Ancient Egypt's African Roots

by Kahotep



There are many mysteries and controversies surrounding ancient Egypt, but perhaps the most contentious one involves its cultural and ethnic identity. Although Egypt lies in Africa, Westerners have traditionally considered it as being related not to other Africans, but instead to the "Near East" (the land of Israel, Babylon, and Persia) or "Mediterranean" (the land of Carthage, Greece, and Rome). The implicit message here is that ancient Egypt was not really an indigenous African civilization, but instead an import from Europe or Asia.

This view is wrong. The ancient Egyptians were not Europeans or Asians. They were in fact largely indigenous Africans, both biologically and culturally. That is not to say that there was no cultural or genetic influence from Europe or Asia, but any such influence was not enough to dilute a fundamentally African identity.

Physical Anthropology

Before the ancient Egyptians' biological relationships to other African peoples can be discussed, a common misconception about Africans must be refuted. This misconception is that indigenous Africans universally have a specific set of facial features commonly called "Negroid", such as wide, flat noses and full lips. While many African populations do have those features, there are also many who do not. Physical anthropologist Jean Hiernaux (1975) writes:

In sub-Saharan Africa, many anthropological characters show a wide range of population means or frequencies. In some of them, the whole world range is covered in the sub-continent. Here live the shortest and the tallest human populations, the one with the highest and the one with the lowest nose, the one with the thickest and the one with the thinnest lips in the world. In this area, the range of the average nose widths covers 92 per cent of the world range: only a narrow range of extremely low means are absent from the African record. (53-4)

Thinner noses and lips, so-called "Caucasoid" features, are especially common in northeast African regions not far from Egypt, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and northern Sudan. Why this is the case is not known, although some anthropologists have speculated that there is a correlation between nose width and humidity, with narrower noses being more adaptive to drier climates. Whatever the cause, the point is that native African features are not restricted to the "Negroid" stereotype.

If we keep that in mind, how do we know whether the ancient Egyptians were more closely related to other Africans than to Europeans or Asians?

One method used by physical anthropologists to determine how closely related populations are is by measuring and comparing the shapes of their skulls, since skull shape varies from region to region. Populations with more similar skull shapes are regarded as being more closely related. When their skulls are subjected to this kind of analysis, ancient Egyptians appear to be especially closely related to northern Sudanese (Godde 2009) and are overall more closely related to northeast Africans than to Europeans, Asians, or Berbers (Kemp 2005). Similarities with "Negroid" sub-Saharan populations are particularly strong in skulls from southern (Upper) Egypt (Keita 1990, 2005). Those opposed to an African origin for the Egyptians often cite Brace (1993), which claimed to have found Egyptians to be closer to Europeans than Africans, but Howells (1995:95) criticizes this study's measurements as over-emphasizing the shape of the nose instead of evaluating the entire skull.

However, it must be noted that studies have also found some evidence for change in Egyptian skull shapes over time, possibly as a result of mixing with non-Egyptian immigrants. Berry and Berry (1967) report that Egyptian skulls show little change between the beginning of Egyptian civilization (3100 BC) and the Middle Kingdom (2080-1640 BC), but do change significantly during the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC). This may reflect increased admixture with foreign immigrants, for example the Southwest Asian Hyksos. Zakrzewski (2004) also reports that a set of skulls from very late in Egyptian history is significantly different from earlier Egyptian skulls.

Another line of evidence showing a relationship between ancient Egyptians and populations from tropical Africa concerns the skeleton beyond the skull, specifically the proportions of the limbs. Tropical African populations have proportionately longer limbs than European or Asian populations, because longer limbs dissipate heat more easily. Measurements of ancient Egyptian skeletons has shown that their limb proportions were within the range of tropical African populations (Zakrzewski 2003), and sometimes their limbs were proportionately longer than those of some tropical Africans, leading Robins and Shute (1986) to call them "super-Negroid".

This is especially significant because even though we think of Egypt as a hot place, it is not truly tropical (it cools off during nighttime and winter). Populations living in subtropical desert climates similar to those of Egypt, such as the San of southwestern Africa, normally have limb proportions intermediate to those of Europeans and tropical populations (Trinkaus 1981). If the ancient Egyptians' limb proportions were like those of tropical Africans rather than subtropical peoples like the San, that implies that their ancestors must been relatively recent migrants to subtropical Egypt from a truly tropical area, such as tropical sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet another line of evidence concerns hair texture. You might think that casually glancing at Egyptian mummies' hair might answer the question of what their hair texture was originally like, but this is wrong. As shown by Bertrand et al. (2003), Egyptian mummies' hair appears to have been damaged by the mummification process. Damage to the hair can cause discoloration and texture changes.

Fortunately, there is a more reliable way of discerning hair's original texture. First, using a special instrument called a trichometer, measure the cross-section of the hair, then divide the value for the minimum diameter of the hair by the maximum and multiply the product by a hundred, producing an index. Hair that was originally curly or kinky will produce an index between 55 and 70, while straighter hair will produce an index over 70.

According to Conti-Fuhrman and Massa (1972) and Massa and Massali (1980), hairs recovered from ancient Egyptian mummies have an average index of 60.02, falling within the kinky to curly range. In other words, ancient Egyptians' natural hair was curly to kinky like those of Africans. However, it must be noted that Egyptians usually shaved their heads to rid themselves of lice and wore wigs most of the time, so most Egyptian artwork does not depict Egyptians with their natural hair.

Finally, there comes the question of exactly what skin color the ancient Egyptians were. It is tempting to look at Egyptian paintings, but it must be remembered that Egyptian paintings were symbolic rather than realistic in nature. Individuals may be depicted as red, yellow, gold, green, white, or black depending on the context. Between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, it was common to depict Egyptian men as brown-skinned and women as yellow-skinned, but for some unknown reason, by the time of the New Kingdom, both sexes were portrayed as brown-skinned.

As far as I know, there has never been a study on ancient Egyptian remains that determined exactly what skin tone Egyptians had. Analyzing the skin cells of Egyptian mummies and comparing their melanin levels to those of other populations might give us the answer. However, since the evidence listed above shows that the ancient Egyptians were a tropically adapted African population, it is reasonable to conclude that their skin tones were within the tropical African range---in other words, they would have been what we call "black".

Not only were the ancient Egyptians biologically related to other Africans, but archaeology and cultural anthropology have shown that their culture had indigenous African roots as well.

Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology

One clue to the ancient Egyptians' cultural roots lies in their language. The ancient Egyptian language is classified under the language phylum Afroasiatic, sometimes called "Afrasian". Analyses of the Afrasian phylum show that it most likely originated in the Horn of Africa (the area encompassing Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea) around 15,000 years ago and spread northward to Egypt three millennia later (Ehert 1996). Other examples of Afrasian languages include Hausa (spoken in Nigeria), Tuareg (spoken in the Sahara), and Oromo (spoken in Ethiopia).

The ancient Egyptian language is not the only thing that came to Egypt from the south. Some aspects of the Egyptian institution of pharaoh also show ties to more southerly Africans. Aldred (1978) says that the Egyptian pharaoh, who was believed to control the flooding of the Nile, may have been descended from a "rainmaker king" similar to the kind prevalent throughout black Africa. The Egyptian practice of sacrificing servants to accompany a dead pharaoh into the afterlife also appears to be of Sudanic origin (Ehert 1996). Even the iconography associated with the pharaoh may have originated in the south, for the oldest evidence of this iconography is found on an incense burner found in Nubia (Williams 1986).

In addition to language and political institutions, other aspects of Egyptian culture show ties to sub-Saharan Africa. Eglash (1995) shows that fractal designs, which are widely used by African cultures, are present in Egyptian architecture and cosmological signs. The Egyptian counting system also has sub-Saharan roots (Eglash 1999). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1984), many aspects of Egyptian religion (animal cults, ritual dressings, and the role of the king as head ritualist or medicine man) are closer to northeast African religions that European or Asian ones. Frankfort (1956:39-40) shows that much of the ancient Egyptian worldview has parallels in sub-Saharan cultures. Djehuti (2005a) lists many beliefs and cultural practices (for instance, circumcision rites, divine kingship, ancestor veneration, and totemism) common to both ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. The same author (2005b) also shows that personal names in both ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa had great spiritual significance. Finally, de Heinzelin (1962) and Arkell and Ucko (1965) report tools of central African design being made by early Egyptians.

Some traits of ancient Egyptian culture also came from the Sahara west of Egypt. This area, now desert, was a grassy savanna until 5,500 years ago, allowing people and animals to live there. The oldest evidence of mummification comes from the Sahara (Donadoni 1964). The oldest evidence of a complex society in Egypt is also found out in the desert. This is the Nabta Playa culture, dating between the 10th and 7th millennia BC, which was characterized by huts built in straight rows, wells, a circle of megaliths similar to England's Stonehenge, and stone-roofed chambers containing cattle bones. These cattle bones most likely represent sacrifices offered to the gods (Wendorf and Schild 1998), a practice that was continued by later Egyptians.

After the Sahara dried up, the proto-Egyptians migrated into the Nile Valley, adopted farming, and developed two early civilizations, one in northern (Lower) Egypt and one in southern (Upper) Egypt. Of these two, it was the Upper Egyptians whose culture evolved into what we think of as classical Egyptian civilization. It is in Upper Egypt that we find evidence of social and economic differentiation among people, a differentiation that would evolve into the class system of later Egypt. Ultimately the Upper Egyptian culture would dominate Lower Egypt and conquer it by 3100 BC, making Egypt into a unified country and beginning the Old Kingdom (Bard 1994).

This genesis of Egyptian culture in the south and west is inconsistent with any argument that would classify Egypt as a "Near Eastern" or "Mediterranean" civilization. If Egyptians were indeed of Asian or European origin, we would expect the north to dominate and conquer the south, but the reverse is the case. This shows that the ancient Egyptian culture was essentially an indigenous African one.

Why is Egypt's African Identity Not Realized?

I can think of two possible reasons. One is that, due to the cultural and genetic influence of various Southwest Asian and European conquerors on Egypt, beginning with the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt is viewed as part of the "Middle East" rather than being truly African. It is certainly true that the modern country calls itself the "Arab Republic of Egypt". Perhaps people think that since Egyptians nowadays identify with Arabs rather than other Africans, the ancient Egyptians must have been "Arabs" as well.

The other likely reason is that it is a legacy of racism against Africans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when Egyptology first emerged as a discipline in the West, Westerners felt that Africans were incapable of creating civilization on their own. For example, the Australian anatomist G. Eliot Smith, quoted in Kamugisha (2003), claimed that "the smallest infusion of Negro blood immediately manifests itself in a dulling of initiative and a 'drag' on the further development of the arts of civilization". The idea that Africans could build a civilization as powerful and influential as Egypt's would have been unimaginable to most Westerners of the time.

Not that the possibility of an African ancient Egypt had never occurred to any Western intellectuals. Some, like the 18th century orientalist Count Constantin de Volney, actually accepted it, asserting that the Egyptians were "real Negroes, of the same species with all the natives of Africa". Others denied it. The 19th century Egyptologist Gaston Maspero claimed that the Egyptians, far from having the "general appearance of the Negro, really resembled the fine white races of Europe and Western Asia" (Poe 1997).

Ultimately, modern science, stripped of the prejudices of the past, would vindicate de Volney. However, most laypeople are not aware of this evidence, so they still incorrectly perceive Egypt as "Near Eastern" or "Mediterranean" rather than truly African.

Why Does This Matter?

Some people may wonder why the skin color or ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians matter. Who cares if they were black, white, or magenta?

This debate matters because ancient Egypt has been inaccurately depicted for so long. Portraying the ancient Egyptians as non-African is like portraying the Romans as being non-European or portraying the Maya as being non-Native American. It is perpetuating myths. If Egypt is to be accurately portrayed, its African identity must be accepted.

In conclusion, ancient Egypt was a fundamentally African culture founded by African people, not an import from Europe or Asia. If we are to move forward from our racist past, acknowledging this is a good step to take.

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