Population history of Egypt

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Egypt has a long and involved demographic history. This is partly due to the territory's geographical location at the crossroads of several major cultural areas: Northeast Africa, the Maghreb, the Sahara, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. In addition Egypt has experienced several invasions during its long history, including by the Canaanites, the Ancient Libyans, the Assyrians, the Kushites (a Nubian civilization), the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs.


During the Paleolithic period, the Nile Valley was inhabited by various hunter-gatherer populations. Around 10,000 years ago, the Sahara had a wet phase, the Neolithic Subpluvial (Holocene 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]

Around 5,000 years ago, the wet phase of the Sahara came to an end. The Saharan populations retreated to the south towards the Sahel, and east in the direction of 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]

Prehistoric Egypt[edit]

Main article: Prehistoric Egypt

Prehistoric Egypt (also known as "Predynastic Egypt") dates to the end of the fourth millennium. From around 4800 to 4300, the Merimde culture (Merimde Beni-Salame) flourished in Lower Egypt.[2] This culture, among others, has links to the Levant.[3] The pottery of the Buto Maadi culture, best known from the site at Maadi near Cairo, also shows connections with the southern Levant.[4] In Upper Egypt, the predynastic Badari culture was followed by the Naqada culture (Amratian).[5]

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 this on the increased novelty and seemingly rapid change in Predynastic pottery and noted trade contacts between ancient Egypt and the Middle East.[6] This is no longer the dominant view in Egyptology; however, the evidence on which it was based still suggests influence from these regions.[7] Fekri Hassan and Edwin et al. point to mutual influence from both inner Africa as well as the Levant.[8] This evidence suggests that Ancient Egypt was populated by Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples from Northeast Africa and the Near East.[9]

Maria Gatto has suggested that the makers of the predynastic Egyptian Naqada culture centered in Upper Egypt shared an almost identical culture with the A-Group peoples in Lower Nubia.[10] This is based in part on the similarities with the royal tombs at Qustul. Joseph Vogel, Cheikh Diop, Volney, and other scholars have even proposed an Egyptian origin in Nubia among the A-Group.[11][12][13] 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.[14] However, most scholars have rejected this hypothesis and cite the presence of royal tombs that are contemporaneous with those in Qustul and just as elaborate, together with problems with the dating techniques.[15]

Toby Wilkinson, in his book Genesis of the Pharaohs, proposes an origin for the Egyptians somewhere in the Eastern Desert.[16] In addition, there is evidence that sheep and goats were introduced into the Nabta Playa from Western Asia about 8,000 years ago.[17] There is some speculation that this culture is likely to have been the predecessor of the Egyptians, based on cultural similarities and social complexity which is thought to be reflective of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.[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,[14] and some also to Northern Haratin populations. ABO blood group distribution shows that the Egyptians form a sister group to North African populations Egyptologist.

In 2013, Nature announced the publication of the first genetic study utilizing next-generation sequencing to ascertain the ancestral lineage of an Ancient Egyptian individual. The research was led by Carsten Pusch of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Rabab Khairat, who released their findings in the Journal of Applied Genetics. DNA was extracted from the heads of five Egyptian mummies that were housed at the institution. All the specimens were dated to between 806 BC and 124 AD, a timeframe corresponding with the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic periods. The researchers observed that one of the mummified individuals likely belonged to the mtDNA haplogroup I2, a maternal clade that is believed to have originated in Western Asia.[32]

Anthropometric indicators[edit]

Craniofacial criteria[edit]

An Ancient Egyptian skull, thought to be that of Akhenaten.

The use of craniofacial criteria as reliable indicators of population grouping or ethnicity has been a longstanding focus of biological anthropology. In 1912, Franz Boas argued that cranial shape was heavily influenced by environmental factors and could change within a few generations under differing conditions, thereby making the cephalic index an unreliable indicator of inherited influences such as ethnicity.[33] Gravlee, Bernard and Leonard (2003),[34][35] Beals, Smith, and Dodd (1984) and Williams and Armelagos (2005) similarly posited that "race" and cranial variation had low correlations, and proposed that cranial variation was instead strongly correlated with climate variables.[36][37]

Brace (1993) differentiated adaptive cranial traits from non-adaptive cranial traits, asserting that only the non-adaptive cranial traits served as reliable indicators of genetic relatedness between populations.[38] This was further corroborated in studies by von Cramon-Taubadel (2008, 2009a, 2011).[39][40][41] Clement and Ranson (1998) estimated that cranial analysis yields a 77%-95% rate of accuracy in determining the racial origins of human skeletal remains.[42]

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." 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."[38] Joseph Deniker and other early anthropologists similarly noted that the overall cranial form of Ethiopic, Arab and Berber ethnic groups, all of whom speak Hamito-Semitic languages, are largely the same.[43][44]

A survey cited by Kemp (2005) of pooled ancient Egyptian crania spanning all time periods found that the historic Egyptian population clustered closest to modern Egyptians. Egyptians as whole, ancient and modern, also clustered more closely with Nubian, Ethiopic, Middle Eastern and European populations than with Negroid populations. In Kemp's unpooled dendrogram, the Pre-Dynastic Upper Egyptians (El Bardi and Naqada) samples further clustered closest to certain ancient samples from the Nubia region as well as modern Ethiopic populations, 5-26th dynasty Egyptians grouped New Kingdom Lower Nubians and with the ancient Levant, whereas Late Kingdom and some modern Egyptians leaned toward some Middle Eastern and modern European populations. Kemp also noted that Egypt conquered and settled Nubia beginning in the 1st Dynasty.[45]

Anthropologist Nancy Lovell states the following:

"There is now a sufficient body of evidence from modern studies of skeletal remains to indicate that the ancient Egyptians, especially southern Egyptians, exhibited physical characteristics that are within the range of variation for ancient and modern indigenous peoples of the Sub Sahara and tropical Africa.. In general, the inhabitants of Upper Egypt and Nubia had the greatest biological affinity to people of the Sahara and more southerly areas."

"must be placed in the context of hypotheses informed by archaeological, linguistic, geographic and other data. In such contexts, the physical anthropological evidence indicates that early Nile Valley populations can be identified as part of an African lineage, but exhibiting local variation. This variation represents the short- and long-term effects of evolutionary forces, such as gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection, influenced by culture and geography."[46]

This view was also shared by the late Egyptologist Frank Yurco.[47]

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.[48]

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.[49]

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 with these particular Northeast African populations. He also concluded that more material was needed to make a firm conclusion about the relationship between the early Holocene Nile valley populations and later ancient Egyptians.[50]

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.[51] 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".[52]

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".[53] Gallagher et al. also points out that "body proportions are under strong climatic selection and evidence remarkable stability within regional lineages".[54] 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".[55]

Trikhanus (1981) found Egyptians to plot closest to tropical Africans and not Mediterranean Europeans residing in a roughly similar climatic area.[56] 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:[57]

Our results confirm that, although ancient Egyptians are closer in body proportion to modern American Blacks than they are to American Whites, proportions in Blacks and Egyptians are not identical.

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.[58][59]

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:

[The Egyptian] samples [of 996 mummies] exhibit morphologically simple, mass-reduced dentitions that are similar to those in populations from greater North Africa (Irish, 1993, 1998a–c, 2000) and, to a lesser extent, western Asia and Europe (Turner, 1985a; Turner and Markowitz, 1990; Roler, 1992; Lipschultz, 1996; Irish, 1998a).[60]

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.[61]

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.

The Ancient Egyptian language is classified into six major chronological divisions; Archaic Egyptian, Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian, and Coptic. The latter was used as a working language until the 18th Century AD, and is still used as a liturgical language by Egyptian Copts.[62]


The Ancient Egyptian language has been classified as a member of the Afroasiatic 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.[63][64][65][66][67] The language of the neighbouring Nubian people is one of the Nilo-Saharan languages, and is not one of the Afroasiatic languages.[68][69]

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. doi:10.2307/2332021. 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]