Semite (sĕm´īt, sē´mīt), originally one of a people believed to be descended from Shem, son of Noah. Later the term came to include the following peoples: Arabs; the Akkadians of ancient Babylonia; the Assyrians; the Canaanites (including Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, and Phoenicians); the various Aramaean tribes (including Hebrews); and a considerable portion of the population of Ethiopia. These peoples are grouped under the term Semite, chiefly because their languages were found to be related, deriving presumably from a common tongue, Semitic. The Semites were largely nomadic pastoralists, although some settled in villages. At least as early as 2500 BC, the Semites had begun to leave the Arabian peninsula in successive waves of migration that took them to Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean coast, and the Nile delta. They were organized into patrilineal tribes, occupying defined territories and ruled by hereditary leaders, or sheiks. In Mesopotamia, Semitic people from the earliest times were in contact with Sumerian civilization and with the rise of Sargon of Agade (Akkad) and Hammurabi of Babylon were able to dominate it completely (see Sumer). In Phoenicia the Semitic population developed a widespread maritime trade and became the first great seafaring people. That group of Hebrews that had been diverted through Sinai into the Nile delta settled at last with other Semitic inhabitants in Palestine. These southern or Judean Hebrews became the leaders of a new nation and religion (see Jews and Judaism).
See W. R. Smith, History of the Semites (1956, repr. 1972).