Talk:Controversy over racial characteristics of Ancient Egyptians/Draft

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As ዮም (Yom) | contribsTalkE suggested, I am just going to throw out some ideas for an article structure. It seems to me that this article would be closely affiliated with, and should cross-reference at least three other articles: Egyptomania, Egypt in the Western imagination and Afrocentrism. As I said, it probably makes sense to start with the beginnings of the "history of man" in natural history in the 18th century. The following outline is just a suggestion, and by no means complete.

The debate around the racial characteristics of the ancient Egyptians begins, I think, when the biblical account of Genesis (i.e. the origins of "mankind") began to be put under pressure by Enlightenment thinking. Many factors worked together to shape the debate: Colonization (the interests of Britain and continental Europe), the slave trade, slavery in the New World, and -- starting in 1798 -- the beginnings of systematic Egyptology as an attendant to Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. One has to keep in mind that the debate went on for almost a century before Evolution became an accepted theory in the natural sciences. African American thinkers such as Frederick Douglass and David Walker began to engage in this debate at an early stage, claiming ancient Egypt as black civilization. In the United States, the debate clearly revolved around slavery: pro-slavery writers (such as Josiah C. Nott, the author of Types of Mankind) went through great lengths to show that (1) different races existed in ancient Egypt and (2) the Egyptian ruling class was "Caucasian." The point was to show that there has never been a black civilization, therefore black Africans were subhuman and meant to be slaves. Humans were, to Nott, different species, separately created not long before the earliest records of Egyptian civilization. It is interesting to see that the structure of the debate has not changed much since then, though the interests and scientific methods are different.

Here is an outline. The bibliography is grossly incomplete since it reflects my own limited area of expertise (19th century American culture). --Jottce 08:22, 4 July 2006 (UTC)

Controversy over racial characteristics of Ancient Egyptians[edit]

The controversy over racial characteristics of ancient Egyptians refers to a conflict over the the racial identity of ancient Egyptians, dating back to 18th century natural history, which first attempted to systematically classify human beings. Although Egypt is geographically located in Africa, it occupies a liminal position between Africa, Europe, and Asia, and its status as civilization preceding ancient Greece and Rome gives it particular significance. Ancient Egypt was a cosmopolitan society, consisting of people of different and mixed ancestries, but participants in the debate have attempted to identify a single race to which the majority of ancient Egyptians belonged. Generally, the controversy has operated with post-Enlightenment notions of race, alien to ancient Egyptians themselves[1], but has in part supported the arguments with references to ancient Egyptian artifacts that seem to illustrate ethnic difference.

Although European scholars were the first to classify the ancient Egyptians within the categories of modern race theories, the controversy has been centered in the United States[2]. During the early 19th century, the controversy was closely linked to the slavery debate, in which ancient Egypt became the touchstone for Africa[3]: If ancient Egyptians were black, racial slavery--which was in large part justified by the claim that black Africans were incapable of civilization--would be shown as morally wrong. Following changing politics of race, the debate has shifted focus several times since then. Late 19th century Egyptologist Adolf Erman drew the dividing line in the controversy along disciplinary lines as between (European) ethnologists, who saw Egyptians as genetically linked to other Africans, and philologists, who saw them linguistically connected with Asiatic languages[4]. In the post-Civil Rights era, the debate has been shaped by the assertion from Afrocentrist scholars that (a) ancient Egyptians were black Africans and that (b) Greek culture drew much of its intellectual prowess from Egypt.

Different types of evidence have been used to contribute to the controversy: 18th century ethnologists drew from biblical sources, ancient Greek and Roman accounts and Egyptian artifacts and were mostly concerned with outward appearance as determinant of racial affiliation. In the 19th century, ethnology supplemented these types of evidence with craniology and linguistic evidence that became available after the deciphering of hieroglyphic writing. In the 20th century, then, genetic research on modern Egyptians and on the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians has added another source of evidence.


  1. François Bernier (1684)

18th Century: Ancient Egyptians in Enlightenment Environmentalism[edit]

  1. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Early natural historians such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach argued that ancient Egyptians were a mixture between "Hindus" and "Ethiopians."

19th Century: Colonization and Slavery[edit]

Egypt in American School ethnology and egyptology[edit]

  1. Samuel George Morton, Crania Aegyptiaca (1844)
  2. Josiah C. Nott, George Gliddon Types of Mankind (1854)

Egypt in African American ethnology and egyptology[edit]

  1. David Walker
  2. James McCune Smith
  3. Frederick Douglass

Egypt in European ethnology and egyptology[edit]

  1. Jean-François Champollion
  2. James Cowles Prichard
  3. William Matthew Flinders Petrie
  4. Adolf Erman
  5. Karl Richard Lepsius

Early 20th Century: Colonization and Racial Segregation[edit]

  1. W.E.B. DuBois
  2. Gaston Maspero

Late 20th/Early 21st Century: Post-Civil Rights Era, Post-colonialism[edit]

Determining the genetic origin of ancient Egyptians, i.e. determining their predominant racial affiliation, has been rife with difficulties, not only because "race" itself is a conflicted concept that has changed shape significantly in its history[5]. Starting with the civil rights movement in the United States and post-colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, black scholars in all fields have intervened more forcefully to address issues of race. Ancient Egypt has become one arena of contention. Racial categories in the context of this most recent stage of the debate have been based mostly on genetics and traced through mutations; additionally they have been based on phenotype, lineage and geography. It is within this framework that the discussion of the racial identity of ancient Egyptians is generally framed today. However, because of the scarcity of usable genetic material, other clues, mostly visual and textual, continue to influence the debate.

In addition, since the scientific debate is inseparable from its political context, there is no consensus about racial categories themselves. The traditional anthropological terms Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid are widely discredited in scientific contexts and only used in narrowly defined instances[6]. The bipolar cultural categories black and white are even more inadequate when talking about genealogical affiliations, since skin tone varies within a single population grouped together by a shared history. Even a term such as "African" is considered reductive and must be framed as "from sub-Saharan and West Africa and portions of North Africa".

Afrocentrism, Afrocentricity[edit]

Following the work of the Senegalese historian and Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, Afrocentrist scholarship argues that the character of ancient Egyptian society and culture most closely resembled that of other African cultures. It also asserts that Egypt remained essentially a "black" African civilization throughout the dynastic era. This is based on an interpretation and understanding of archaeological evidence pointing to Nubian, Badarian, and older Saharan cultures whose religious and cultural practices most closely resemble Egypt's own.[7]. However, it is important to acknowledge the history of Afrocentrist ideas in 18th and 19th century black thought[8].

Afrocentrist scholarship

  1. Edward Wilmot Blyden The Negro in Ancient History (1869);
  2. Cheikh Anta Diop: The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974);
  3. Molefi Asante: Afrocentricity, the Theory of Social Change (1980); Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge (1990);
  4. Martin Bernal: Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987).

Response to Afrocentrism[edit]

Major responses to and critiques of Afrocentrist claims have come from the humanities. Speaking as a scholar of ancient Greece, Mary Lefkowitz's main objective is to refute the Afrocentrist claim that ancient Greek culture was derived from Egypt, she also addresses the issue of genealogy. The British historian Stephen Howe compares Afrocentrism to 19th-century European "ethnonationalism", arguing its ideas of a black Egypt are based on a notion of African cultural homogeneity that he sees as erroneous[9]. There have also been responses that take Afrocentrist positions seriously, even if they do not share them. Writing from a traditional Egyptologist's perspective, Ann Macy Roth argues that Egyptology can learn from Afrocentrist contentions if it begins to understand that they constitute valid responses to modern racism[10].

Responses to Afrocentrism

  1. Mary Lefkowitz. Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996) - Classicist
  2. Stephen Howe. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (1998) - Historian
  3. Ann Macy Roth. "Building Bridges to Afrocentrism: A Letter to my Egyptological Colleagues." (1996)

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ cf. Bard, 1996: 104.
  2. ^ Morsy, 1996: 175.
  3. ^ Trafton, 2004.
  4. ^ Erman, 1971: 29.
  5. ^ On the history of race cf. Bernasconi, 2000; Dain, 2002; and Gossett, 1997.
  6. ^ On the use and history of these terms see Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, Australoid, Capoid.
  7. ^ Asante, 2005:xxxf. [Though there are many sources for information on these central Afrocentrist positions, this introduction to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies provides a brief and accessible overview from an Afrocentrist perspective]
  8. ^ Moses, 1998: 3, passim.
  9. ^ Howe, 1998: 2.
  10. ^ Roth, 1996: n.p.

Working Bibliography[edit]

The controversy in the 19th century

  • Douglass, Frederick. "The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Houston, Ohio, on 12 July 1854." The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Vol. 2 (1847-54).. Ed. John W. Blassingame. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. 497-525.
  • Erman, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. 1894. New York,: Dover Publications, 1971. ISBN 0486226328
  • Walker, David. Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles. 1848. Ed. by Henry Highland Garnet. The American Negro, His History and Literature. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Afrocentrist scholarship

  • Asante, Molefi K. The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism: An Afrocentric Response to Critics. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1999. ISBN 0865437424; ISBN 0865437432 (pbk.)
  • Asante, Molefi K. Afrocentricity, the Theory of Social Change. Buffalo, N.Y.: Amulefi Pub. Co., 1980.
  • ---. Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990. ISBN 0865431892 (paper); ISBN 0865431884 (cloth)
  • ---. The Afrocentric Idea. 1987. Rev. and expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. ISBN 1566395941 (cloth); ISBN 156639595X (paper)
  • ---. Afrocentricity. New rev. ed. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1988. ISBN 0865430675
  • Asante, Molefi K., and Ama Mazama. Egypt Vs. Greece and the American Academy. Chicago, Ill.: African American Images, 2002. ISBN 0913543772 (pbk.)
  • ---. Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2005. ISBN 076192762X (cloth edition)
  • Banton, Michael P. Racial Theories. 2nd ed. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521336759 (pbk.)
  • Bernal, Martin. Black Athena : The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987. ISBN 081351276X (v. 1); ISBN 0813512778 (v. 1 pbk.); ISBN 0813515831 (v. 2); ISBN 081351584X (v. 2 pbk.)
  • Bernal, Martin, and David Chioni Moore. Black Athena Writes Back : Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. ISBN 0822327066 (cloth alk. paper); ISBN 0822327171 (pbk. alk. paper)
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. New York,: L. Hill, 1974. ISBN 0882080210; ISBN 0882080229 (pbk.)

Response to Afrocentrist scholarship

  • Berlinerblau, Jacques. Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. ISBN 081352587X (alk. paper); ISBN 0813525888 (pbk. alk. paper)
  • Howe, Stephen. Afrocentrism : Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. London ; New York: Verso, 1998. ISBN 1859848737
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R. Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: BasicBooks, 1996. ISBN 0465098371
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Guy MacLean Rogers. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0807822469; ISBN 0807845558 (pbk)
  • Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521474086. ISBN 052147941X (pbk.)
  • Roth, Ann Macey. "Building Bridges to Afrocentrism: A Letter to my Egyptological Colleagues." University of Pensylvania: African Studies Center. Ed. by Ali B. Ali-Dinar. 1996. Accessed June 10, 2006.

The idea of race

  • Bernasconi, Robert, and Tommy Lee Lott. The Idea of Race. Hackett Readings in Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2000. ISBN 0872204588 (paper alk. paper); ISBN 0872204596 (cloth alk. paper)
  • Dain, Bruce R. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. ISBN 0674009460 (alk. paper)
  • Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. 1963. New Edition ed. by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Arnold Rampersad. Race and American Culture: Oxford UP Oxford, England, 1997. ISBN 0-19-509777-7 (hbk.) ISBN 0-19-509778-5 (pbk.)
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. and expand ed. New York: Norton, 1996. ISBN 0393039722 ISBN 0393314251 (pbk.)

Egypt and race

  • Bard, Kathryn A. "Ancient Egyptians and the issue of Race." In: Lefkowitz, 1996.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415235499 (pbk. alk. paper); ISBN 0415235502 (hardback alk. paper)
  • Morsy, Soheir A. "Beyond the Honorary 'White' Classification of Ancient Egyptians: Societal Identity in Historical Context." Race. Ed. by Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. 175-198. ISBN 0813521084 (cloth); ISBN 0813521092 (pbk.) (A modern Egyptian perspective)
  • Schueller, Malini Johar. U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. ISBN 0472108859
  • Trafton, Scott Driskell. Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. New Americanists. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. ISBN 0822333627