Population history of Egypt

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The land currently known as Egypt has a long and involved population history. This is partly due to its geographical location at the crossroads of several major cultural areas: the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Sahara and Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition Egypt has experienced several invasions during its long history, including by the Canaanites, the Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Kushites, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs. Even the Celts (as Ptolemaic mercenaries) attempted a coup d'etat around 259 BC. The various conquests over time have made the relationship between Modern Egyptians and Ancient Egyptians a topic of investigation.

Prehistory[edit]

During the Paleolithic the Nile Valley was inhabited by various hunter gatherer populations. About 10,000 years ago the Sahara Desert had a wet phase. People from the surrounding areas moved into the Sahara, and evidence suggests that the populations of the Nile Valley reduced in size.[1] About 5,000 years ago the wet phase of the Sahara came to an end. The Saharan population retreated to the south towards the Sahel, and East towards the Nile Valley. It was these populations, in addition to Neolithic farmers from the Near East, that played a major role in the formation of the Egyptian state as they brought their food crops, sheep, goats and cattle to the Nile Valley.[1][2]

Predynastic Egypt[edit]

Main article: Predynastic Egypt

The Predynastic period dates to the end of the fourth millennium BC. From about 4800 to 4300BC the Merimde culture flourished in Lower Egypt.[3] This culture, among others, has links to the Levant.[4] The pottery of the Buto Maadi culture, best known from the site at Maadi near Cairo, also shows connections to the southern Levant.[5]

In Upper Egypt the predynastic Badarian culture was followed by the Naqada culture. The origins of these people is still not fully understood although they seem to be more closely related to the Nubians and North East Africans than with northern Egyptians.[6][7]

Biogeographic origin based on cultural data[edit]

Located in the extreme north-east corner of Africa, Ancient Egyptian society was at a crossroads between the African and Near Eastern regions. Early proponents of the Dynastic Race Theory based their hypothesis on the increased novelty and seemingly rapid change in Predynastic pottery and noted trade contacts between ancient Egypt and the Middle East.[8] This is no longer the dominant view in Egyptology, however the evidence on which it was based still suggests influence from these regions.[9] Fekri Hassan and Edwin et al. point to mutual influence from both inner Africa as well as the Levant.[10] However according to one author this influence seems to have had minimal impact on the indigenous populations already present.[11]

One author has stated that the Naqada phase of Predynastic Egyptians in Upper Egypt shared an almost identical culture with the Nubian A-Group peoples of the Lower Sudan.[12] Based in part on the similarities at the royal tombs at Qustul, some scholars[who?] have even proposed an Egyptian origin in Nubia among the A-group.[13][14] In 1996 Lovell and Prowse reported the presence of individual rulers buried at Naqada in what they interpreted to be elite, high status tombs, showing them to be more closely related morphologically to populations in Northern Nubia than those in Southern Egypt.[15] Most scholars however, have rejected this hypothesis and cite the presence of royal tombs that are contemporaneous with that of Qustul and just as elaborate, together with problems with the dating techniques.[16]

Toby Wilkinson, in his book Genesis of the Pharaohs, proposes an origin for the Egyptians somewhere in the Eastern Desert.[17] He presents evidence that much of predynastic Egypt duplicated the traditional African cattle-culture typical of Southern Sudanese and East African pastoralists of today. Kendall agrees with Wilkinson's interpretation that ancient rock art in the region may depict the first examples of the royal crowns, while also pointing to Qustul in Nubia as a likely candidate for the origins of the white crown, being that the earliest known example of it was discovered in this area.

There is also evidence that sheep and goats were introduced into Nabta from Southwest Asia about 8,000 years ago.[2] There is some speculation that this culture is likely to be the predecessor of the Egyptians, based on cultural similarities and social complexity which is thought to be reflective of Egypt's Old Kingdom.[18][19]

DNA studies[edit]

Main article: DNA history of Egypt

Contamination from handling and intrusion from microbes create obstacles to the recovery of ancient DNA.[20] Consequently, most DNA studies have been carried out on modern Egyptian populations with the intent of learning about the influences of historical migrations on the population of Egypt.[21][22][23][24]

In general, various DNA studies have found that the gene frequencies of modern North African populations are intermediate between those of the Near East, southern Europe and Sub Saharan Africa,[25] though the frequency distributions of the non-recombining portion of the Y chromosome of modern Egyptian population appear to be much more similar to those of the Middle East than to any sub-Saharan African population, suggesting a much larger Eurasian genetic component.[26][27][27][28][29][30][31]

Blood typing and DNA sampling on ancient Egyptian mummies is scant; however, blood typing of dynastic mummies found ABO frequencies to be most similar to modern Egyptians[32] and some also to Northern Haratin populations. ABO blood group distribution shows that the Egyptians form a sister group to North African populations, including Berbers, Nubians and Canary Islanders.[33]

Anthropometric indicators[edit]

Craniofacial criteria[edit]

Ancient Egyptian skull, thought to be that of Akhenaten.

The use of craniofacial criteria as reliable indicators of population grouping or ethnicity are now disputed. In 1912 Franz Boas demonstrated that cranial shape is heavily influenced by environmental factors, and can change within a few generations if conditions change, and therefore cranial measurements cannot be a reliable indicator of inherited influences such as ethnicity.[34] This conclusion was supported in 2003 in a paper by Gravlee, Bernard and Leonard.[35][36] A study by Beals, Smith, and Dodd (1984) found that "race" and cranial variation had low correlations, and that cranial variation was instead strongly correlated with climate variables.[37] This view is also supported by Kemp.[38] Other studies have shown that the typical cranial shapes of some African (Sudanic and Ethiopic), Arab and Berber ethnic groups are largely the same.[39][40]

Others suggest that craniometry is a reliable indicator of genetic populations in biological anthropology.[41][42][43][44][45]

A craniofacial study by C. Loring Brace et al. (1993) concluded that: "The Predynastic of Upper Egypt and the Late Dynastic of Lower Egypt are more closely related to each other than to any other population. As a whole, they show ties with the European Neolithic, North Africa, modern Europe, and, more remotely, India, but not at all with sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Asia, Oceania, or the New World. Adjacent people in the Nile valley show similarities in trivial traits in an unbroken series from the delta in the north southward through Nubia and all the way to Somalia at the equator. At the same time, the gradient in skin color and body proportions suggests long-term adaptive response to selective forces appropriate to the latitude where they occur. An assessment of “race” is as useless as it is impossible. Neither clines nor clusters alone suffice to deal with the biological nature of a widely distributed population. Both must be used."[46] He also commented, "We conclude that the Egyptians have been in place since back in the Pleistocene and have been largely unaffected by either invasions or migrations. As others have noted, Egyptians are Egyptians, and they were so in the past as well." The results of this study, however, have been criticized and contradicted by the works of other anthropologists such as S.O.Y. Keita and Sonia Zakrzewski.[citation needed]

A survey cited by Kemp (2005) of pooled ancient Egyptian crania spanning all time periods found that the Egyptian population as a whole clusters more closely to modern Egyptians than to other groups, but apart from modern Egyptians, they cluster closest to Nubian and "Ethiopic" populations than they do to Middle Easterners or Europeans. In Kemp's unpooled dendrogram it details that the Pre-Dynastic Egyptians (El Bardi and Naqada) samples cluster closest to ancient Nubians and modern Ethiopic populations, and conversely that Late Kingdom and modern Egyptians cluster with Middle Eastern and modern European populations. Kemp also noted that Egypt conquered and settled Nubia beginning in the 1st Dynasty.[47]

Anthropologist Nancy Lovell states the following:

This view was also shared by the late Egyptologist Frank Yurco.[49]

A 2005 study by Keita of predynastic Badarian (Southern Egyptian) crania found that the Badarian samples cluster more closely with East African (Ethiopic) samples than they do with Northern European (Berg and Norse) samples, though importantly no Asian and Southern Africa samples were included in the study.[50] Keita has also said that the predynastic crania are different to the lower Egyptian samples, which display a mean part way between modern Sub Saharans Africans and Ethiopians.

Sonia Zakrzewski in 2007 noted that population continuity occurs over the Egyptian Predynastic into the Greco-Roman periods, and that a relatively high level of genetic differentiation was sustained over this time period. She concluded therefore that the process of state formation itself may have been mainly an indigenous process, but that it may have occurred in association with in-migration, particularly during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods.[51]

In 2008 Keita found that the early predynastic groups in Southern Egypt were similar craniometrically to Nile valley groups of Ethiopic extraction, and as a whole the dynastic Egyptians (includes both Upper and Lower Egyptians) show much closer affinities more southerly Northeast African populations. He also concluded that more material is needed to make a firm conclusion about the relationship between the early Holocene Nile valley populations and later ancient Egyptians.[52]

Limb ratios[edit]

Anthropologist C. Loring Brace points out that limb elongation is "clearly related to the dissipation of metabolically generated heat" in areas of higher ambient temperature. He also stated that "skin color intensification and distal limb elongation is apparent wherever people have been long-term residents of the tropics". He also points out that the term "super negroid" is inappropriate, as it is also applied to non negroid populations. These features have been observed among Egyptian samples.[53] According to Robins and Shute the average limb elongation ratios among ancient Egyptians is higher than that of modern West Africans who reside much closer to the equator. Robins and Shute therefore term the ancient Egyptians to be "super-negroid" but state that although the body plans of the ancient Egyptians were closer to those of modern negroes than for modern whites, "this does not mean that the ancient Egyptians were negroes".[54] Anthropologist S.O.Y. Keita criticized Robins and Shute, stating they do not interpret their results within an adaptive context, and stating that they imply "misleadingly" that early southern Egyptians were not a "part of the Saharo-tropical group, which included Negroes".[55] Gallagher et al. also points out that "body proportions are under strong climatic selection and evidence remarkable stability within regional lineages".[56] Zakrzewski (2003) studied skeletal samples from the Badarian period to the Middle Kingdom. She confirmed the results of Robins and Shute that Ancient Egyptians in general had "tropical body plans" but that their proportions were actually "super-negroid".[57]

Trikhanus (1981) found Egyptians to plot closest to tropical Africans and not Mediterranean Europeans residing in a roughly similar climatic area.[58] A more recent study compared ancient Egyptian osteology to that of African-Americans and White Americans, and found that the stature of the Ancient Egyptians was more similar to the stature of African-Americans, although it was not identical:[59]

Dental morphology[edit]

Modern studies on ancient Egyptian dentition clusters the Ancient Egyptians with Caucasoids (Europeans, Western Asians) who have small teeth, as opposed to Negroids (Western Sub-Saharan Africans) who have megadont/large teeth.[60][61]

A 2006 bioarchaeological study on the dental morphology of ancient Egyptians by Prof. Joel Irish shows dental traits characteristic of current indigenous North Africans and to a lesser extent Middle Eastern and southern European populations, but not at all to Sub-Saharan populations. Among the samples included in the study is skeletal material from the Hawara tombs of Fayum, (from the Roman period) which clustered very closely with the Badarian series of the predynastic period. All the samples, particularly those of the Dynastic period, were significantly divergent from a neolithic West Saharan sample from Lower Nubia. Biological continuity was also found intact from the dynastic to the post-pharaonic periods. According to Irish:

Anthropologist Shomarka Keita takes issue with the suggestion of Irish that Egyptians and Nubians were not primary descendants of the African epipaleolithic and Neolithic populations. Keita also criticizes him for ignoring the possibility that the dentition of the ancient Egyptians could have been caused by "in situ microevolution" driven by dietary change, rather than by racial admixture.[63] However Keita himself has observed population continuity from the Pleistocene to the present in modern Egyptians.

Language element[edit]

The Edwin Smith papyrus, the world's oldest surviving surgical document. Written in Hieratic script in Ancient Egypt around 1600 B.C.

Ancient Egyptian languages are classified into six major chronological divisions; Archaic Egyptian, Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian, and Coptic, the latter of which was still used as a working language until the 18th Century AD, and is still used as a liturgical language by Egyptian Copts to this day.[64]

Origins[edit]

The Ancient Egyptian language has been classified as a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. There is no agreement on when and where these languages originated, though the language is generally believed to have originated somewhere in or near the region stretching from the Levant in the Near East to northern Kenya, and from the Eastern Sahara in North Africa to the Red Sea, or Southern Arabia, Ethiopia and Sudan.[65][66][67][68][69] The language of the neighbouring Nubian people is one of the Nilo-Saharan languages, and is not one of the Afro-Asiatic languages.[70][71]

See also[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Morant, G. M. (1925). "A study of Egyptian craniology from prehistoric to Roman times". Biometrika (Biometrika) 17 (1/2): 1–52. JSTOR 2332021. 
  • MacIver (1905). "chapter 9". The Ancient Races of the Thebaid. 
  • Strouhal, Eugen (1971). "Evidence of the Early Penetration of Negroes into Prehistoric Egypt". Journal of African History (Cambridge University Press) 12 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1017/S0021853700000037. JSTOR 180563. 

External links[edit]