The term Hamitic originally referred to the peoples said to be descended from Ham, one of the Sons of Noah according to the Bible. According to the Book of Genesis, after Noah became drunk and Ham dishonored his father, upon awakening Noah pronounced a curse on Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, stating that his offspring would be the “servants of servants”. Of Ham’s four sons, Canaan fathered the Canaanites, while Mizraim fathered the Egyptians, Cush the Blacks, and Phut the Puntites.
During the Middle Ages, believing Jews, Christians, and Muslims incorrectly considered Ham to be the ancestor of all Africans. Noah’s curse on Canaan as described in Genesis began to be misinterpreted by some scholars in Europe as having caused visible racial characteristics in all of Ham’s offspring, notably black skin. According to Edith Sanders, the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud says that “the descendants of Ham are cursed by being Black and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.”Some Arab slave traders used the account of Noah and Ham in the Bible to justify Negro (Zanj) slavery, and later European and American Christian traders and slave owners adopted a similar argument.
However, the Bible itself indicates that Noah restricted his curse to the offspring of Ham’s youngest son Canaan, whose descendants occupied the Levant, and it was not extended to Ham’s other sons, who had migrated into Africa. According to Sanders, 18th-century theologians increasingly emphasized this narrow restriction and accurate interpretation of the passage as applying to Canaan’s offspring. They rejected the curse as a justification for slavery.