The term ethnogenesis is derived from the Greek ethnos, signifying a people sharing a same language and culture. The term ethnos is synonymous with the Latin gens (gentes in the plural) and the less common natio. The Greek and the Latin words worked their way into the English language as nation in Middle English and ethnic group in modern English. Both are used to signify a group of people sharing a common language, common ancestry, common culture, and common territory (though the territory may be an ancestral homeland). The term ethnogenesis is used to describe the process by which an ethnic group or nation (in the older sense of “people” and not “state”) is formed. There are many cases of ethnogenesis recorded in history. A case in point is the emergence of the Métis, in the valley of the Red River in what is now Manitoba. The descendants of 18th-century French-speaking fur traders working for the trading companies plying the Canadian and American interior for furs and indigenous wives, the Métis emerged as a distinct cultural entity in the 18th century, with a distinct culture that was a hybrid of French-Canadian and indigenous culture and a distinct language that was a Creole admixture of the French and Cree language. By the mid-18th century, the Métis were referring to themselves as a “new nation,” and the ethnogenesis of a new ethnic group or nation was complete.
The Métis are an exceptional group in that their emergence is clearly documented and happened within the last few centuries. In certain cases, the origins of a group are known only in their myths. This is the case with Judaism, and the biblical account of the origin of the Jewish population is traced back to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. However, other cultures have accounts of their ethnogeneses. One of the oldest creation accounts is the Rig Veda, which was written down 3,500 to 4,000 years ago and recounts the creation of the world. Along with the other Vedas, it recounts the history of the Aryan invaders who came to settle in northern India.
Having a name is often central to determining whether ethnogenesis has occurred. Quite often, a population defines itself as being “human.” The term Inuit is used by the Inuit (Eskimo) as an ethnonym meaning “people” and is the plural of Inuk, or “person,” and this term would not have been applied to neighboring indigenous populations. In a similar vein, the original meaning of the word barbarian in the Greek language simply signified an individual from another ethnos who did not speak Greek. Likewise, by the 14th century, the inhabitants of the principalities of Eastern Rus (what is now central Russia) were calling their land “the Russian land” and saw themselves as having a distinct language and identity. This was the result of a centuries-long process of ethnogenesis in which they saw their nation or people emerging out of an older Slavic people. In each case, you have the emergence of nations or ethnic groups with their own origin myth.
- Hastings, A. (1997). The construction of nationhood: Ethnicity, religion, and nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Smith, A. D. (2004). The antiquity of nations. Malden, MA: Polity Press.