Ancient Egyptian race controversy
The question of the race of ancient Egyptians was raised historically as a product of the scientific racism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and was linked to models of racial hierarchy primarily based on craniometry, anthropometry and genetics. A variety of views circulated about the racial identity of the Egyptians and the source of their culture. These were typically identified in terms of a distinction between the Caucasoid and Negroid racial categories. Some scholars argued that ancient Egyptian culture was influenced by other Afro-Asiatic-speaking populations in Northeast Africa or the Middle East, while others pointed to influences from various Nubian groups or populations in Europe.
Since the second half of the 20th century, many anthropologists have rejected the notion of race as having any validity in the study of human biology. Typological and hierarchical models of race have increasingly been rejected by scientists in favour of models of social development based on geographical origin.
However, the question of the phenotypical characteristics (skin color, facial features, hair texture) and genetic affiliations of the ancient Egyptians remains a point of study and debate.
- 1 History
- 2 Position of modern scholarship
- 3 Specific current-day controversies
- 4 Historical hypotheses
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Works cited
The earliest examples of disagreement regarding the race of the ancient Egyptians occurred in the work of Europeans and Americans early in the 19th century. One early example of such an attempt was an article published in The New-England Magazine of October 1833, where the authors dispute a claim that "Herodotus was given as authority for their being negroes." They point out with reference to tomb paintings: "It may be observed that the complexion of the men is invariably red, that of the women yellow; but neither of them can be said to have anything in their physiognomy at all resembling the Negro countenance."
In the 18th century, Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, wrote "The Copts are the proper representatives of the Ancient Egyptians" due to their "jaundiced and fumed skin, which is neither Greek, Negro nor Arab, their full faces, their puffy eyes, their crushed noses, and their thick lips ... the ancient Egyptians were true negroes of the same type as all native born Africans."
Just a few years later, in 1839, Jean-François Champollion stated in his work Egypte Ancienne that the Egyptians and Nubians are represented in the same manner in tomb paintings and reliefs, further suggesting that: "In the Copts of Egypt, we do not find any of the characteristic features of the Ancient Egyptian population. The Copts are the result of crossbreeding with all the nations that successfully dominated Egypt. It is wrong to seek in them the principal features of the old race." Also in 1839, Champollion's and Volney's claims were disputed by Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac, who blamed the ancients for spreading a false impression of a Negro Egypt, stating "The opinion that the ancient population of Egypt belonged to the Negro African race, is an error long accepted as the truth. [...] Volney's conclusion as to the Negro origin of the ancient Egyptian civilization is evidently forced and inadmissible."
The debate over the race of the Ancient Egyptians intensified during the movement to abolish slavery in the United States, as arguments relating to the justifications for slavery increasingly asserted the historical, mental and physical inferiority of black people. For example, in 1851, John Campbell directly challenged the claims by Champollion and others regarding the evidence for a black Egypt, asserting "There is one great difficulty, and to my mind an insurmountable one, which is that the advocates of the negro civilization of Egypt do not attempt to account for, how this civilization was lost.... Egypt progressed, and why, because it was Caucasian." The arguments regarding the race of the Egyptians became more explicitly tied to the debate over slavery in the United States as the United States escalated towards civil war. In 1854, Josiah C. Nott with George Glidden set out to prove: "that the Caucasian or white, and the Negro races were distinct at a very remote date, and that the Egyptians were Caucasians." Samuel George Morton, a physician and professor of anatomy, concluded that although "Negroes were numerous in Egypt, but their social position in ancient times was the same that it now is [in the United States], that of servants and slaves." In the early 20th century, Flinders Petrie, a Professor of Egyptology at the University of London, in turn spoke of a Nubian queen, Aohmes Nefertari, who was the "divine ancestress of the XVIIIth dynasty." He described her physically as having "had an aquiline nose, long and thin, and was of a type not in the least prognathous."
Position of modern scholarship
Modern scholars who have studied Ancient Egyptian culture and population history have responded to the controversy over the race of the Ancient Egyptians in different ways.
Since the second half of the 20th century, most anthropologists have rejected the notion of race as having any validity in the study of human biology. Stuart Tyson Smith writes in the 2001 Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, "Any characterization of race of the ancient Egyptians depends on modern cultural definitions, not on scientific study. Thus, by modern American standards it is reasonable to characterize the Egyptians as 'black', while acknowledging the scientific evidence for the physical diversity of Africans." Frank M. Snowden asserts "Egyptians, Greeks and Romans attached no special stigma to the colour of the skin and developed no hierarchical notions of race whereby highest and lowest positions in the social pyramid were based on colour." Additionally, typological and hierarchical models of race have increasingly been rejected by scientists in favour of models of geographical origin.
It is now largely agreed that Dynastic Egyptians were indigenous to the Nile area. About 5,000 years ago, the Sahara area dried out, and part of the indigenous Saharan population retreated east towards the Nile Valley. In addition, peoples from the Middle East entered the Nile Valley, bringing with them wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and possibly cattle. Dynastic Egyptians referred to their country as "The Two Lands". During the Predynastic period (about 4800 to 4300BC), the Merimde culture flourished in the northern part of Egypt (Lower Egypt). This culture, among others, has links to the Levant in the Middle East. The pottery of the later Buto Maadi culture, best known from the site at Maadi near Cairo, also shows connections to the southern Levant as well. In the southern part of Egypt (Upper Egypt), the predynastic Badarian culture was followed by the Naqada culture. These people seem to be more closely related to the Nubians than with northern Egyptians.
Due to its geographical location at the crossroads of several major cultural areas, Egypt has experienced a number of foreign invasions during historical times, including by the Canaanites (Hyksos), the Ancient Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonian Greeks, the Romans (Byzantium in late antiquity/early Middle Ages), the Arabs, the Turks, and the British.
At the UNESCO "Symposium on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script" in Cairo in 1974, the Black Hypothesis met with "profound" disagreement. Most participants concluded that the Ancient Egyptian population was indigenous to the Nile Valley, and was made up of people from north and south of the Sahara who were differentiated by their color. The arguments for all sides are recorded in the UNESCO publication General History of Africa, with the "Origin of the Egyptians" chapter being written by Cheikh Anta Diop.
In 1975, the mummy of Ramesses II was taken to France for preservation. The mummy was also forensically tested by Professor Pierre-Fernand Ceccaldi, the chief forensic scientist at the Criminal Identification Laboratory of Paris, who wrote: "Hair, astonishingly preserved, showed some complementary data - especially about pigmentation: Ramses II was a Red haired cymnotriche leucoderma", that is a fair-skinned person with wavy red hair.
In 2008, S. O. Y. Keita wrote
"There is no scientific reason to believe that the primary ancestors of the Egyptian population emerged and evolved outside of northeast Africa.... The basic overall genetic profile of the modern population is consistent with the diversity of ancient populations that would have been indigenous to northeastern Africa and subject to the range of evolutionary influences over time, although researchers vary in the details of their explanations of those influences."
Specific current-day controversies
Since the 1970s, the issues regarding the race of the ancient Egyptians have been taboo subject for mainstream United States scientists. The debate has thus been led by the public, focusing on specific issues.
Several Afrocentric scholars, including Diop, have claimed that Tutankhamun was black, and have protested that attempted reconstructions of Tutankhamun's facial features (as depicted on the cover of National Geographic Magazine) have represented the king as "too white". Among these writers was Chancellor Williams, who argued that King Tutankhamun, his parents, and grandparents were black.
Forensic artists and physical anthropologists from Egypt, France, and the United States independently created busts of Tutankhamun, using a CT-scan of the skull. Biological anthropologist Susan Anton, the leader of the American team, said the race of the skull was "hard to call". She stated that the shape of the cranial cavity indicated an African, while the nose opening suggested narrow nostrils, which is usually considered to be a European characteristic. The skull was thus concluded to be that of a North African. Other experts have argued that neither skull shapes nor nasal openings are a reliable indication of race.
Although modern technology can reconstruct Tutankhamun's facial structure with a high degree of accuracy, based on CT data from his mummy, determining his skin tone and eye color is impossible. The clay model was therefore given a coloring, which, according to the artist, was based on an "average shade of modern Egyptians".
Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president for mission programs, said, in response to some of those protesting against the Tutankhamun reconstruction:
"The big variable is skin tone. North Africans, we know today, had a range of skin tones, from light to dark. In this case, we selected a medium skin tone, and we say, quite up front, 'This is midrange.' We will never know for sure what his exact skin tone was or the color of his eyes with 100% certainty.... Maybe in the future, people will come to a different conclusion."
When pressed on the issue by American activists in September 2007, the current Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass stated "Tutankhamun was not black."
In a November 2007 publication of Ancient Egypt Magazine, Hawass asserted that none of the facial reconstructions resemble Tut and that, in his opinion, the most accurate representation of the boy king is the mask from his tomb. The Discovery Channel commissioned a facial reconstruction of Tutankhamun, based on CT scans of a model of his skull, back in 2002.
The race and skin color of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of the Greek Ptolomaic dynasty of Egypt, established in 323 BCE, has also caused frequent debate. For example, the article "Was Cleopatra Black?" was published in Ebony magazine in 2012, and an article about Afrocentrism from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentions the question, too. Scholars generally identify Cleopatra as of Greek and Persian ancestry, based on fact that her Greek Macedonian family had intermingled with the Persian aristocracy of the time. However, her mother's identity is uncertain, and that of her paternal grandmother is also not known for certain.
The question was the subject of a heated exchange between Mary Lefkowitz, who has referred in her articles to a debate she had with one of her students about the question of whether Cleopatra was black, and Molefi Kete Asante, Professor of African American Studies at Temple University. In response to Not Out of Africa by Lefkowitz, Asante wrote the article "Race in Antiquity: Truly Out of Africa", in which he emphasized that he "can say without a doubt that Afrocentrists do not spend time arguing that either Socrates or Cleopatra were black".
In 2009, a BBC documentary speculated that Arsinoe IV, the half-sister of Cleopatra VII, may have been part African and then further speculated that Cleopatra's mother, thus Cleopatra herself, might also have been part African. This was based largely on the claims of Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who in the 1990s had examined a headless skeleton of a female child in a 20 BC tomb in Ephesus (modern Turkey), together with the old notes and photographs of the now-missing skull. He identified the body as that of Arsinoe. Arsinoe and Cleopatra, shared the same father (Ptolemy XII Auletes) but had different mothers.
Great Sphinx of Giza
The identity of the model for the Great Sphinx of Giza is unknown. Virtually all Egyptologists and scholars[weasel words] currently believe that the face of the Sphinx represents the likeness of the Pharaoh Khafra, although a few Egyptologists and interested amateurs have proposed several different hypotheses.
Numerous scholars, such as DuBois, Diop, Asante, and Volney, have characterized the face of the Sphinx as Black, or "Negroid". Around 1785 Volney stated, "When I visited the sphinx ... on seeing that head, typically Negro in all its features, I remembered ... Herodotus says: "... the Egyptians ... are black with woolly hair...." Another early description of a "Negroid" Sphinx is recorded in the travel notes of a French scholar, who visited in Egypt between 1783 and 1785, Constantin-François Chassebœuf along with French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
|km biliteral||kmt (place)||kmt (people)|
Ancient Egyptians referred to their homeland as Kmt (conventionally pronounced as Kemet). According to Cheikh Anta Diop, the Egyptians referred to themselves as "Black" people or kmt, and km was the etymological root of other words, such as Kam or Ham, which refer to Black people in Hebrew tradition. A review of David Goldenberg's The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam states that Goldenberg "argues persuasively that the biblical name Ham bears no relationship at all to the notion of blackness and as of now is of unknown etymology". Diop, William Leo Hansberry, and Aboubacry Moussa Lam have argued that kmt was derived from the skin color of the Nile valley people, which Diop claimed was black. The claim that the Ancient Egyptians had black skin has become a cornerstone of Afrocentric historiography.
Mainstream scholars hold that kmt means "the black land" or "the black place", and that this is a reference to the fertile black soil that was washed down from Central Africa by the annual Nile inundation. By contrast the barren desert outside the narrow confines of the Nile watercourse was called dšrt (conventionally pronounced deshret) or "the red land". Raymond Faulkner's Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian translates kmt into "Egyptians", Gardiner translates it as "the Black Land, Egypt".
At the UNESCO Symposium in 1974, Sauneron, Obenga, and Diop concluded that KMT and KM meant black. However, Sauneron clarified that the adjective Kmtyw means "people of the black land" rather than "black people", and that the Egyptians never used the adjective Kmtyw to refer to the various black peoples they knew of, they only used it to refer to themselves.
Ancient Egyptian art
Ancient Egyptian tombs and temples contained thousands of paintings, sculptures, and written works, which reveal a great deal about the people of that time. However, their depictions of themselves in their surviving art and artifacts are rendered in sometimes symbolic, rather than realistic, pigments. As a result, ancient Egyptian artifacts provide sometimes conflicting and inconclusive evidence of the ethnicity of the people who lived in Egypt during dynastic times.
In 1839, Champollion states in his work Egypte Ancienne that the Egyptians and Nubians are represented in the same manner in tomb paintings and reliefs. University of Chicago scholars assert that Nubians are generally depicted with black paint, but the skin pigment used in Egyptian paintings to refer to Nubians can range "from dark red to brown to black". This can be observed in paintings from the tomb of the Egyptian Huy, as well as Ramses II's temple at Beit el-Wali. Also, Snowden indicates that Romans had accurate knowledge of "negroes of a red, copper-colored complexion ... among African tribes". Conversely, Najovits states "Egyptian art depicted Egyptians on the one hand and Nubians and other blacks on the other hand with distinctly different ethnic characteristics and depicted this abundantly and often aggressively. The Egyptians accurately, arrogantly and aggressively made national and ethnic distinctions from a very early date in their art and literature." He continues, "There is an extraordinary abundance of Egyptian works of art which clearly depicted sharply contrasted reddish-brown Egyptians and black Nubians."
However Manu Ampim, a professor at Merritt College specializing in African and African American history and culture, claims in the book Modern Fraud: The Forged Ancient Egyptian Statues of Ra-Hotep and Nofret, that many ancient Egyptian statues and artworks are modern frauds that have been created specifically to hide the "fact" that the ancient Egyptians were black, while authentic artworks that demonstrate black characteristics are systematically defaced or even "modified". Ampim repeatedly makes the accusation that the Egyptian authorities are systematically destroying evidence that "proves" that the ancient Egyptians were black, under the guise of renovating and conserving the applicable temples and structures. He further accuses "European" scholars of wittingly participating in and abetting this process.
Ampim has a specific concern about the painting of the "Table of Nations" in the Tomb of Ramses III (KV11). The "Table of Nations" is a standard painting that appears in a number of tombs, and they were usually provided for the guidance of the soul of the deceased. Among other things, it described the "four races of men" as follows: (translation by E.A. Wallis Budge: "The first are RETH, the second are AAMU, the third are NEHESU, and the fourth are THEMEHU. The RETH are Egyptians, the AAMU are dwellers in the deserts to the east and north-east of Egypt, the NEHESU are the black races, and the THEMEHU are the fair-skinned Libyans."
The archaeologist Richard Lepsius documented many ancient Egyptian tomb paintings in his work Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. In 1913, after the death of Lepsius, an updated reprint of the work was produced, edited by Kurt Sethe. This printing included an additional section, called the "Ergänzungsband" in German, which incorporated many illustrations that did not appear in Lepsius's original work. One of them, plate 48, illustrated one example of each of the four "nations" as depicted in KV11, and shows the "Egyptian nation" and the "Nubian nation" as identical to each other in skin color and dress. Professor Ampim has declared that plate 48 is a true reflection of the original painting, and that it "proves" that the ancient Egyptians were identical in appearance to the Nubians, even though he admits no other examples of the "Table of Nations" show this similarity. He has further accused "Euro-American writers" of attempting to mislead the public on this issue.
The late Egyptologist, Dr. Frank Yurco, visited the tomb of Ramses III (KV11), and in a 1996 article on the Ramses III tomb reliefs he pointed out that the depiction of plate 48 in the Erganzungsband section is not a correct depiction of what is actually painted on the walls of the tomb. Yurco notes, instead, that plate 48 is a "pastiche" of samples of what is on the tomb walls, arranged from Lepsius's notes after his death, and that a picture of a Nubian person has erroneously been labeled in the pastiche as an Egyptian person. Yurco points also to the much-more-recent photographs of Dr. Erik Hornung as a correct depiction of the actual paintings. (Erik Hornung, The Valley of the Kings: Horizon of Eternity, 1990). Ampim nonetheless continues to claim that plate 48 shows accurately the images that stand on the walls of KV11, and he categorically accuses both Yurco and Hornung of perpetrating a deliberate deception for the purposes of misleading the public about the true race of the Ancient Egyptians.
Black Egyptian hypothesis
The Black Egyptian hypothesis is held by various authors that Ancient Egypt was a Black civilization. This includes a particular focus on links to Sub Saharan cultures and the questioning of the race of specific notable individuals from Dynastic times, including Tutankhamun and the king represented in the Great Sphinx of Giza, and Cleopatra. Since the second half of the 20th century, typological and hierarchical models of race have increasingly been rejected by scientists, and most scholars have held that applying modern notions of race to ancient Egypt is anachronistic.
Early advocates of the Black African model relied heavily on writings from Classical Greek historians, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Herodotus, wherein the Greeks referred to Egyptians as "melanchroes" with woolly hair. The translation of the Greek word “melanchroes” is disputed, being translated either as “black” or "dark skinned". Snowden claims that Diop is distorting his classical sources and is quoting them selectively. There is dispute about the historical accuracy of the works of Herodotus - some scholars support the reliability of Herodotus while other scholars regard his works as being unreliable as historical sources, particularly those relating to Egypt.
Other points used to support the Black Hypothesis included testing melanin levels in a small sample of mummies, arguing that the Ancient Egyptian language was related to Diop's native Wolof (Senegal), interpretations of the origin of the name Kmt, conventionally pronounced Kemet, used by the Ancient Egyptians to describe themselves or their land (depending on points of view), biblical traditions, and interpretations of the depictions of the Egyptians in numerous paintings and statues. Other points of the hypothesis include claimed cultural affiliations, such as circumcision, matriarchy, totemism, hair braiding, head binding, and kingship cults. Artifacts found at Qustul (near Abu Simbel - Modern Sudan) in 1960–64 were seen as showing that ancient Egypt and A-group Nubia shared the same culture and were part of the greater Nile Valley sub-stratum, but more recent finds in Egypt indicate that the Qustul rulers probably adopted/emulated the symbols of Egyptian pharaohs.
At the UNESCO "Symposium on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script" in Cairo in 1974, the Black Hypothesis met with "profound" disagreement. Most participants concluded that the Ancient Egyptian population was indigenous to the Nile Valley, and was made up of people from north and south of the Sahara who were differentiated by their color. The current position of modern scholarship is that the Egyptian civilization was an indigenous Nile Valley development (see population history of Egypt).
Asiatic Race Theory
The Asiatic Race Theory holds that the ancient Egyptians were the lineal descendants of the biblical Ham, through his son Mizraim. This theory was the most dominant view from the Early Middle Ages (c. 500 AD) all the way up to the early 19th century. The descendants of Ham were traditionally considered to be the darkest skinned branch of humanity, either because of their geographic allotment to Africa or because of the Curse of Ham. Thus, Diop cites Gaston Maspero "Moreover, the Bible states that Mesraim, son of Ham. brother of Chus (Kush) ... and of Canaan, came from Mesopotamia to settle with his children on the banks of the Nile."
By the 20th century, the Asiatic Race Theory and its various offshoots were abandoned but were superseded by two related theories: the eurocentric Hamitic Hypothesis, asserting that a Caucasian racial group moved into North and East Africa from early prehistory subsequently bringing with them all advanced agriculture, technology and civilization and also the Dynastic Race Theory, proposing that Mesopotamian invaders were responsible for the dynastic civilization of Egypt (c. 3000 BC). In sharp contrast to the Asiatic Race Theory neither of these theories propose that Caucasians were the indigenous inhabitants of Egypt.
Caucasian / Hamitic hypothesis
In 1844, Samuel George Morton wrote that the Nile valley "was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race", and acknowledged that Negroes were present in ancient Egypt but claimed they were either captives or servants. George Gliddon (1844) wrote: "The Egyptians were white men, of no darker hue than a pure Arab, a Jew, or a Phoenician."
The similar Hamitic hypothesis, which developed directly from the Asiatic Race Theory, argued that the Ethiopid and Arabid populations of the Horn of Africa were the inventors of agriculture and had brought all civilization to Africa, and asserted that these people were Caucasians, not Negroid. It also rejected any Biblical basis despite using Hamitic as the theory's name. Charles Gabriel Seligman in his Some Aspects of the Hamitic Problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (1913) and later works argued that the ancient Egyptians were among this group of Caucasian Hamites, having arrived in the Nile Valley during early prehistory and introduced technology and agriculture to primitive natives they found there.
The Italian anthropologist Giuseppe Sergi (1901) believed that ancient Egyptians were the Eastern African (Hamitic) branch of the Mediterranean race, which he called "Eurafrican". According to Sergi, the Mediterranean race or "Eurafrican" contains three varieties or sub-races: the African (Hamitic) branch, the Mediterranean "proper" branch and the Nordic (depigmentated) branch. Sergi maintained in summary that the Mediterranean race (excluding the depigmentated Nordic or 'white') is: "a brown human variety, neither white nor Negroid, but pure in its elements, that is to say not a product of the mixture of Whites with Negroes or Negroid peoples". Grafton Elliot Smith modified the theory in 1911, stating that the ancient Egyptians were a dark haired "brown race", most closely "linked by the closest bonds of racial affinity to the Early Neolithic populations of the North African littoral and South Europe", and not Negroid. Smith's "brown race" is not synonymous or equivalent with Sergi's Mediterranean race.
Turanid race hypothesis
The Egyptologist Samuel Sharpe (1846) proposed that the ancient Egyptians belonged to the Turanid race, linking them to the Tatars. He was inspired by some ancient Egyptian paintings, which depict Egyptians with sallow or yellowish skin. He said "From the colour given to the women in their paintings we learn that their skin was yellow, like that of the Mongul Tartars, who have given their name to the Mongolian variety of the human race.... The single lock of hair on the young nobles reminds us also of the Tartars."
Dynastic race theory
In the early 20th century, Flinders Petrie, one of the leading Egyptologists of his day, noted that the skeletal remains found at predynastic sites at Naqada in Upper Egypt showed marked differentiation. Together with cultural evidence such as architectural styles, pottery styles, cylinder seals, and numerous rock and tomb paintings, he deduced that a Mesopotamian force had invaded Egypt in predynastic times, imposed itself on the indigenous Badarian people, and become their rulers. This came to be called the "Dynastic Race Theory". The theory further argued that the Mesopotamian founded state or states then conquered both Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the First Dynasty of Egypt.
In the 1950s, the Dynastic Race Theory was widely accepted by mainstream scholarship. Scholars such as the Senegalese Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, fought against the Dynastic Race Theory with their own "Black Egyptian" theory and claimed, among other things, that European scholars supported the Dynastic Race Theory "to avoid having to admit that Ancient Egyptians were black". Bernal proposed that the Dynastic Race theory was conceived by European scholars to deny Egypt its African roots.
- Fayum mummy portraits
- Demographics of modern Egypt
- Dynastic race theory
- Archaeogenetics of the Near East
- Biological anthropology
- History of anthropology
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