The African Origin of the Ancient Egyptians Abstract This paper, citing data from archaeology, cultural anthropology
, and biological anthropology, demonstrates that the ancient Egyptian people were predominantly of indigenous African descent, originating from more southerly areas of the continent and sharing many cultural components and physical features with sub-Saharan populations. Introduction Who were the people who founded and sustained the ancient Egyptian civilization? Of all the enigmas surrounding this most famous of early cultures, perhaps none are more hotly debated than the question of the Egyptians' ethnic makeup. Egypt is located in Africa, a continent traditionally associated with black people, yet Egyptologists have for over two centuries been reluctant to identify the Egyptians with other Africans due to racial prejudice, instead insisting on an Asiatic origin for Egyptian culture (Poe 1997, Kamugisha 2003). Among the biggest proponents of Near Eastern roots for the Egyptians was Sir Flinders Petrie, a pivotal figure in the development of modern Egyptology, who claimed that Mesopotamians whom he called the "Dynastic Race" founded Egyptian civilization, but there were many others (see Wilkinson 2003 for a discussion). It is for this reason that ancient Egyptians are often portrayed in popular culture as non-African in appearance (see for example Cecil DeMille's 1956 film The Ten Commandments and the more recent 1999 film The Mummy for just two out of numerous examples). These views, besides being tinged with racism, are obsolete. There is in fact a mountain of evidence, uncovered by archaeologists and anthropologists, revealing that the people who created and maintained ancient Egypt, far from being of Near Eastern affinity, were predominantly indigenous Africans who originated from deeper into the continent and had a physical appearance that modern Americans would classify as "black". The Archaeological Evidence Perhaps the oldest evidence for a settled culture along the Nile Valley was uncovered in the 1940s by Anthony J. Arkell not in Egypt itself but in central Sudan near modern Khartoum. This culture, dubbed the Khartoum Mesolithic, is regarded as sedentary or at least semi-sedentary because it left behind the oldest pottery found anywhere in Africa, dated to approximately 7300 BC (archaeologists consider pottery a trademark of sedentary and semi-sedentary cultures because it is too fragile to be carried around by constantly moving nomads). The Khartoum Mesolithic culture has also left behind bone harpoons, grain-grinding stones, and burials of the dead (Byrnes 2009), but most significant of all is a piece of rock art depicting a boat. As Usai and Salvatori (2007) show, the boat's design shows close architectural parallels with later Egyptian ships well
into the Pharaonic period, indicating that the Khartoum Mesolithic culture evolved into or at least influenced Egyptian culture. Around 6000 BC the earliest sign of a settlement appear in Egypt proper, specifically in the area of Nabta Playa in the country's far southeast (Wendorf and Schild 1998). The ruins of stone houses built in straight rows, wells, a circle of small megaliths, and stone tumuli (burial mounds) containing cattle bones have all been found here, in an area that is now desert but was savanna then; the Nabta Playan people appear to have had an economy based on herding cattle which were probably domesticated from a North African subspecies of aurochs different from cattle used in the Near East and Europe(Wendorf 1994, Hanotte et al 2002). J´ordeczka et al (2011) report similarities between the Nabta Playan pottery and older Sudanese pottery, again showing a southern origin or influence for the proto-Egyptians. The next significant culture to appear in Egypt is the Fayum Neolithic culture further north, which goes back to 5200 BC and provides the oldest evidence for agriculture in the country. Some of the crops and animals used by the Neolithic Fayumians do appear to have come from the Near East instead of being indigenous to Africa, but even here it is unlikely that the people themselves were of Near Eastern origin. Ehret et all (1996) note that the development of agriculture in the Fayum area appears to have been gradual, which is more consistent with native Africans slowly incorporating Near Eastern domesticates into an indigenous foraging strategy rather than a mass colonization of Near Eastern farmers, who would have brought about a more abrupt change in subsistence strategy. Furthermore, Arkell (1975) notes similarities in artifacts from the Fayum Neolithic to those produced by contemporary Sudanese cultures, and as will be shown later, the skeletal remains left behind by the people of ancient northern Egypt are more similar to those of Africans. Between 5200 and 4000 BC, knowledge of agriculture spread from the Fayum into Upper (southern) Egypt, but this did not completely replace the earlier cattle-herding Upper Egyptian culture. On the contrary, Egyptians continued to be semi-sedentary cattle herders who annually moved between Nile Valley villages and the grasslands beyond, with agriculture being only a supplement to this pastoral lifestyle (Wilkinson 2003). Egyptian tools and pottery also continued to resemble those from more southerly Africa (de Heinzelin 1962, Arkell and Ucko 1965, and Arkell 1975) and prehistoric rock art from the Sahara shows Egyptian connections (Donadoni 1964). The Sahara began to turn from savanna into desert between 4000 and 3000 BC, forcing the Egyptians to abandon their pastoral ways, cling to the Nile Valley, and develop an urbanized and socially stratified culture that would evolve into classical Egyptian civilization. Most of these developments would occur in Upper Egypt, with Lower (northern) Egypt remaining a relative backwater as indicated by unimpressive burials relative to the large elite tombs of the south (Wilkinson 2003). Eventually the Upper
Egyptian culture would completely replace the Lower Egyptian culture and dominate the entire length of the Egyptian Nile Valley (Bard 1994). Around the same time, a wealthy monarchic culture very similar to Upper Egypt's was developing in Sudan (Williams 1986), again showing a cultural link between Egypt and this part of Africa. Taken as a whole, the archaeological data shows both strong cultural affinities between early Egypt and more inland regions of Africa, particularly Sudan, and a predominantly southern origin for Egyptian civilization. If Egyptian culture was heavily derivative of Near Eastern traditions, Lower Egyptian culture would have dominated the south, yet instead the reverse is observed. Whatever influence the Near East had during Egypt's formative period was not enough to replace an indigenous---and therefore African--foundation. The Cultural Anthropological Evidence Archaeology does not provide the only data supporting an African origin for the ancient Egyptians. Studies of both ancient Egyptian and sub-Saharan African cultures have uncovered numerous similarities. This is not to say that African cultures are homogeneous or that Egyptian culture did not develop its own unique characteristics, but it does add more support to the argument that Egyptian civilization evolved from a common African cultural substratum. This becomes especially apparent when one looks at Egypt's early history. As discussed previously, prehistoric Egyptians were semi-sedentary cattle-herders moving between the Nile Valley and the high savanna every year; this lifestyle is still practiced by some Sudanese groups today (Ryle 1982). In addition, archaeologist Timothy Kendall (2010) makes a congent case for the Egyptian spiritual concept of the "ka" having evolved from a Sudanese-style cattle culture. Early Egyptians also shared with their Sudanese counterparts the ritual sacrifice of royal servants to accompany departed kings into the afterlife (Ehret 1996). Many other Egyptian religious practices have close African parallels. Both ancient Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans considered their king to have a godlike nature and the veneration of ancestral spirits was pivotal in both Egyptian and sub-Saharan religions (Bell 1996, Kusimba 1996). Kusimba and Yurco (1996) report that animals play a prominent role in both Egyptian and other African religions, with Egyptians and subSaharan peoples sharing a belief that divinity can be manifested in any form. The Egyptian conception of divinity is also similar to that of other Africans in another respect: Taiwo (2005) describes the Yoruba of Nigeria as believing in multiple divinities that are really manifestations of one Supreme Creator named Olodumare, whereas Allen (1997), citing an Egyptian papyrus, says that all of the characters in Egyptian mythology frequently called "gods" were really manifestations of one creator deity named Amun. This quasi-monotheistic belief system appears to have evolved from one similar to that
still practiced by some southwest Ethiopian groups (Ehret 1996). Egyptians also resembled other Africans in the way they treated women; although both Egyptian and sub-Saharan African cultures tended to be male-dominated, both let women play a noteworthy role in economic, religious, and political arenas inaccessible to their Near Eastern and Mediterranean contemporaries (Lesko 1999). For example, one Egyptian mural in the New Kingdom tomb of Sennutem shows men and women working together in the fields, reflecting the widespread African custom of having women contribute significantly to agricultural work. In addition, both Egyptian pharaohs and sub-Saharan African rulers frequently gave their wives substantial influence at the political court. Even such quintessentially Egyptian customs like mummification and the construction of large royal tombs are shared by other Africans. Budge (1973) observes that a number of sub-Saharan peoples would smoke-dry their deceased kings and wrap them in cloth to preserve them, and Seligman (1932) reports that some Sudanese tribes would bury important religious figures in large burial mounds that recall Egypt's pyramids. The final cultural component that will be mentioned here is language. As Ehret (1996) shows, Afroasiatic, the linguistic phylum to which ancient Egyptian belongs, is ultimately of Northeast African origin, but much Egyptian vocabulary also appears to have been borrowed from another African language phylum called Nilo-Saharan (one example of a Nilo-Saharan language is the Maasai language of Kenya). What has just been reproduced is far from a complete list of parallels between ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, but it should suffice to show that much of the Egyptian culture emerged from a similar substratum to many other cultures distributed throughout the African continent. The Biological Anthropological Evidence As has been shown, the ancient Egyptian culture originated from areas further south and shared many cultural traits with the rest of Africa, but there is still the question of whether the Egyptians themselves were African in appearance. If the Egyptians had to be classified according to modern American society's racial taxonomy, to which "race" would they belong? Just as archaeology and cultural anthropology show significant ties between ancient Egypt and more southerly Africa, so too has biological anthropology confirmed that most of the Egyptian people were genetically related to other Africans and would have resembled people whom Americans call "black". Before a discussion on the Egyptians' biological relationships can begin, however, it must be pointed out that "black" Africans actually have a broad range of physical appearances. Many Americans think they know what African (or "Negroid") facial features look like:
for example, broad, flat noses and full lips. However, the physical anthropology Jean Hiernaux (1975) has observed that many Africans do not conform to this stereotype. According to his studies, some of the thinnest lips in the world can be found in Africa as can 92% of the world's variation in nose shape. African skin color is similarly heterogeneous; in fact, there is more skin tone variation in African populations than any other in the world, even after correcting for environmental factors that can influence skin color (Relethford 2000). Narrow noses and thin lips, both facial features stereotypically associated with Europeans rather than Africans, are particularly common in Northeast African countries not far from Egypt, such as northern Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia; their abundance in this region may have something to do with its arid climate, since as noted by Molnar (1991) narrower noses are considered more adaptive in drier environments. This must be taken into account when analyzing Egyptian statues or physical remains to judge their "Negroidness"; Egyptians need not have flat noses or everted lips to be closely related to other Africans. If neither nose width nor lip thickness are reliable indicators of population affinity, how can the Egyptians' biological relationships with other peoples be accurately assessed? One method used by biological anthropologists to determine how closely related ancient populations were to each other and to modern populations is by studying and measuring the features of their skulls (also called crania). The more similar two populations' crania are, the more closely related they are considered to be. It is important to stress that a reliable study on crania should not fixate on one feature of the skull but rather measure a large number of variables distributed all over the skull, since it is possible for two otherwise unrelated populations to convergently evolve a certain feature. Numerous cranial studies have found ancient Egyptian skulls to resemble those of more southerly Africans. Godde (2009) found Egyptian crania to particularly resemble those of Sudanese, as did Barnard (1935), while Crichton (1966) discovered a strong similarity between Egyptians and Kenyans. Brauer (1976) found Egyptian crania to fit snugly into a cluster with skulls from throughout tropical Africa. Relationships between Upper Egyptians and sub-Saharan populations are particularly strong (Keita 1990, 2005; Vermeersch 2002), but as found by Henneberg et al (1989) and Midant-Reynes (2000), even Lower Egyptian crania have sub-Saharan characteristics. To be sure, a couple of studies have shown different results, but both of these have fundamental methodological flaws. Brace (1993) claimed to have found an affinity between ancient Egyptians and Europeans, but as pointed out by Howells (1995), too many of Brace's variables involved nose shape, bringing to mind Hiernaux's point about the high variability of African nose shapes. A later study by Hanihara (2003) found that while Egyptians were more closely related to Sudanese than to anyone else, both of these
populations seemed related to Europeans according to his analysis. The problem with Hanihara's methods is that they were based not on quantitative measurements of cranial features but on qualititative descriptions of "non-metric" traits (i.e. anatomical anomalies), and this type of analysis is considered useful only for comparing crania within populations rather than between them as noted by Cheverud et al (1981). When these two flawed studies are dismissed, the picture that emerges from cranial analysis is that ancient Egyptians were of sub-Saharan African affinity. Some bio-anthropologists have attempted to determine population relations using the shape and size of teeth, but this can be risky. Irish and Turner (1990) noticed that the teeth of prehistoric Nile Valley dwellers had a more sub-Saharan African appearance than the supposedly more European/Near Eastern-like teeth of farming populations in the same region, with sub-Saharan teeth being larger and morphologically more complex than that of other populations, but an earlier study by Brace and Mahler (1971) found that a population's average tooth size and shape can change in response to dietary changes without any gene flow being necessary. Since the adoption of agriculture is correlated with a reduction in tooth mass and morphological complexity all around the world, and since agriculture developed earlier in the Nile Valley than in other parts of Africa, it should not be surprising to find agricultural Nile Valley populations evolving smaller, simpler teeth over time without significant mixing with Europeans or Near Easterners. This is why dental morphology by itself is not enough to determine population relationships; other lines of data should be considered. Moving away from the cranium to other parts of the skeleton, another type of analysis that can determine population origins is measuring limb proportions. As a general rule, sub-Saharan Africans have proportionately longer limbs than people from other parts of the world, since long appendages dissipate heat in tropical climates more easily. Measurements of ancient Egyptian limbs find them to be similar to those of sub-Saharan Africans, and in fact some report Egyptian limb proportions to be "super-Negroid"---that is, proportionately even longer than those of most Africans (Robins and Shute 1986, Zakrzewski 2003)! By contrast, Middle Easterners from subtropical desert climates comparable to Egypt's do not have the Egyptians' African-like limb proportions (Holliday 2000, Smith 2002). This means that the ancient Egyptians' ancestors must have migrated from a tropical region further south, such as Sudan, which is consistent with the archaeological data cited earlier in this paper. Skeletal morphology is not the only data that must be considered when assessing the Egyptians' biological affinities and physical appearance, for soft tissues, for instance hair form and skin color, must also be taken in account. The first soft tissue that will be considered here is hair form. One might think that simply looking at the hair on Egyptian mummies is enough to determine its original texture, but this fails to take into account the possibility that the
hair might have undergone damage over time. Brothwell and Spearman (1963) analyzed many Egyptian mummy hairs and found that the keratin forming the hair follicles had experienced significant oxidation (damage), which they attributed to chemicals used in the mummification process; oxidation of keratin can cause both texture changes and discoloration. A more reliable method for determining hair's original texture is by measuring the hair follicles' cross-sections using an instrument called a trichometer, dividing the minimum diameter in micrometers by the maximum, and then multiplying the result by 100, producing an index. Martin (1928) reports that curly hair like that of Africans produces indices less than 75, whereas indices above 75 are typical of the wavy to straight hair of other populations. As Strouhal (1971) found, ancient Egyptian hair samples produced indices between 35 and 65, well within the range of curly African-type hair. In other words, ancient Egyptians' natural hair texture was curly like that of other Africans. On a related note, Chapel et al (1981) report finding a tightly curled hair shaft forming within one Egyptian mummy's skin, suggesting that hair protected from oxidising forces can retain its original texture. Finally there is the question of the ancient Egyptians' skin color. One might expect tomb paintings to answer that question, but this is complicated by the tendency for Egyptian paintings to be stylized and symbolic rather than realistic. An example is offered by Poe (1997): during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods of Egyptian history, men were painted brown and women yellow, but both sexes were painted brown during the New Kingdom. While the New Kingdom convention is arguably more realistic than the older one, whether the Egyptian artists really were aiming for greater realism is not presently known. A better approach would be a histological analysis of Egyptian mummified skin. Mekota and Vermehren (2005), looking at the skin cells of Egyptian mummies, note that they were packed with melanin as expected for "Negroid" (i.e. sub-Saharan African) specimens, but they do not go into details. A more specific analysis of mummy skin, especially one using skin cells from various other ethnic groups for comparison, would be preferred, but Mekota et al's observation is nonetheless interesting and perhaps the most authoritative statement on ancient Egyptian skin color that is presently available. If so much bio-anthropological data indicates a close physical resemblance and genetic affinity between ancient Egyptians and more southerly Africans, one might wonder what to make of the lighter-skinned modern Egyptian population. The answer is that the current Egyptian population is not necessarily reflective of the original Egyptians but is instead significantly admixed with various groups, most of them from Europe and the Middle East, who have immigrated into Egypt during historic times.
One cranial study by Berry and Berry (1967) found continuity in Egyptian skull morphology between prehistoric times and the Middle Kingdom, but this trend of continuity broke during the New Kingdom, coinciding with increased interaction between Egyptians and Near Easterners during and just prior to this period. Another skull study by Zakrzewski (2002) discovered that Egyptians postdating the New Kingdom were physically distinct from earlier Egyptians, replicating a result found by Barnard (1935). Keita (1990) reported stronger European tendencies in recent Egyptian skulls compared with more ancient ones. Furthermore, a genetic study by Nebel et al (2002) showed that a significant component of the modern North African gene pool can be traced to historically recent Arab invasions and settlement. All of this shows that the Egyptians have experienced significant genetic change within the last three millennia. This should not be surprising when one considers the point made by Keita and Boyce (1996) that even a small trickling of immigrants can radically change a population's gene pool within a thousand-year period, nor is it without parallel elsewhere in world history. As an analogy, Europeans have been present in Mexico for only five centuries, yet over 41% of the modern Mexican gene pool is of European origin (Silva et al 2009). Since the Egyptian Nile Valley is a geographically much smaller region than Mexico and has been subjected to invasions from Europe and the Near East for over 2,500 years, foreign immigration should be expected to have altered the Egyptians' genetic makeup to an even greater extent. Conclusion Data from archaeology, cultural anthropology, and biological anthropology all show a strong cultural and biological connection between ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. The Egyptians originated in more southerly regions of Africa, shared many cultural characteristics with Africans elsewhere on the continent, and had a physical appearance that would definitely be regarded as "black African" in an American cultural context. Although the black African identity of the ancient Egyptians should not color our judgement of their civilization's greatness, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge for a number of reasons. First, knowledge of the Egyptians' African affinities will aid in accurately reconstructing these ancient people and their culture, whether in artwork or in films and television documentaries. Secondly, ancient Egypt's accomplishments show the potential that people of African people have and refutes the anti-black racist allegation that Africans are incapable of any kind of civilization. Thirdly, if Egyptology as a discipline admits the Africanity of ancient Egypt, that will help undo the damage inflicted by two centuries of denial. The time to accept the African background of ancient Egypt is long overdue. Works Cited
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