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The Genoese Fortress in Caffa
The Genoese Fortress in Caffa
Matthias Heine

BERLIN — Over the past week, the term “original inhabitants” has been used repeatedly to characterize Crimean Tatars, who seem to be the only inhabitants of the peninsula who don’t see a home for themselves in Russia.

“The original inhabitants since the late Middle Ages were the Tatars,” a serious historian and professor of East European history said the other day during an interview with Deutschland Radio. But clearly noticing that he had entered a semantic minefield, he then clarified himself. “Before them, there were other original inhabitants.” He mentioned the people of Iphigenies Tauris, as Crimea was called in classical antiquity, as well as the Genoese traders who founded the Crimean city of Caffa.

The dictionary defines “original inhabitants” as “members of the original population;” and “original population” as “the first, native population of a place.” That certainly doesn’t describe the Crimean Tartars, who arrived on the peninsula in the late Middle Ages after the Mongol attacks in Eastern Europe.

The only “indigenous” Europeans

There are only two ethnicities in Europe that could be considered “indigenous.” The Sami (previously called the Lapp) in the extreme north and the Basques. Germanic people are not indigenous to Germany. They are, like all other ethnic groups who speak Indo-European languages, descendants of the Indo-Europeans who spread out to the East, West and South from the region just north of the Black Sea in waves between 4400 and 2200 BCE.

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Miniature: Szigetvár campaign 1566, Tatars as avantgarde (Chester Beatty Library)

At best, these Indo-European arrivals mixed with the previous residents of the area that is now Germany. Further genetic research is expected to shed light on that still-open question.

Nonetheless, here at Die Welt we have no reason to mock the professor and other people who are calling the Crimean Tartars “indigenous.” In an article about the 2010 Robin Hood movie starring Russell Crowe, we characterized the Saxons as the original inhabitants of England. Of course, that’s nonsense. Not even the Celts were the original inhabitants of modern Great Britain. Stonehedge was build by people who preceded the Celts.

The first record of the German word for “indigenous” or “original inhabitant” was in the 18th century, and for at least 100 years it was used exclusively to refer to the people who displaced or were Hellenized by the ancient Greeks.

It seems clear that the frequent uses of “indigenous” and “original inhabitant” has something to do with the search for something to replace the word “native,” which sounds pejorative and reeks of colonialism.

North American Indians have solved this semantic puzzle in the most elegant way by calling themselves First Nations. Unfortunately, a similar expression wouldn’t work for the Crimean Tatars. At most they would be the Third or Fourth Nations.

More important than the semantic gymnastics, though, is the question of whether there is really a meaningful difference between indigenous and non-indigenous nearly 250 years after the original Russian conquest of Crimea.

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