In Memory of Black Athena
“Born in London, Bernal grew up there in a left-leaning milieu, on familiar terms with prominent figures in the arts, sciences and politics”
Martin Bernal, who has died aged 76, was a scholar of China and modern politics, but his contentious work on ancient Greece brought him most to the public eye.
He maintained that the cultural roots of Greek civilisation derived not just from Indo-Europeans invading from the north, but substantially, as ancient authors affirmed, from Egypt, the Phoenician cities of the eastern Mediterranean and west Asia.
In place of what he saw as the racist “Aryan” theory of Greek origins prevalent from the early 19th century, he proposed a “revised ancient model” that accepted some Indo-European input, but held that about half the linguistic and mythic components of Hellenic culture came from African and Asiatic introductions since the early second millennium BC.
The trilogy in which he put forward this argument, “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation”, provoked great academic controversy.
He did not foresee what one commentator called “the firestorm that would break upon his head”.
Volume I (1987), “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985,” examined mainstream scholarship on Mediterranean history from the Bronze Age to the Classical period. It received mixed reviews but generated widespread interest and was translated into nine languages.
Less editorially polished, Volume II (1991) combined interpretation of archaeological materials with analysis of myths, to support his historical reconstruction of trans-Mediterranean influences and argue that the “orientalising” influence on Greece began a millennium earlier than generally thought.
Scholarly reviews in the West were almost entirely negative, and opinion was sharply divided. Some classicists considered Bernal a serious scholar who had made a considerable, if flawed, contribution; others treated him as an academic fraud.
“Black Athena Revisited” (1996), edited by Mary Lefkowitz and GM Rogers, brought together hostile contributions by scholars from a range of disciplines.
Among their main objections were alleged naivety in Bernal's readings of myth and ancient literary texts, abusive generalisations in his treatment of ancient and modern authors, unconventional etymological analysis and selective presentation of evidence.
Bernal's detailed responses were collected in “Black Athena Writes Back” (2001). While admitting secondary errors and revising his positions accordingly, he stuck to his central argument of the key role of Egyptian and Phoenician immigrants in laying early foundations for classical Greek civilisation.
Volume III (2006) presented evidence from comparative linguistics to support that case. The most technical instalment of the trilogy, focusing on ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages as well as Greek, it was ignored by scholarly journals.
Nonetheless, two recent edited collections, “Black Athena Comes of Age” and “African Athena: New Agendas”, both published in 2011, express critical appreciation for Bernal's contributions to raising important issues for scholarly consideration.
Near the end of his life, he summed up what he believed to be the standard assessment of his work's value among those who took him seriously: that his analysis of the modern historiography was fairly solid, his reconstructions based on archaeology and comparative mythology dubious and his linguistic analyses impossible.
His own assessment was rather the opposite: he considered his linguistic work his most solid contribution and his historiographical analyses from the 1980s oversimplified.
Born in London, Bernal grew up there in a left-leaning milieu, on familiar terms with prominent figures in the arts, sciences and politics.
His mother was the writer Margaret Gardiner, and his father the physicist JD Bernal.
The sole child of their longstanding relationship, Martin studied at Dartington Hall school, Devon, undertook two years of national service and worked in Malawi for a family trust.
In 1957, he embarked on an oriental studies degree at King's College, Cambridge. He hoped Maoist China might constitute an alternative to Stalinism and capitalism.
A year abroad in 1960-61 polishing his Chinese at Beijing University, where he was deemed to have a “bad attitude”, acquainted him with the regime's Stalinist features, while cementing his lifelong engagement with Chinese culture and history. – Guardian (UK)
The Cambridge professor of Chinese EG Pulleyblank was conducting innovative research into historical linguistics that proved an inspiration for Bernal later on. He gained first-class honours in 1961 and married his fellow student Judy Pace. Their daughter was born in 1963 in the US, where Bernal spent successive years as a graduate student at Berkeley and Harvard. Twin sons were born in Cambridge 18 months later.
A King's fellowship followed, and he received his PhD, on early Chinese socialism, in 1966.
Bernal was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. Extended visits to Cambodia in 1967, to Cambodia and both parts of Vietnam in 1971, and to North Vietnam in 1974, put him in personal touch with people in those countries.
Prominent articles on Chinese politics in the New York Review of Books brought him to attention in the US just as President Richard Nixon was making diplomatic overtures to the People's Republic and withdrawing troops from Indochina. In 1972 Bernal was appointed associate professor in the department of government at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, on terms that allowed him to spend substantial amounts of time in Britain, close to his children, as his first marriage had come to an end.
In 1976, he met Leslie Miller, a professor (and later provost) at Wells College, near Cornell, whom he married. They had a son in 1979, and Leslie had a son from her previous marriage. The family moved regularly between Ithaca and Cambridge over the following decades.
Bernal's first book, Chinese Socialism to 1907, appeared in 1976, but then his research interests increasingly shifted to antiquity. From his grandfather, the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, Bernal had gained an enduring engagement with the ancient Mediterranean; that and fascination with his Jewish heritage gave impetus to Black Athena, the project that most allowed him to connect prose and passion. It brought him an adjunct professorship in the department of Near Eastern studies in 1984. He became full professor at Cornell in 1988 and retired as emeritus in 2001.
Bernal took strong public stands against the Iraq war, in the US and in Britain. His broad knowledge, wit and good humour made him a brilliant conversationalist. He was a warm and generous friend.
In retirement he led Cambridge University tours to China. He treated language learning as both a duty and a pleasure: in addition to fluency in French and Chinese, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Italian, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chichewa (spoken in southern Africa) and several ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages.
Bernal is survived by Leslie, by his children, Sophie, William, Paul, Adam and Patrick, and by nine grandchildren.
• Martin Gardiner Bernal, sinologist, historian and political scientist, born 10 March 1937; died 9 June 2013