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Ethnogenesis is a term that was introduced in the 19th century, and later resurfaced in the 20th century as a way of examining how ethnic groups are formed and take on their own identities as distinct from competing cultures in their surrounding environment. Theories of ethnogenesis have been quite controversial, and historians and archaeologists have offered their own takes on this relatively new way of looking at what formerly would have been considered simply tribal. In this explanation, we'll look at the broader definition of ethnogenesis, its different forms, and some examples and criticisms of this approach.

Ethnogenesis Definition

Ethnogenesis is the process by which a social group comes into being and develops into an ethnicity distinct from the surrounding culture. This can be defined by the group itself or as defined by the society around it.

Ethnogenesis may occur passively or actively and may be defined internally or externally. In regard to nationalism, it may be inclusive or exclusive. For example, the French Republic was inclusive and allowed French identities for anyone who lived and worked there, no matter their place of origin or ethnic identity.

Ethnogenesis in Empire, Church Romania, StudySmarterFig 1: Church in Romania/Moldova

Ethnogenesis overview

Ethnogenesis has two different forms. It may be passive, that is to say, an unintentional result of changes that occur over time within a social group. These changes may be determined by a combination of different factors including religion, geography, and language.

Ethnogenesis may also be active, intentionally engineered by outside forces, under various factors including political issues, economic disparities, and discrimination towards or against certain subgroups.

The concept of ethnogenesis was coined in the 19th century but resurfaced in academia in the 20th century. At that time the concept was revised and, post-Nazi-era, was brought to bear on retrospective studies of Goth inhabitants of Western Europe in Late Antiquity.

At that time, many central points of the concept were debated and challenged, such as whether the presence of a charismatic leader was a major influence on ethnogenesis.

Passive Ethnogenesis

According to the concept of ethnogenesis, one key factor in the development of separate ethnicities is religion. This can often occur as a result of language distinction among religious groups. For example, Muslim communities are highly marked by their development in Arabic, Christians in Latin, and Jews in Hebrew, and so forth.

Designations can also be imposed externally, a prime example being 19th-century European scholars referring to Arabs and Jews as a single ethnicity: the Semites.

Geography is also a vital factor in the determination of ethnogenesis. The more genetically and culturally isolated a group is, the greater the chance of it developing its own distinctive identity. Factors of geographical remoteness and intermarriage mean development is less dependent on shared cultural values than familial identification.

In summary, there are three central factors in determining passive ethnogenesis:

1. Religion

2. Language

3. Geography.

Two secondary factors which historians consider germane to the process of ethnogenesis are the formation of a founding myth and the presence of a charismatic leader.

Active Ethnogenesis

The relationship between religious sects and ethnic identity isn't always clear. There may be factors from within the group that influence ethnogenesis, such as laws of intermarriage with other sects or faiths. These internal influences may also intermingle with outside influences; ethnogenesis is seldom purely active or passive.

Active ethnogenesis, again, may arise from political issues, economic gaps, or discrimination. In some cases, they may all three overlap. For example, if the ruling class favor one social group, dialect, or language over another, discrimination against the subjugated or oppressed group can occur.

Finland is a prime example of active ethnogenesis. Until the 19th century, the Swedish made up the ruling elites of Finland and therefore the official language was Swedish. Finnish was considered the language of peasants, who comprised the majority of the population. Ethnogenesis, always subject to change, saw Finnish ultimately take over as the official language.

In summary, active ethnogenesis is imposed from without. It may arise from any of the following factors:

1. Political

2. Economic

3. Discriminatory.

Ethnogenesis Examples

The Roman Empire model of "divide and conquer" has influenced the ethnogenesis of cultures under the sway of empires from Britain to Japan. The mix of internal and external forces, and counterforces, at play also underlines the difficulty of managing an empire from afar. Here are two historical examples of ethnogenesis:


Moldovan ethnicity came about under Soviet rule in the 1920s as an invention to uphold territorial claims in Romania. Moldovan Parliament today holds that Moldavans have their own ethnic identity with its own language and traditions distinct from those of the minority Romanians. However, today only former Soviet states acknowledge this difference.

Did you know? In the United States, there is no difference between Moldovans and Romanians?


Under uncompromising Belgian rule in the 1920s, Rwandans suffered the politicization of previously existing ethnic lines when the Belgians granted privileges to the minority Tutsi. These people were primarily peasant farmers, but also included the ruling class and the monarchy. Such privileges were denied to the majority Hutus, perpetuating a culture of discrimination and creating huge rifts in Rwandan society.

The Conceptual History of Ethnogenesis

Ethnogenesis, Barbarian King, StudySmarterFig 2: Barbarian King

Ethnogenesis was introduced as a new term in the 19th century but was not conceptualized until after World War II. Nazi historiographers had perpetuated spurious claims in using their methodology on the history of the Goths in Europe. Their conclusions were now viewed as untrustworthy regarding the German approach to "the tribe" and its direct line to the Final Solution.

An ethical overhaul was needed to start fresh after the end of World War II. The old system of Nazi methodology, now widely revealed to have been biased at best and evil at worst, needed to be cleansed.

A key text at this time was Reinhard Wenskus's historiography of the Barbarians, who he described as possessing the following traits that according to the author were necessary to ethnogenesis:

  1. Multi-ethnic
  2. A joint leadership
  3. A sense of "we"
  4. A core of "tradition".

Another key text was Herwig Wolfram's History of the Goths, which set up these peoples as the ultimate case study for ethnogenesis and finally conceptualized the term. Wolfram held that the Barbarians had predated Roman Imperialist and Hellenistic influences and were originally multi-ethnic, meaning that genetic tribal considerations were moot as peripatetic groups chose new members based on other considerations.

Ultimately, the key questions of ethnogenesis became:

  1. When and how did this group become a people?
  2. How was their identity formed?
  3. What is the meaning of this identity from a historical perspective (in terms of migration, transformation, and decline)?

Ethnogenesis Anthropology

Anthropologists have another take on ethnogenesis, namely that historical accounts fail to consider the effect that economics has on the creation of "culture" rather than civilization. During Late Antiquity, for instance, Barbarian groups became more heterogeneous – and therefore cultured – as locals contracted with Roman military leaders to act as mercenaries. This practice led to less Romanization of the Barbarians and redefined their ethnicity yet again. However, it allowed them to command massive amounts of gold in their contracts, which was eventually found by archaeologists in Barbarian graves.

Anthropologists have ascribed the term "indigeneity" to a process by which ethnic groups become more cultured when the economic center of the original tribal ethnic identity becomes threatened. For example, around the same time America was under economic threat from the Japanese, who were surpassing it technologically, indigenous Native American groups took to building casinos and retreating to their tribal identities. This reboot caused tribal memberships to rise substantially in the ensuing years.

Indigeneity is similar to ethnogenesis in its grasp on the genesis of tribal identity, but historians have failed to include the economic factor in their scholarship, unlike anthropologists.

Ethnogenesis in Empire - Key takeaways

  • Ethnogenesis is the process by which a social group comes into being and develops an ethnicity distinct from the culture around it.
  • Ethnogenesis can come from within or without the tribe, and it can be passive or active.
  • Passive ethnogenesis is influenced by three factors: language, religion, and geography.
  • Active ethnogenesis is influences by three factors: political, economic, and discriminatory.
  • Some examples of ethnogenesis are Moldovans and Romanians, Rwanda's Tutsi and Hutu, as well as the Goths and Barbarians.


  1. Michael Kulikowski. Rome's Gothic Wars, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnogenesis

Ethnogenesis is the process by which a social group comes into being and develops into an ethnicity distinct from the culture around it.

The development of the Goths under the Roman Empire, the subjects of the British Empire, the development of a Finnish national culture under Swedish control.

The term itself was coined in the 19th century, but it was revisited and conceptualised after World War II in scholarly studies of the Goths and the Barbarians.

Ethnogenesis holds that ethnicities can form via internal or external, passive or active forces that are brought to bear on a culture, but usually it is a mix.  It precludes nationalist and ethnocentric ideas that identities are based solely on genetic and tribal traits.

Ethnogenesis developed through the ideas of Viennese historian Herwig Wolfram and his followers. Our understanding of ethnogenesis has also been altered by the work of historiographers and anthropologists.

Final Ethnogenesis Quiz

Ethnogenesis Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When was the term ethnogenesis first coined?

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The 19th century.

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What are the three factors that determine passive ethnogenesis?

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religion, language, and geography

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How did the Roman Empire affect ethnogenesis of Barbarian populations?

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They paid them great sums to act as mercenaries.

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What is ethnogenesis?

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Ethnogenesis is the process by which a social group comes into being and develops into an ethnicity distinct from the culture around it.

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How many forms can ethnogenesis take?

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Two forms: active or passive.

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What are three types of factors in active ethnogenesis?

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1.    Political

2.   Economic

3.   Discriminatory

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Which of the following is NOT an example of ethnogenesis?

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The Roman Empire

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The first major study on ethnogenesis focused on which culture?

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The Barbarians

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Did anthropologists agree with historians on the term ethnogenesis?

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No, they preferred the term indigeneity, which isn't exactly the same.

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Which culture is an example of indigeneity?

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Native American culture

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