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Ancient Egyptian race controversy

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The ancient Egyptians (right) depicted themselves as differing in skin color from both Nubians (second from left) and Caucasians. Wall painting from the tomb of Seti I.
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Rameses II was neither black nor white but Egyptian... We cannot say by any means we are black or white. We are Egyptians.
— Abdel- Latif Aboul-Ela, Director of the Cultural Office in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington[1]

Controversy over the race of Ancient Egyptians is an anachronistic debate which persists among laypersons and the media, when modern biologists regard the concept of race to be an inaccurate method to describe human biological variation and modern historians have confirmed that ancient Egyptians overtly identified as separate from both "white" peoples to their north and "black" peoples to their south. Egyptologist Frank Yurco has stated: "the whole matter of black or white Egyptians is a chimera, cultural baggage from our own society that can only be imposed artificially on ancient society".[2]

DNA evidence suggests that Lower (northern) Egyptians are genetically closer to southern Europeans and Middle Easterners, while Upper (southern) Egyptians are genetically and phenotypically closer to "black" Northeast Africans such as Nubians and Sudanese. Thus, a substantial minority of Egyptians could be classified as "black people." Afrocentrism lacks scholarly support because it erroneously claims that most Ancient Egyptians had a "black" phenotype (as we understand the term). It is also criticized for importing anachronistic racial categories to an era that had no understanding of them. Finally, Afrocentrists are criticized for claiming, contrary to the genetic evidence, that lighter-skinned Egyptians are "invaders" with no indigenous tie to the region.

Consensus[edit]

The evidence indicates Egypt to foundationally belong to a northeast African biocultural descendant community.
—S. O. Y Keita (2005)

Early Dynastic Egypt (c. 3100 BCE) was "not the product of mass movement of populations into the Egyptian Nile region, but rather that it was the result of primarily indigenous development combined with prolonged small-scale migration, potentially from trade, military, or other contacts."[3] While Egypt was invaded during later dynastic periods, these had small to minimal genetic impact; Brace et al. (1993) describe ancient Egypt as having "absorbed its various Assyrian, Persian, and Greek rulers with barely detectable effects on its basically Egyptian identity". Professor Stephen Howe from Bristol University, notes: "The ancient Egyptians were neither 'black' nor 'white'; they were Egyptians, a population of largely indigenous origins and a high degree of continuity across time — including, it seems probable, continuity up to the present."[4]

In 2008, S. O. Y. Keita wrote for National Geographic: "There is no scientific reason to believe that the primary ancestors of the Egyptian population emerged and evolved outside of northeast Africa" and "the Egyptian Nile Valley's indigenous population had a craniofacial pattern that evolved and emerged in northeastern Africa".[5]

Population biology[edit]

The ancient Egyptians are no longer forced into crude and obsolete racial categories by physical anthropologists such as "Black", "Negroid", "White", "Caucasoid". S. O. Y. Keita points out "modern population biology has demonstrated that variation within geographically defined breeding populations, or those more related by ancestry, is the rule for human groups" and that "the local population is the unit of analysis". He refers to the anthropologist Jean Hiernaux who wrote: "the only useful way of grouping individuals for anthropological analysis is to group together the people participating within the same circle of matings".[6] Both Keita and Hiernaux clarify local breeding populations (demes) are not races. Keita (1993) discusses the ancient Egyptians as consisting of local northern Nile Valley populations or peoples, and describes them as a "[Holocene] Saharo-tropical variant" in terms of their phenotype — eco-geographically adapted to the Sahara desert.[7] Archaeologist Kathryn A. Bard, in her article “Ancient Egyptians and the Issue of Race" describes the ancient Egyptians in terms of climatic adapation whose "skin was adapted for life in a subtropical desert environment".[8]

Although a small portion of modern Egypt falls inside the tropics, the ancient southern frontier of Egypt sat right on the border of the Tropic of Cancer at Aswan (today it passes through Lake Nasser); Ancient Egypt therefore was outside the tropics. For this reason one would expect the ancient Egyptians to be lighter brown skinned than the "black" Nubians, and artwork shows this difference. Egyptians tend to be coloured a reddish-brown, while Nubians, black. The climate of Egypt is a desert climate; extreme dry heat. However, temperatures are more moderate along the Mediterranean coast of the Nile-Delta, where annual precipitation is somewhat higher.

According to biological anthropologists:

Egyptians... especially in the south, were physically a part of what can be called the Saharo-tropical variant range... Nile valley variation... in the main was probably due to micro-differentiation from a common African (tropically adapted) ancestral population, and not the panmictic mixture of two or more distinct 'racial' groups.[9]

Howe (1998: 132) adds:

"In other words — as the evidence of self-depiction would lead us to expect — this was a people predominantly of indigenous African origin whose skin hues may have exhibited just, or almost, as wide a range as do those of peoples across the contemporary 'Saharo-tropical' region, from Algerian Berbers to southern Sudanese.

Froment (1991, 1992, 1994) in multivariate craniometric studies found that overall:

Egyptians were distinct from Melano-Africans [tropical Africans] and Europeans alike, and are situated in an intermediate position... a gradient between these diverse populations precludes the establishment of 'racial barriers'.[10][11][12]

This is consistent with geography and the isolation-by-distance structure of variation between populations (a strong linear relationship or correlation exists between geographical space and neutral genetic/craniometric distance: "populations are most genetically similar to others that are found nearby, and genetic similarity is inversely correlated with geographic distance"[13] i.e. geographically closer populations tend to mate more and exchange more genes than with more distant ones). What this means is that since most of Egypt falls outside of the tropics, and is intermediate at subtropical latitude between tropical Africa and Europe - ancient (and modern) Egyptians are going to plot between these two extremes. However Froment also discovered as part of this gradient, Lower Egyptians in the north "are very close to those of the Maghreb", and in the south, "those of Upper Egypt like those of Nubia", also pointing to similarities to modern Somalis. Keita agrees, and finds Egyptian skeletons in Upper Egypt to show closer biological affinities to certain tropical African populations,[14][15] despite cautioning: "morphometric patterns of Egyptian crania in general, although highly variable, exhibit a position intermediate to stereotypical tropical Africans and Europeans in multivariate analyses".[16] Post-cranial (e.g. lower limb) data was shown to match the same pattern by Raxter (2011).[17]

Nancy C. Lovell (1999) has noted: "that race is not a useful biological concept when applied to humans", and also recognizes the clinal variation of ancient Egyptians given their geographical position:

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 Sahara and tropical Africa. The distribution of population characteristics seems to follow a clinal pattern from south to north, which may be explained by natural selection as well as gene flow between neighboring populations. In general, the inhabitants of Upper Egypt and Nubia had the greatest biological affinity to people of the Sahara and more southerly areas.[18]

Klales (2014) summarizes:

Lower Egyptian groups have tended to pool more with European and Mediterranean groups, while Upper Egyptians are biologically more similar to southern African groups. The geographic proximity of Lower Egyptians to the Mediterranean Sea and of Upper Egyptians to Nubia likely explains the phenotypic and genotypic differences between the two areas.[19]

Egyptologist Barry Kemp (2006) has further criticized racial terms such as "Black" or "White" as being over-simplified categories when discussing ancient Egyptian population biology.[20]

Outdated and discredited views[edit]

Caucasoid-Negroid[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Racialism

The most commonly held view up to the 1970s was the ancient Egyptians were a hybrid race, with more "Negroid" mixture in Upper Egypt and "Caucasoid" in Lower Egypt:

Falkenburger (1947), Strouhal (1971), and Angel (1972) all noted that southern early Egyptian groups were "Negroid" or hybrid and composite to greater or lesser degrees with the understanding that the remainder of the population was either Mediterranean White or Harnitic (also read as "Caucasian"). A review of other morphotypological studies reveals the earliest "Egyptians" to have been seen as hybrid and composite with various degrees of the “Black” [and “Yellow”] but mainly "White" "varieties" (Wiercinski 1962) […] Earlier studies from this century suggested that the early Egyptians were a hybrid and/or composite group: non-Negroid and Negroid (Fawcett and Lee 1902; Thomson and Randall-Maclver 1905; Morant 1925, 1935, 1937). The earliest predynastic group—Badari-was noted to be unlike northern dynastic series (Stoessiger 1927). Morant (1925) described Upper and Lower Egyptian “types” which be interpreted as being two poles of the same population; the Upper Egyptian type had more Negroid traits as opposed to the Lower Egyptian type. Over time, according to Morant, these characteristics were “lost,” although Thomson and Maclver (1905) found continuity.[21]

By the 1980s, most biologists and anthropologists had abandoned the concept of race and adopted a clinal approach to studying ancient Egyptian population biology.[22] The old typological idea the presence of certain cranial traits in Egypt were strictly the product of "race mixture" (gene flow) was dropped as "genetical developmental processes (e.g. selective adaptation, random genetic drift, etc...)" were better understood.[23][24] An example is the narrow nasal aperture of some Egyptian skulls (e.g. the mummified head of Ramesses II, has a fairly narrow hooked nose), once erroneously thought by physical anthropologists to indicate Southern European or Near Eastern ("Caucasoid") migration into ancient Egypt:

...narrow faces and noses (versus broad “Negro” ones) do not usually indicate European or Near Eastern migration or “Europoid“ (Caucasian) genes, called Hamitic as once taught, but represent indigenous variation either connoting a hot-dry climatic adaptation or resulting from drift (Hiernaux, 1975).[25]

The dry-desert climate of Egypt would have selected thin noses and so "there is no need to postulate an extra-African 'Caucasoid' element in their gene pool for explaining such a characteristic as the narrow nose".[26] Similar craniofacial research by Van Gerven (1982) in Lower Nubia, bordering Upper Egypt found that:

While the history of Lower Nubia has traditionally been explained in terms of racial migrations and mixture, recent studies of craniofacial variation have emphasized the biological continuity in Lower Nubia over the past 12,000 years. Carlson and Van Gerven for example have demonstrated a trend among the populations for changes in craniofacial form that are best explained by changing masticatory function and in situ evolution independent of major racial migrations.[27]

The skin color cline and melanin variation in Egypt need not also be explained by "race mixture" models involving substantial gene flow, but in situ climatic selection (Brace et al. 1993):

The “Egypt-as-a-zone-of-mixture” hypothesis, however, assumes the prior existence of discrete parent populations of different appearance-in this case, a light skinned one in the north and a dark-skinned one in the south (Batrawi, 1935; Burnor and Harris, 1968; Lawrence, 1819; Morant, 1925, 1935; Morton, 1844; Smith, 1909; Strouhal, 1971) [...] Dark skin color is an indicator of long-term residence in areas of intense solar radiation, but it cannot help distinguish one tropical population from another. There is the very real possibility, for example, that the darker skin pigmentation visible in the people of the Upper Nile is not caused by the mixing of a population that came from somewhere else. Instead, it could just be the result of selection operating on the people who were already there, as has been suggested by those who have argued for the continuity of human biological form through time in Nubia (Adams, 1979; Batrawi, 1946 [in marked contrast to 1935; Berry et al., 1967; Carlson and Van Gerven, 1977,1979; Greene, 1966,1972; Van Gerven, 1982; Van Gerven et al., 1973). With the relatively tentative exception of the Epipaleolithic at Wadi Halfa, our own data are comfortably compatible with a picture of long-term local regional continuity. That would make the skin color gradient running from Cairo via Khartoum 1,600 km to the south and deep into the tropics an example of a true cline (Huxley, 1938). This would lead us to agree with Trigger that the attempt to assign the people of the Nile valley to 'caucasoid' and 'negroid' categories is 'an act that is arbitrary and wholly devoid of historical or biological significance' (Trigger, 1978:27). (emphasis added)[28]

Keita & Kittles (1997) conclude: "Northern Africans are more accurately conceptualized as primarily the products of differentiation than of hybridization."[29]

Black[edit]

For more information, see: Egyptsearch
Egyptian Copts on average are light to medium brown skinned, not dark brown or black. There is no reason to question there having been similar looking people concentrated in Lower and Middle Egypt in ancient times.

Afrocentrists are wrong to describe the ancient Egyptians as black people (even if "black" is only describing dark brown skin/black pigmentation). This is because there was a gradient of skin color, ranging from a light brown among northern coastal and Nile-Delta Egyptians in Lower Egypt, to a dark brown in Upper Egypt and Nubia.[30][31][32] Middle Egyptians would have on average fallen intermediate between these extremes. The term black obscures and does not capture well this cline:

Afrocentrists claim that Egyptian civilization was a "black" civilization, and this is not accurate [...] Most scholars believe that ancient Egyptians looked pretty much like today’s Egyptians - that is, they were brown, becoming darker as they approached the Sudan (Snowden 1970, 1992; Smedley 1993).[33]

The "Black Egyptian hypothesis" was criticized and rejected at UNESCO's Symposium on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script in Cairo in 1974[34] (published 1978). Afrocentrist C. A. Diop attended this symposium and when asked "what proportion of melanin was sufficient for a man to be classified as belonging to the black race" failed to provide an answer.[35]

Regarding Greco-Roman descriptions of ancient Egyptians from classical texts, the classicist Frank M. Snowden noted how Afrocentrists commonly distort them:

Diop not only distorts his classical sources but also omits references to Greek and Latin authors who specifically call attention to the physical differences between Egyptians and Ethiopians.[36]

Historian Yaacov Shavit (2001) points out with few exceptions, the ancient Greeks and Romans described the Egyptians as not black:

The evidence clearly shows that those Greco-Roman authors who refer to skin color and other physical traits distinguish sharply between Ethiopians (Nubians) and Egyptians, and rarely do they refer to the Egyptians, even though they were described as darker than themselves. No Greek doubted that the Egyptians were darker than the Greeks, but not as dark as black Africans.[37]

Ann Macy Roth Visiting Assistant Professor of Egyptology at Howard University, Washington penned an essay to refute Afrocentric claims.[38] According to Roth, a typical Afrocentric claim is that the modern peoples in Egypt are much lighter skinned than the ancient inhabitants, an argument she rejects:

I have encountered arguments that the ancient Egyptians were much 'blacker' than their modern counterparts, owing to the influx of Arabs at the time of the conquest, Caucasian slaves under the Mamlukes, or Turks and French soldiers during the Ottoman period. However, given the size of the Egyptian population against these comparatively minor waves of northern immigrants, as well as the fact that there was continuous immigration and occasional forced deportation of both northern and southern populations into Egypt throughout the pharaonic period, I doubt that the modern population is significantly darker or lighter, or more or less 'African' than their ancient counterparts.

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. Egypt Says Ramses II Wasn't Black. (1989). Washington Post, 23 March.
  2. Yurco. F. (1989). "Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?". BAR. 15(5): 24-29. [1]
  3. Zakrzewski, S. R. (2007). "Population continuity or population change: Formation of the ancient Egyptian state". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 132(4):501-509.
  4. Howe, Stephen. (1998). Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. London: Verso. p. 132.
  5. Keita, S.O.Y. (Sep 16, 2008). Ancient Egyptian Origins: Biology. National Geographic.
  6. Hiernaux, Jean. (1964). "The Concept of Race and the Taxonomy of Mankind". In: The Origin and Evolution of Man. Montagu, A. (ed.). New York: Crowell.
  7. BWh: Köppen climate classification.
  8. Bard, K. A. (1996). "Ancient Egyptians and the Issue of Race". In: Lefkowitz, M. R., Rogers, G. M. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  9. Keita, S.O.Y. (1993). "Black Athena: ‘Race,’ Bernal and Snowden". Arethusa. xxvi: 295-314.
  10. Froment, A. (1991). "Morphological affinities of Ancient Egyptians: a worldwide multivariate comparative analysis" Journal of the Egyptian Public Health Associations. International Congress of Human Genetics. LXVI: 403-404.
  11. Froment, A. (1992). "Origines du Peuplement de l'Egypte Ancienne: l'Apport de l'anthropobiologie". Archéo-Nil. 2:79-98.
  12. Froment, A. (1994). "Race et Histoire: La recomposition ideologique de l'image des Egyptiens anciens. Journal des Africanistes. 64:37-64.
  13. Bolnick, D. A. (2008). "Individual Ancestry Inference and the Reification of Race as a Biological Phenomenon". In: Koenig, B. A. (ed.). Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. Rutgers University Press.
  14. "His cranial analyses indicate diversity, with a range of skull types intermediate between those found in Europe and those in Sub-Saharan Africa, with remains from the Upper Nile showing more frequent ‘African’ features, than those further north, and evidence of increased intermingling overtime (Keita, 1990, 1992)." (Howe, 1998: 134)
  15. "Recent multivariate analysis of crania (Keita, 1990) showed a pattern common to both northern Late Dynastic Egypt and the Maghreb (North Africa west of Egypt) in which both tropical African and European phenotypes, as well as intermediate patterns, were present. Early southern Predynastic Egyptian crania showed affinities with tropical African patterns and differed notably from the Maghreb pattern." (Ortiz de Montellano, 1993)
  16. Keita, S. O. Y. (2005). "Early Nile Valley Farmers, From El-Badari, Aboriginals or 'European' Agro-Nostratic Immigrants? Craniometric Affinities Considered With Other Data". Journal of Black Studies. 36(2): 191-208.
  17. "Among females, Lower Egyptians also possess the smallest crural indices, which is significant from all other groups within the Northeast African region. The smallest indices in both Lower Egyptian males and females is expected since Lower Egyptians occupied the northern most area of the region, closest to the more temperate climate of the Mediterranean Sea. Lower Egyptians were also geographically farther from Sub-Saharan Africa and thus would have had less opportunity for gene flow with Sub-Saharan groups. These results thus support the hypothesis that northern Egyptians possess less tropical body proportions due to their more northern geographical position... Lower Egyptian females are not significantly different from either Northern or Southern Europeans and Lower Egyptian males are only significantly different from Northern Europeans. These results for Lower Egyptians are not wholly unexpected since Lower Egyptians occupied a middle latitude in the northernmost section of Northeast Africa, and inhabited a relatively more temperate climate compared to groups situated farther south." (Raxter, 2011)
  18. Nancy C. Lovell. (1999). "Egyptians, Physical Anthropology Of". In: Bard, K. A., Shubert, S. B. (eds.). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge.
  19. Klales, A. R. (2014). "Computed Tomography Analysis and Reconstruction of Ancient Egyptians Originating from the Akhmim Region of Egypt: A Biocultural Perspective". MA Thesis. University of Manitoba. [2]
  20. Kemp, B. (2006). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Taylor & Francis Routledge. p. 58.
  21. Keita, S. O. Y. (1993). "Studies and Comments on Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships". History in Africa. 20:129-154. [3]
  22. "Current scientific thinking on these matters is along the lines that there is no such thing as 'race' and that it is unlikely that we shall ever be able to make ethnic distinctions between the people who live along the Nile valley." (Nibbi, Alessandra. [1981]. Ancient Egypt and Some Eastern Neighbours. Noyes Press. p. 152.)
  23. Strouhal, E. (1981). Current state of anthropological studies on ancient Egypt and Nubia. Bull, et Mem. de la Soc. d'Anthrop. de Paris. 8(XIII): 231-249.
  24. Greene, D. L. (1981). A critique of methods used to reconstruct racial and population affinity in the Nile Valley. Bull, et Mem. de la Soc. d'Anthrop. de Paris. 8(XIII): 357-365.
  25. Keita, S. O. Y. (1992). "Further studies of crania from ancient Northern Africa". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 87(3): 245-254.
  26. Hiernaux, Jean. (1975). The People of Africa. p. 83. On the previous page Hiernaux notes: "In a dry climate, it is therefore advantageous to have a high and narrow nose, a shape which maximizes the contact of the inspired air with the nasal mucosa. Nose shape being determined by heredity, natural selection will be at work until this characteristic reaches its adaptive equilibrium."
  27. Van Gerven, D. P. (1982). "The contribution of time and local geography to craniofacial variation in Nubia's Batn el Hajar". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 59(3): 307-316.
  28. Brace et al. 1993.
  29. Keita, S. O. Y., Kittles, R. (1997). "The Persistence of Racial Thinking and the Myth of Racial Divergence". American Anthropologist. 99(3):534-544.
  30. "On the average, between the Delta in northern Egypt and the Sudan of the Upper Nile, skin color tends to darken from light brown to what appears to the eye as bluish black." (Trigger, B. [1978]. “Nubian, Negro, Black, Nilotic?”. Wenig, Steffen (ed.). In: Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan. Brooklyn Museum, New York.)
  31. "[T]housands of portrayals of individual Egyptians show that the population as a whole ranged across a wide spectrum of complexions, from light to dark brown and black." (Shaw, Ian. [2004]. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 105.)
  32. "Ancient Egyptians, like their modern descendants, varied in complexion from a light Mediterranean type, to a light brown in Middle Egypt, to a darker brown in southern Egypt." (Snowden, 1997)
  33. Ortiz de Montellano, B. (1995). "Multiculturalism, cult archaeology, and pseudoscience". In: F. Harrold & R. Eve (Eds.) Cult archaeology and creationism. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
  34. "Symposium on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt: a report on the discussions". (1978). In: The peopling of ancient Egypt and the deciphering of Meroitic script (Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Cairo from 28 January to 3 February 1974.) Paris: UNESCO.
  35. Ibid., p. 97.
  36. Snowden, F. M. (1996). "Bernal's 'Blacks' and the Afrocentrists". In: Lefkowitz, M. R., Rogers, G. M. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  37. Shavit, Y. (2001). History in Black: African-Americans in Search of an Ancient Past. London: Frank Cass. p. 154.
  38. The Flight from Science and Reason. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 775: 313-326.