Martin Bernal was a China and modern politics scholar who gained public notoriety for his controversial stance on ancient Greece. Rejecting the prevalent "Aryan" theory of Greek origins as racist, he proposed a "revised ancient model" that acknowledged African and Asiatic introductions to Hellenic civilization. The trilogy in which he made this argument, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, was met with great academic controversy and divided opinion. While some saw him as a serious scholar with a flawed contribution, others deemed him an academic fraud.
Bernal’s three volumes explored mainstream scholarship on Mediterranean history from the Bronze Age to the classical period, examined archaeological materials and myths, and utilized comparative linguistics to support his case for trans-Mediterranean influences and the key role of Egyptian and Phoenician immigrants in laying early foundations for classical Greek civilization. While his work was both praised and criticized, it certainly sparked important debate and considerations in the scholarly community.
Bernal grew up in a left-leaning milieu in London with his writer mother, Margaret Gardiner, and physicist father, JD Bernal. He studied oriental studies at King’s College, Cambridge, and despite his initial hope that Maoist China might offer an alternative to Stalinism and capitalism, he became aware of the regime’s Stalinist features during a year abroad at Beijing University. Over the course of his career, he received a PhD in early Chinese socialism, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and made several visits to Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Vietnam to personally connect with the people there.
Back in 1976, Bernal met Leslie Miller, a professor who later became the provost at Wells College near Cornell, whom he eventually married. In 1979, their son was born, and Leslie had a son from her prior marriage. For the subsequent decades, the family continued to move frequently between Ithaca and Cambridge.
Although Bernal’s initial publication, "Chinese Socialism to 1907," hit the shelves that same year, he slowly shifted his focus towards antiquity. From his grandfather, Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, Bernal developed a prolonged fascination with the ancient Mediterranean cultures. That, combined with his interest in his Jewish background, empowered Black Athena, the project that allowed him to merge his love for writing and passion. Ultimately, the project earned him a position as an adjunct professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies in 1984, and he became a full professor at Cornell in 1988, retiring as emeritus in 2001.
Bernal vehemently spoke out against the Iraq War in both the US and the UK. His broad knowledge, wit, and great sense of humor made him an exceptional conversationalist. He was also known for his warmth and generosity, making him a cherished friend.
During retirement, Bernal organized Cambridge University tours to China, believing that language learning was both an obligation and a source of enjoyment. On top of speaking French and Chinese fluently, he was knowledgeable in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Italian, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chichewa (spoken in southern Africa), and various other ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern dialects.
Bernal is survived by his wife Leslie, five children- Sophie, William, Paul, Adam, and Patrick- and nine grandchildren.