Martin Gardiner Bernal, professor emeritus of government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell and author of the widely read and debated "Black Athena” books on classical civilization, died June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
Bernal taught at Cornell from 1972 until his retirement in 2001. He began as an associate professor in the Department of Government and was named a full professor in 1988.
Bernal argued that Egypt, not Greece, was the root of ancient culture in his three-volume work “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.” Considered controversial by many, Bernal’s first volume, “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985" (1987) was followed by further research in “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” (1991) and “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence” (2006), and a volume in response to his critics, “Black Athena Writes Back” (2001).
The series was translated into several languages, became the subject of conferences, radio and television programs, and earned honors including a 1990 American Book Award for the first book and the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun’s 2004 Book of the Year for “Black Athena 2.”
His other books include “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976); and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of The Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Born March 10, 1937, in London to writer Margaret Gardiner and scientist J.D. Bernal, he was a 1957 graduate of Kings College, Cambridge; earned a Diploma of Chinese Language from Peking University in 1960, and was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963 and Harvard University in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University in 1966, remaining there as a fellow until his recruitment by Cornell. Adding an appointment in Near Eastern studies in 1984, he initiated new courses including the politics of scholarship.
He was known as a brilliant and lively friend, teacher and colleague; was well-traveled and learned languages wherever he went, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, the Bantu language Chichewa, Vietnamese and Japanese.
Survivors include his wife, Leslie Miller-Bernal; five children and step-children, a half-sister and nine grandchildren. A funeral will be held June 19 in Cambridge, England, with memorial services being planned for the fall in the United States and the United Kingdom.