Academic journal article Ethnology

When Hypothesis Becomes Myth: The Iraqi Origin of the Iraqw

Academic journal article Ethnology

When Hypothesis Becomes Myth: The Iraqi Origin of the Iraqw

Article excerpt

The now-rejected Hamitic hypothesis, depicting Caucasoid peoples from the north a responsible for a number of precolonial cultural and technological achievements in Africa, served to legitimize European intervention and colonization on the continent. This article discusses how the Hamitic hypothesis was modified and revived as the origin myth of the Iraqw of Tanzania. Written sources and the oralization of written sources have significantly promoted the current widespread recognition among the Iragw that they originated in Iraq or Mesopotamia. (Iraqw, Mbulu, Hamitic hypothesis, oral tradition, invented tradition)

A great many Iraqw in northern Tanzania claim that they have a historical connection with Iraq in the Middle East, and they are frequently able to provide detailed accounts and arguments reaching far beyond the phonological similarity between the two words in order to substantiate this linkage. The theory of the Middle East connection is a rather new phenomenon in Iraqw discourse about the past, and this article reports on how it came into being. This is an example of how the written word, and the oralization of the written word, under certain historical circumstances can become a powerful means for attributing authority and authenticity to an invented tradition. At the same time, the fixation inherent in the process of transcription does not mean that oral traditions lose their ability to respond to changing historical circumstances. On the contrary, "orality and literacy, far from being mutually contradictory poles, can interact and support each other" (Finnegan 1988: 110). This implies the necessity of scrutinizing the historical, social, and political circumstances in which a particular tradition occurs before one proceeds to evaluate the content of oral traditions as historical evidence.

The story of how the Iraqw came to regard Iraq as a place of origin is also the story of how a well-refuted scientific hypothesis, heavily infested with European ethnocentrism and racism, has been modified and has taken on new life as the origin myth of an African people. In order to understand the Iraqw adoption of the new myth it is necessary to explore how its parent, the Hamitic hypothesis, has constituted an integral part of European attitudes to Africa from the start of the slave trade to the present. The historical context and development of the Hamitic hypothesis reveal that it has always primarily been an ideological statement, a myth motivating actions and responding readily to changes in the relationship between Europe and Africa.

There is little extraordinary in the fact that Malinowski's functionalist approach to "savage myth" may be applied convincingly to statements which were presented as science during a specific historical epoch. There is a certain degree of irony, however, in the fact that C. G. Seligman, the author of the work that contains what is probably the most influential formulation of the Hamitic hypothesis, was also the one who probably more than anyone else contributed to bringing Malinowski, and with him modern anthropology, into prominence.


The linguistic map of Tanzania shows the area where the Iraqw live as a pocket of Cushites in a land almost entirely dominated by Bantu- and Nilotic-speaking peoples. The linguistic contrast to the surrounding groups corresponds with other cultural differences, and to a certain extent with variations in physical attributes. Until a few decades ago the classification of the Iraqw language was problematic, as it contained elements "differing from any other known language," making it "impossible to regard it as anything but a member of an Isolated Language Group" (Tucker and Bryan 1956: 157). The question of where the Iraqw came from when they entered the area in which they currently reside has until recently been equally problematic, and the various theories that have been suggested include all four cardinal directions. …

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