that made them unique.

The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor (he reigned in 361–363 AD), considered that men and women were created in several stages. He had noticed that there were significant physical differences between Germans, Scythians, and Ethiopians, and he could not imagine how these peoples could come from a single ancestor; in his opinion, there would have been separate creations for each nation.

Did we evolve from the same ancestors?

However, beyond a few naive and approximate hypotheses, the nature of human origin and differences had not been subjected to a systemic and profound analysis by the ancients. Some religions offered a very superficial explanation, sufficient for the desire for understanding of those times. The polygenist origin of the world was often invoked (the doctrine that different human races were created separately or evolved from different species).

Pygmies women colored in red dye to represent the clay her God made her from (Source: NBA)

Thus, in the mythology of the pygmies of Congo, it is said that the supreme god of the pygmies, Khonvoum, created three different types of people from three types of clay: one black, another white and the third — red. In the mythology of the Asmat tribe of New Guinea, it is said that they were created by their god, from a carved wood; but the other groups of people, strangers, were created from the parts of a chopped crocodile, punished for daring to attack the first people with asthma. The mythology of the Ainu people in Japan claimed that the first Ainu people came from heaven, separately from other races.

Fresco portraying a Nilotic landscape with pygmies, detail, hippopotamus intent on devouring pygmy from the internal decoration of rostrum which surrounded the garden of the House of Physician in Pompeii (Source: De Agostini Picture Library)

What does the Bible say?

If Adam and Eve were alike, where did people of other colors come from?

An engraving depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Albrecht Durer, 15th century (Source: Hulton Archive)

In Judeo-Christian mythology, we find no clear answer as to the origin of the human race. According to the Bible, there was only one creative act for all mankind, but the question arises: if Adam and Eve were alike, then where did people of other colors come from? Or, someone from that mythical initial couple must have had the skin of different pigmentation. In the scriptures, however, there are several attempts to explain this enigma, using a solution that can be described as almost revolutionary.

Thus, we are told that Adam was the origin of all men, and the differences between the races are attributed to the three sons of Noah: Ham, Shem, and Japheth; they would have given birth, after the Flood, to different tribes (the Hamites — the Africans, the Semites — the Semitic peoples and the Iaphathis — the Europeans). Ham had been cursed by his father, Noah, and has since become dark-skinned and marginalized, and his descendants have become subordinate to the other tribes.

Illustration of Noah and his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth constructing the Ark as his wife calls chosen animals using the shofar (Source: Author Dorling Kindersley)

There are interpretations and alternative versions of the biblical legend, proposed by various theologians. The pre-Adam version, for example, claims that there were people (human races) on Earth before the creation of Adam and Eve. The biblical myth, along with its interpretations, has been considered satisfactory and unquestionable for many centuries.

The environment is seen as a major factor

In the Middle Ages, there were attempts to attribute the differences between white and black people according to climatic factors. Thus, in the 13th-century encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, On the Property of Things (De Proprietatibus Rerum), a theory is proposed that the cold climate produces white people and the hot climate produces black people. Other researchers admitted that there is an even greater distance between races; thus, the famous Swiss healer Paracelsus had been a proponent of the polygenist thesis and believed that the existence of distinct races was due to the different historical origins of humans, a thesis he conceptualized and promoted.

The landing of Christopher Columbus in America, at San Salvador, October 12, 1492 (Source: Legends of America)

In his travel diary, Christopher Columbus had made some curious notes about the aborigines he met on the discovered islands of America; among others, Columbus indicated that they are all born with a tail. Through this description, Columbus gives us a typical example of how in the Middle Ages any strange human being was seen and treated, different from what Europeans had seen in their ordinary living environment.

However, only during the Renaissance and in the modern era, when the taboo imposed by religion on discussions about the origin of man could be circumvented, human differences began to be explored with an approach that we could call “proto-scientific”. According to contemporary researchers, the decline of religiosity in the Enlightenment or, in other words, the beginning of modernity has driven racist thinking, because people have become free to appreciate human diversity from a naturalistic perspective, not from divine creation.

Has the renaissance paved the way for modern racist ideas?

With the Renaissance and especially during the Enlightenment, there was a turn towards the appreciation of the external aspect of things, towards the rational manifestations of people, towards their performances not so much spiritual, but intellectual, cultural. The man climbed the pedestal, therefore there was a lively interest in his nature, in the mental, cultural and anatomical differences between individuals and between peoples. This has been also exemplified in Babatunde A. Ogunnaike’s works.

The school of Athenas (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In view of this change of attitudes, various works and quotations of the ancients, from Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plotinus, in which they proposed hierarchical classifications of people, began to be evoked and interpreted differently. This transition from divine perception to the naturalistic and hierarchical perception of humanity would have paved, even indirectly, the path to modern racist ideas.

Indeed, the list of personalities of those times who showed interest in the phenomenon of human diversity is impressive. We find in it philosophers, writers, physicians, clergy, and men of art who have found it expedient to express their views on the differences between peoples. However, it is an exaggeration to blame the emergence of racist concepts on scientific interest in human nature. Rather, the liberalization of thought, combined with a lack of thorough knowledge, has led to the development of various theories and misconceptions about human diversity and racial differences.

In the vast majority of cases, assessments of racial differences, including attempts at scientific classification, bore the imprint of existing prejudices and discriminatory attitudes. Neither the most enlightened minds of that age, nor the great clergy or scholars of the time, were exempted from such prejudices; the truth is that until the Enlightenment, social representations were deeply xenophobic and racist, and the concept of common divine creation had not made people tolerant of one another.

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