An Afrosemitic “Puntite”: A Retrospective

This is a topic I have wanted to write about for a while, but just haven’t been able to word it. Or perhaps, its better that I’ve waited, being this is a relatively loaded subject in retrospect.

The question of “Punt“, the mysterious “Gottesland” of Francis Breyer’s 2016 book on the subject of its location and the peoples whom were the ever mysterious “Puntites“. Of course, the academic subject of the who, what, when, and why of Punt is overridden in the layman’s interpretation of what is a mysterious land to the east that the Egyptians held in some kind of esteem. The layman’s interpretation of the subject is an intersection of ethnocentric political ambitions, at times through the belief of that the modern day ethnicities of the Horn of Africa are stagnant in their geographical distribution and thus inherently linked to things like Punt because well, they just are. You’ll find posts associating Punt with ethnic Somali nationalism, Eritrean nationalism, and all other forms of political ideologies from the Horn (no, seriously, just look up anything Punt related on Google) that cling to psuedo-intellectual interpretations of the past to justify their stances. It simply happens, which is why I am initially saying this. I am aware that somewhere down the line, someone will read this post, see my undoubtedly Habesha name, and then accuse this of being some attempt to link Punt to my pan-ethnic identity via linguistic analysis—which couldn’t be further from reality. Punt was in a time long before the term “Habesha” or its post-Aksumite pan-ethnic context existed, and in theory neither my ethnic identity nor my ethnolinguistic heritage play any part in this because really, it doesn’t matter. Punt, in the context of the Egyptian worldview, existed over 3,000 years ago; it is not necessarily relevant to my existence and I as an individual need not grasp straws of a hypothetical past to feel pride or justification of that pride.

This of course expands on a wider issue of the historical discussion(s) of the Horn of Africa in general outside of academic environments; where ancient and at many times discontinued cultures and their legacies have been treated as proxies in wider ethnic strife that represents much more modern conflicts than anything dating to the remote past. Punt is perhaps one of the best examples of this interplay of ideas that have little to do with objective analysis and everything to do with senses of ethnic pride and nationalism, which in retrospect are ideologies that offer nothing but harm to any academic study of the Horn of Africa unless it is a sociological study. This being said, “Punt” to many individuals is more of a romanticized, ideological take on a past culture whom the Egyptians themselves seemingly knew little about in retrospect than it is a part of the actual Egyptian worldview at the time. Whatever “Punt” was, it is unlikely to have had been a culture whom has completely tangible links to the present day ethnicities of the Horn of Africa—if Breyer’s suggestions in specific are right it is overtly likely that whichever Afrosemitic language was spoken by Punt probably has no direct link to any language we know from fully written historical inscriptions or modern day speech populations. I don’t disagree with Breyer at all, the Afrosemitic suggestion and findings make more sense if we’re discussing population movements and linguistic geography (for what little we know of it) in the Horn of Africa. Afrosemitic presence in this part of the Horn of Africa can be attested to as early as 8th century BC per Weninger et al. (2011, pg. 1115), so the idea of the “Puntites” being an in situ Afrosemitiic-speaking population a mere 600 years earlier is in its own right not much of a stretch; the same couldn’t be said if we had no attestation between these supposed lexical items analyzed by Breyer and Cooper, and the earliest Geʿez inscriptions of the Pre-Aksumite period near the beginning of the modern era.

This is also part of the reason why Marie Claude Simeone-Senelle’s suggestion of rebranding “Ethiosemitic” as “Afrosemitic” is so useful, because geographically all of the languages are located in and indigenous to Africa—better said the Horn of Africa—but are not all geographically located within the boundaries of what is or was Ethiopia prior to the reign of Menelik II in the late 19th century. Specifically the speakers of the greater majority of the Southern branch of Afrosemitic do not fall into the general cultural nexus of the ethnicities whom are seen as the poster children for this branch of Semitic and of Ethiopia in general, nor are they linked to a historical polity that we can say spans as far back as Aksum or the Pre-Aksumite period; frankly their history prior to their interactions with Imperial Ethiopia is relatively unknown. This also is not mentioning that their indigenous belief system(s) are markedly different from the Pre-Christian beliefs of at least the speakers of Geʿez, far to the North. There’s no mention to my knowledge of the deities known to us from their belief systems, such as those mentioned in Palmisano (2016, pg. 12)*. Putting this into consideration this has useful implications for the status of the language of the supposed Puntites as well, being that regardless of where it would’ve been geographically located in the modern day it was likely a member of this branch of Semitic spoken exclusively in the Horn of Africa. In part this also removes the controversial nature of this argument in non-academic circles being that while yes it was likely a Semitic language, it wasn’t associated with Ethiopia and thus isn’t part of the interplay of ethnic politics that associate Semitic-speakers with Ethiopia, and the outdated colonial era views associated with Ethiopia that assume the modern state’s continuity with ancient cultures that were assumed to have had been the byproduct of migrations.

Moving forward from those points, it would be useful to note that multiple strains of evidence generally agrees with the view that “Punt” proper was likely the Northwestern Red Sea coast of the Horn of Africa; whether we’re talking about the origins of mummified baboons (P. Hamadryas) brought from Punt (Dominy et. al 2015), Obsidian possibly traded inland from Punt (Manzo 2017), or the archeological context which suggest that this is where Punt is located (Cooper 2015). In specific, Cooper (2015) provides a fairly useful set of maps:

So going forward, the working assumption based on the concensus of multiple different disciplines is that “Punt” proper is located along the coast of the Northwestern areas of the Horn of Africa. Any further specifics (i.e Cooper’s suggestion of the Puntite port being possibly in the Gulf of Zula) will be left to the side here simply because well, the general area is important enough and there’s other traits of supposed Puntite culture that are eerily similar to those of the (North)Afrosemitic-speakers in the period before political and territorial centralization under Aksum. To give perspective on why anything further out would make little sense, as Glenister (2008) perfectly sums up how traveling to Punt would’ve been for the Egyptians of this period—basically like travelling to the moon. Even if Punt was theoretically the Gulf of Zula, that is still a far distance for a people who did the greater majority of their maritime trading with people who came to them, not the other way around.

Before we get into the purely linguistic information given by Breyer and exapnded on by Cooper, there’s one specific aspect of Punt that I need to address because it honestly lingers on my mind heavily: the veneration of snakes. The earliest mention in Western literature that I’ve seen is mentioned in Munro-Hay (1991, pg. 11) where he mentions the writings of Nathaniel Pierce from 1831, which mention a legend of a supposed snake king whom was defeat by a man named Angabo—the same Angabo whom is in the Kebra Nagast as the Queen of Sheba’s progenitor. Now what isn’t important is the Angabo narrative itself, because his persona is undoubtedly likely tied to that of the Queen of Sheba in the context of the Kebra Nagast, it’s the fact that there is a legend of a supposed snake king which according to Munro-Hay may be part of a cultural memory of former snake veneration or worship. This same narrative is mentioned in Manzo (2014, pg. 2), but also alongside another variation of the snake king myth from the Acts of the Nine Saintsa work partially mentioned in Haas (2008, pg. 118)—that accredits the defeat of the snake king to Kaleb of Aksum in the 6th century. Of course, both legends could be proxies for the cultural memory of Christianity, or Abrahamic monotheism, overtaking the supposed belief in snakes; but strangely enough this tale of a former snake king seemingly unique to the Afrosemitic-speakers of the Northwestern Horn of Africa is an anecdote attributed to the Puntites as well in the Middle Kingdom Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (which can be found translated in Casey 2008).

What’s interesting here is that the snake king of the Middle Kingdom tale is benevolent, unlike the snake king of the Chrisitian legends from Northern Ethiopia; which of course could be a thing of religious perspective in relation to the belief in snakes having some form of divinity. And unsurprisingly whilst taking caution with conjecture, Manzo (2014) does note that the supposed Puntite belief in snakes and that of the peoples of the Pre-Aksumite period are eerily similar and unique in their geographical context—to my knowledge there is no record of any other peoples in the Horn of Africa having beliefs regarding snakes in this form, and aside from mentions of such beliefs amongst (some) Oromo peoples and the ambiguous “Agau del sud-ovest” in Rossini (1928, pg. 79)†. Manzo does acknowledge this mention, but also casts a cloud of doubt over whether these supposed traditions have any relation to those found in the societies of the Pre-Aksumite period. Given, I am also playing caution with conjecture here—there is centuries of unrecorded history between the mention in the Middle Kingdom tale and the archeological finds present in Manzo (2014); but that’s where linguistics comes in to bridge the gap.

Of course, linguistics can’t solve everything here. Even if the supposed “Puntite” words line up with Afrosemitic roots specifically, there’s plenty of things we don’t know about these roots. As noted by Cooper (2015), these roots have affixes and suffixes that would suggest mimation which is a feature virtually absent in the Afrosemitic languages from their earliest attestation and thus, complicates the issue. Of course, Al-Jallad (2014) attempts to answer why Afrosemitic lacks mimation but there’s certain things he overlooks in his comparisons, things brought up in Weninger et al. (2011): the correspondence of Geʿez *Cʷɨ sequences with *Cu sequences in other Semitic languages, notably Arabic, which is reminiscent of the Boukolos Rule in Indo-European. Keeping this in mind I myself am mum on the issue of mimation in Afrosemitic (for this post at least), but Al-Jallad’s suggestion falls short of a full understanding of Geʿez and general Afrosemitic phonology in specific for all the insight it does have. This being said, this actually isn’t the problem of the two undoubtedly “Puntite” lexical items, which are the names of the rulers of Punt from the Egyptian perspective: *ʔtj and *pʰVrhu(?).

From Breyer’s analysis, it’s clear these likely correlate with the Afrosemitic roots *ʔtj and *frh; one of which being an actual term for a noblewoman and likely not being an actual personal name. Cooper, from personal correspondence with David Appleyard, suggest the problem with this is that this root is common in Afrosemitic due to being loaned from Amharic, but there’s the standing issue that it is also found in Tigre as [ʔatɨje], which is unlikely to be loaned from Amharic unless via Tigrinya; the fact that this root is associated with a noblewoman in general would go against Appleyard’s suggestion in theory, thus complicating his assertion of it being a loanword from Amharic in at least the Northern branch of Afrosemitic. As for the second root, Cooper takes the stance that the root is Geʿez *frh ‘fear, revere‘ while Breyer takes the stance of it being *brh, such as the personal name of Abreha, the Aksumite general famous for overthrowing the appointed governor of Aksumite controlled Himyar. I’m agnostic to the issue of which, but the former in my opinion seems to be a stronger candidate being the term could very well be a title, like the previous “Puntite” word. Given that the Egyptians didn’t know the language in the first place (perhaps outside of a rare translator?) they likely wouldn’t be aware these are not personal names, and thus if they mistook one title for a proper name they likely would’ve done the same with another. The other terms themselves are more ambiguous and hard to define, being the closest language well documented to this period chronologically is well, Geʿez; a language spoken over a millennium later. The general consensus between Breyer and Cooper though is that the vast majority of these terms are Afrosemitic in origin and thus per Cooper’s suggestion, the oldest attestation of Afrosemitic languages.

But surely if the Egyptians possibly borrowed words, then the “Puntites” did too. And this is where a specific root in North Afrosemitic languages comes into play: *ʔħ “cow“. This root is represented in Geʿez as *ʔɐħa and in Tigre as [ʔaħa] according to Leslau (1982). The thing that is noted in Leslau’s Ge’ez language dictionary is that outside of Tigre and Tigrinya, there is no cognate in other Semitic languages—only in Egyptian where a feasible phase of the language for the loan to have had originated is interestingly enough the phase of Egyptian spoken during the New Kingdom, Middle Egyptian. The argument for Coptic being the origin of the term, simply couldn’t hold up due to the loss of laryngeals in almost all known varieties of the language despite Coptic having a number of lexical items that were borrowed into Geʿez specifically. The only feasible argument would have to be Middle Egyptian, but as to how or why this lexical item survived into the known North Afrosemitic languages is an interesting question that may have an answer via the supposed Afrosemitic nature of “Puntite“. This is not to say this language is ancestral to any modern Afrosemitic language, on the contrary this would be unlikely, but clearly this lexical item is only recorded to have had spread amongst North Afrosemitic speaking peoples and not into the neighboring Cushitic languages. Taking this into mind it would at least suggest that these languages or better said the varieties ancestral to them were at the least in situ during the contact with Middle Egyptian speakers and thus it might suggest not only was “Puntite” an Afrosemitic language, but also a member of the Northern branch as well.

As to how all this information, as little as it is on the linguistic side, comes together is the real question. Do we perhaps tentatively have a suggested classification for “Puntite“? Does this mean we need to reinterpret when Afrosemitic differentiated? It postulates more questions than answers really to look into the question of what exactly was the real life Punt that the Egyptians spoke so highly of but such questions are necessary to our understanding of the linguistic geography of the Horn of Africa prior to written records and surely after the 20th century produced a near mythology in academia regarding the ethnic and linguistic make up of the Horn of Africa.

* Interestingly enough one of the deities mentioned in this paper, Bozha, is mentioned in Ahland (2010) in a text of the Mesmes language made from a recording of the language’s last speaker whose father interestingly enough was an “Awak’in”, or priest, of the belief in Bozha.

Rossini’s Storia d’Etiopia (1928) should always be read with caution, being his views were at the time considered to be valid but were later refuted in other works such as the aforementioned Munro-Hay (1991) which questions his supposed assertion of the term “Habesha” having an Arabian origin, or Bausi (2017) which indirectly refutes Rossini’s assertion of the presence of Judaism in the Aksumite period; which is an idea already made questionable by ethnological work done on the Beta Israel such as Abbink (1990). A similar discussion can be found in Kaplan (1993) as well, yet in the 90’s the question of ethnic Jewish communities or their cultural influence in the Pre-Aksumite and early Aksumite period was less questioned than it is today.