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Black Athena and Diamond’s Farmers

In his analysis of a 'black Athena,' Bernal touted its interdisciplinary approach.
In his analysis of a ‘black Athena,’ Bernal touted his interdisciplinary approach.

In attempting to connect two scholarly articles with two seemingly different topics—in this case the foundations of Greek culture in Levine’s The Use and Abuse of ‘Black Athena’ and the link between cultural expansion and agricultural dispersion in Bellwood and Diamond’s Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions—one must think outside the box.

Diamond and Bellwood contend that the study of agricultural expansion is inherently interdisciplinary (Bellwood 1). Thus using techniques from archeology, anthropology, crop and livestock studies, genetics and—imperatively—linguistics, the two arrive at their thesis: Language diffusion follows/accompanies the spread of farming (Bellwood 3). The authors subsequently outline six objections to their thesis (on the grounds that the proto-language does not match the origin of its supposed dispersal, for instance) along with 11 specific examples, including the Bantu Migration and Japan’s early infusion (c. 400 BCE) of Korean rice farmers (Bellwood 7).

And it is precisely this interdisciplinary approach that pops up in Levine’s review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. So what is Bernal’s hypothesis: Greek culture is not simply Indo-European “classical;” it contains elements from Egypt and the Levant as well (Levine 441). Levine’s response exposes the difficulty of pinpointing the inciting factors of a particular civilization while taking factors like race and politics into consideration. Note: Levine is not critiquing Bernal’s hypothesis; she critiques his political motives behind Black Athena. Just as Bernal levies heavy accusations at “subjective” 19th century classicists, he uses a 19th century paradigm to do his own bidding (i.e. righting the perceived historical record of racist misjudgments) (Levine 446).

But the “interdisciplinary” notion originates from Bernal himself. “Volume 1 of the Black Athena series is dedicated to Bernal’s father, John Desmond Bernal, a historian of science, ‘who taught [Bernal] that things fit together interestingly,’ and it is in fitting things together, interestingly, that Bernal’s book represents a tour de force,” Levine writes (Levine 444). I’d argue that Bellwood and Diamond’s hypothesis also fits evidence together…interestingly. And despite Levine’s verbose, animated analysis and B&D’s lengthy list of criticisms, we inevitable end up in the same place—wondering if current events influence every historical analysis and if objectivity exists at all (Levine 447-9).