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Accepted paper:

Confronting the Hamitic Hypothesis in UNESCO's General History of Africa*


Larissa Schulte Nordholt (Leiden University)

Paper long abstract:

This paper analyses how and why the so-called Hamitic hypothesis lingered as a powerful narrative within African historiography throughout the twentieth century. This happened even though it was proven factually incorrect by the 1960s. The paper takes UNESCO's General History of Africa (1964-1999) as a case-study to show that debates about the hypothesis were centred around questions of race and emancipation. The phrase 'Hamitic hypothesis', generally speaking, came to refer to the explanatory narrative that civilizational progress in Africa had stemmed from outside the continent, brought there by migrating whites from the north. It was therefore antithetical to the emancipatory goal of proving Africa had a history espoused by the UNESCO History specifically and African historiography in the mid-twentieth century generally. Within the GHA it was Cheikh Anta Diop who utilised the racialist logic inherited from 19th century European science to argue that the Hamitic Egyptians had been black. This reversal could make the hypothesis useful for the purpose of historiographical emancipation, by emphasizing blackness rather than denying it. This made the hypothesis ambiguous and therefore difficult to get rid of.

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Disciplinary trends in Africa: history (double panel)