Nilo-Saharan language family tree

Adapted from this one, as my eyesight is poor and my addition of colour makes it easier to see. Click to enlarge.

Nilo Saharan languages
Nilo Saharan languages

Just a couple of comments on the dates. Proto-Sahelian is given as 9,000 BP, but it includes the words goat and sheep, which don’t seem to arrive in the relevant area (Sudan) until about 5,500 BP at the earliest (they aren’t animals native to Africa). This means Proto-Sahelian  can be 5,500 years old or younger, dating to the Neolithic in Africa (depending on the home of proto Saharan Sahelian really). I think the correct dates are about 60% of the given for these two, the others I can’t comment onauthoritatively,but if he’s estimating the dates from linguistic changes, this brings proto Northern Sudanic into the Neolithic too  if he’s out by the same percentage on all of them. This would also bring Nilo Saharan to a date of 9k to 10k.

Not as mad as it seems, linguitsic dating put proto Indo European at 9,000 years old, but it has tech that only appeared 5k ago in it, so these estimated dates can be massively incorrect. The same thing goes for Ehrets dating of Afro Asaitic languages.


4 responses to “Nilo-Saharan language family tree

  1. Ancient Egyptian civilization was, in ways and to an extent usually not recognized, fundamentally African. The evidence of both language and culture reveals these African roots.

    The origins of Egyptian ethnicity lay in the areas south of Egypt. The ancient Egyptian language belonged to the Afrasian family (also called Afroasiatic or, formerly, Hamito-Semitic). The speakers of the earliest Afrasian languages, according to recent studies, were a set of peoples whose lands between 15,000 and 13,000 B.C. stretched from Nubia in the west to far northern Somalia in the east. They supported themselves by gathering wild grains. The first elements of Egyptian culture were laid down two thousand years later, between 12,000 and 10,000 B.C., when some of these Afrasian communities expanded northward into Egypt, bringing with them a language directly ancestral to ancient Egyptian. They also introduced to Egypt the idea of using wild grains as food.

    A new religion came with them as well. Its central tenet explains the often localized origins of later Egyptian gods: the earliest Afrasians were, properly speaking, neither monotheistic nor polytheistic. Instead, each local community, comprising a clan or a group of related clans, had its own distinct deity and centered its religious observances on that deity. This belief system persists today among several Afrasian peoples of far southwest Ethiopia. And as Biblical scholars have shown, Yahweh, god of the ancient Hebrews, an Afrasian people of the Semitic group, was originally also such a deity. The connection of many of Egypt’s predynastic gods to particular localities is surely a modified version of this early Afrasian belief. Political unification in the late fourth millennium brought the Egyptian deities together in a new polytheistic system. But their local origins remain amply apparent in the records that have come down to us.

    During the long era between about 10,000 and 6000 B.C., new kinds of southern influences diffused into Egypt. During these millennia, the Sahara had a wetter climate than it has today, with grassland or steppes in many areas that are now almost absolute desert. New wild animals, most notably the cow, spread widely in the eastern Sahara in this period.

    One of the exciting archeological events of the past twenty years was the discovery that the peoples of the steppes and grasslands to the immediate south of Egypt domesticated these cattle, as early as 9000 to 8000 B.C. The societies involved in this momentous development included Afrasians and neighboring peoples whose languages belonged to a second major African language family, Nilo-Saharan (Wendorf, Schild, Close 1984; Wendorf, et al. 1982). The earliest domestic cattle came to Egypt apparently from these southern neighbors, probably before 6000 B.C., not, as we used to think, from the Middle East.

    One major technological advance, pottery-making, was also initiated as early as 9000 B.C. by the Nilo-Saharans and Afrasians who lived to the south of Egypt. Soon thereafter, pots spread to Egyptian sites, almost 2,000 years before the first pottery was made in the Middle East.

    Very late in the same span of time, the cultivating of crops began in Egypt. Since most of Egypt belonged then to the Mediterranean climatic zone, many of the new food plants came from areas of similar climate in the Middle East. Two domestic animals of Middle Eastern origin, the sheep and the goat, also entered northeastern Africa from the north during this era.

    But several notable early Egyptian crops came from Sudanic agriculture, independently invented between 7500 and 6000 B.C. by the Nilo-Saharan peoples (Ehret 1993:104-125). One such cultivated crop was the edible gourd. The botanical evidence is confirmed in this case by linguistics: Egyptian bdt, or “bed of gourds” (Late Egyptian bdt, “gourd; cu***ber”), is a borrowing of the Nilo-Saharan word *bud, “edible gourd.” Other early Egyptian crops of Sudanic origin included watermelons and castor beans. (To learn more on how historians use linguistic evidence, see note at end of this article.)

    Between about 5000 and 3000 B.C. a new era of southern cultural influences took shape. Increasing aridity pushed more of the human population of the eastern Sahara into areas with good access to the waters of the Nile, and along the Nile the bottomlands were for the first time cleared and farmed. The Egyptian stretches of the river came to form the northern edge of a newly emergent Middle Nile Culture Area, which extended far south up the river, well into the middle of modern-day Sudan. Peoples speaking languages of the Eastern Sahelian branch of the Nilo-Saharan family inhabited the heartland of this region.

    From the Middle Nile, Egypt gained new items of livelihood between 5000 and 3000 B.C. One of these was a kind of cattle pen: its Egyptian name, s3 (earlier *sr), can be derived from the Eastern Sahelian term *sar. Egyptian pg3, “bowl,” (presumably from earlier pgr), a borrowing of Nilo-Saharan *poKur, “wooden bowl or trough,” reveals still another adoption in material culture that most probably belongs to this era.

    One key feature of classical Egyptian political culture, usually assumed to have begun in Egypt, also shows strong links to the southern influences of this period. We refer here to a particular kind of sacral chiefship that entailed, in its earliest versions, the sending of servants into the afterlife along with the deceased chief. The deep roots and wide occurrence of this custom among peoples who spoke Eastern Sahelian languages strongly imply that sacral chiefship began not as a specifically Egyptian invention, but instead as a widely shared development of the Middle Nile Culture Area.

    After about 3500 B.C., however, Egypt would have started to take on a new role vis-a-vis the Middle Nile region, simply because of its greater concentration of population. Growing pressures on land and resources soon enhanced and transformed the political powers of sacral chiefs. Unification followed, and the local deities of predynastic times became gods in a new polytheism, while sacral chiefs gave way to a divine king. At the same time, Egypt passed from the wings to center stage in the unfolding human drama of northeastern Africa.

    A Note on the Use of Linguistic Evidence for History

    Languages provide a powerful set of tools for probing the cultural history of the peoples who spoke them. Determining the relationships between particular languages, such as the languages of the Afrasian or the Nilo-Saharan family, gives us an outline history of the societies that spoke those languages in the past. And because each word in a language has its own individual history, the vocabulary of every language forms a huge archive of do***ents. If we can trace a particular word back to the common ancestor language of a language family, then we know that the item of culture connoted by the word was known to the people who spoke the ancestral tongue. If the word underwent a meaning change between then and now, a corresponding change must have taken place in the cultural idea or practice referred to by the word. In contrast, if a word was borrowed from another language, it attests to a thing or development that passed from the one culture to the other. The English borrowing, for example, of castle, duke, parliament, and many other political and legal terms from Old Norman French are evidence of a Norman period of rule in England, a fact confirmed by do***ents.

    References Cited:

    Ehret, Christopher, Nilo-Saharans and the Saharo-Sahelian Neolithic. In African Archaeology: Food, Metals and Towns. T. Shaw, P Sinclair, B. Andah, and A. Okpoko, eds. pp. 104-125. London: Routledge. 1993

    Ehret, Christopher, Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone Consonants, and Vocabulary. Los Angeles: University of California Press, Berkeley. 1995

    Wendorf, F., et al., Saharan Exploitation of Plants 8000 Years B.P. Nature 359:721-724. 1982

    Wendorf, F., R. Schild, and A. Close, eds. Cattle-Keepers of the Eastern Sahara. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, Department of Anthropology. 1984

    ^ Myra’s website:

    • I know the site, BTW one of her links is a dud there.

      Hunter gatherers have word for animals and plants too, and loan words are pretty common between nieghbouring groups. Ehrets claims for early domesticates were shown to be incorrect when studies on the ‘crops’ and cattle at Nabta showed them to be wild.

      Most of his evidence heavily relies on the dating of his proto languages, which, as the fiasco with proto European has shown, can be massively out, by about 45% in PIE’s case, which makes his dating technology by the guesstimated (Swadesh) age of a language ridiculous, particularly since some of the animals it contains as rootwords arrived with the neolithic revolution and aren’t native to Africa. Lets just say Ehrets work comes under a lot of criticisms, and not just from me.

      It was also written when it was believed M78 was East African in origin, but know we know the population movement went the other way. And proto Semitic couldn’t have originated in Africa as it loaned words directly into proto Indo European, not later semitic words, which placesPS near to the PIE language geoghraphically, and they were never in Africa. The fact that Proto Semitic has a word for goat and sheep would suggest it wasn’t originally African. The AA language group as whole, that’s a different story.

      Funny you should post this, I read it last week and was so incensed by the cock ups in it I started the research into AA and Nilo Saharan. Notable screw ups in it;

      Pottery is from the far West, Mali being the oldest, and that population is very similar to the Taforalt and Afalou population, not to modern sub Saharans. No Southern population moved up into Egypt bringing pottery. The direction was West to East.

      The first domesticated cattle in North Africa are Asiatic in origin, and appear with Asiaitic goats and sheep. They get replaced quickly though.

      In essence, his methodology gets criticised a lot.

  2. Ive noticed that Black African tribes who speak Nilo-Saharan languages have some noticeable differences in physical appearance from Bantu-speaking peoples. In addition to being blacker than black they are very tall and even have epicanthic folds. Also, nilo-saharan languages are tonal whereas Bantu languages are agglutinative. So it makes me wonder if such peoples are related genetically as well as linguistically.

    • In addition to being blacker than black they are very tall and even have epicanthic folds

      And are very graceful to look at. They always remind me of the Ebony statues I brought home from Kenya.

      So it makes me wonder if such peoples are related genetically as well as linguistically

      Related a bit but not massively closely. They are from different population expansions, at different times.

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