The Travelogues of a Traveler
FINALLY IN AFRICA? EGYPT FROM DIOP TO CELENKO January 16, 2007 by gess
Well, my first article to post was not a difficult choice. It’s an article that shaped my world and led men like Cedric J. Robinson, Troy Duster, Langston Hughes , W.E.B. Du Bois, men who many people tried to put them “conspiracy of silence” , but never succeeded.
Race & Class | Racism, Empire & Globalisation | 2003
By Aaron Kamugisha*
Humanities Department, York University (Canada)
The spectre of Egypt haunts debates on the historiography of ancient Africa. Egypt’s status as the oldest civilisation in antiquity, contemporaneous with Sumer, is uncontested. Its role in antiquity–whether its relationships with the rest of Africa or its influence on ancient Greece and on what is now referred to as ‘western civilisation’–has long been the subject of debate, with an intensification during the last few decades as a result of the rise of African-centred cultural movements from Paris to Los Angeles. At stake is the right to acknowledge Egypt as a black African culture, with a tremendous impact on the development of world civilisation. This article attempts to deal with one aspect of the long history of ideas associated with the debate on ancient Egypt–the resurrection of the importance of ancient Egypt and its Africanity to the black world by Cheikh Anta Diop, beginning with his book Nations Negres et Culture (1954), in relation to contemporary understandings of Egypt in the Anglophone world. Its main focus will be on tracing the understanding of the relationship between ancient Egypt and the rest of Africa from Nations Negres et Culture to the present, as highlighted in a few major debates, notably on Diop’s work, the explosion of debate on these issues surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, and Celenko’s recent edited text Egypt in Africa.
In attempting to contextualise Diop’s contribution, it is necessary to cite some of the racists and scholarly rogues whose views he was battling against and which formed the accepted historiography of Egypt and Nubia at the time. For G. Eliot Smith, ‘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’. (1) Such was the scholarly objectivity surrounding the preservation of some of the ancient Egyptian mummies that W. G. Browne would claim that their presence provided proof of the ‘prescience of that people concerning errors into which posterity might fall, exhibit[ing] irrefragable proof of their features and of the colour of their skin’. In other words, as Edith Sanders interprets this wonderful passage, since ‘the ancient Egyptians knew they could be mistaken for Negroes . . . [they] left their bodies in evidence to refute such an allegation’. (2) The tyranny of the Hamitic hypothesis, which sought to explain all civilisation in Africa as the result of a resident population of Caucasians, led R. Gates to conclude that Bantu speakers were Hamites with a ’slight admixture of Negro blood’. (3) Perhaps the best example of this scholarship comes in C. G. Seligman’s Races of Africa. Justice to Seligman can only be done by quoting him in full:
“Apart from relatively late Semitic influence . . . the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites, its history the record of these peoples and of their interaction with the two other African stocks, the Negro and the Bushman, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or by such wider pastoralists as are represented at the present day by the Beja and Somali . . . The incoming Hamites were pastoral ‘Europeans’–arriving wave after wave–better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes.” (4)
Races of Africa, according to Sanders, went through several editions and was reprinted until 1966 virtually unchanged. Much of the more vulgar scholarship on the ‘racial’ ancestry of the ancient Nile valley Africans can be traced to the intensity of racism in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Its decline after the second world war has been similarly convoluted, as the following survey of some of the more important scholarly positions taken illustrates.
Diop’s Nations Negres et Culture
Cheikh Anta Diop’s 1954 work Nations Negres et Culture stands out as perhaps the most brilliant condemnation of Eurocentric historiography in the anticolonial literature of the black world. (5) Conceptualised at a time when ‘the political problem dominated all others’, (6) it remains a landmark work in the struggle against the western hegemonic worldview and the distortion and caricaturing of the history of colonised people. Restoring a sense of historical consciousness to a people in the process of emerging from colonialism required, for Diop, a look at the three formative characteristics of a people’s ‘collective personality’; the psychic, historical and linguistic factors. Diop’s approach to the historical and linguistic factors–the two he saw as capable of scientific apprehension–led him to the recovery of ancient Egypt as a black African civilisation, a link without which the history of Africa cannot be meaningfully reconstructed.
After a scathing attack on the premises of previous western scholarship on Egypt, Diop made his main claim for Egypt’s Africanity in his chapter ‘Arguments supporting a Negro origin’. The evidence presented by Diop focused on the similarity of cultural traits between sub-Saharan Africans and Egyptians, including totemism, circumcision, kingship, cosmogony, social organisation, matriarchy, linguistic affiliations and the relationship between the Meroitic Sudan and Egypt. It is, however, Diop’s position on the vexed question of the ‘blackness’ of the Egyptians that has resulted in the greatest controversy, which is unfortunate since the more interesting question concerns the African nature of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. An early essay by Diop gives us a critical insight into his stance, as his views on the ‘race’ of the ancient Egyptians do not appear to have altered appreciably between its publication and his death. In an essay entitled ‘Evolution of the Negro world’ in Presence Africaine (1964), Diop provides a relentless critique of European scholars involved in their own ’separate evolution of mankind’ theories of human development, which denied the African origin of homo sapiens. Berating the persistent quest of some western scholars to separate the populations of Egypt from the rest of Africa, Diop states:
“But it is only the most gratuitous theory which considers the Dinka, the Nouer and the Masai, among others, to be Caucasoids. What if an African ethnologist were to persist in recognising as white only the blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians, and systematically refused membership to the remaining Europeans, and Mediterraneans in particular–the French, Italians, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese? Just as the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries must be considered as two extreme poles of the same anthropological reality, so should the Negroes of East and West Africa be considered as the two extremes in the reality of the Negro world. To say that a Shillouk, a Dinka, or a Nouer is a Caucasoid is for an African as devoid of sense and scientific interest as would be, to a European, an attitude which maintained that a Greek or a Latin were not of the same race.” (7)
This last passage points to what may be one of Diop’s most significant contributions–his repudiation of the ‘platonic ideal’ of races, a contribution that has been cited approvingly by MacGaffey and Trigger. It also suggests an understanding by Diop that not all Africans are alike, while remaining African rather than members of another ‘race’ or a ‘mixture’ of races. This perspective is of critical importance for analysing the subsequent scholarly controversy on the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians.
The shift in the perception of ancient Egypt, from Diop to Bernal
It is perhaps unnecessary to observe that Diop’s conception of Egypt as an African civilisation was met with almost universal rejection by the western academy, particularly in the Anglophone world. Major historical projects on Africa like the Cambridge History of Africa series and its editors Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage pass over Diop’s contribution without engagement. However, what is of primary interest here is the shift in the perception of ancient Egypt from 1960 to the mid-1980s. In 1960, Diop’s doctoral work was finally accepted by the Sorbonne; in the same year, the Journal of African History began publication. It thus makes an interesting starting point from which to look at the shift in perceptions of ancient Egypt, since it also marked the advent of the discipline of African history at British universities.
A close look at a few central articles and books published during this period will make the shift clear. Wyatt MacGaffey’s ‘Concepts of race in the historiography of northeast Africa’ (1966) is a landmark article that clearly illustrates the new climate of scholarly opinion on the issue of ‘race’ after the second world war. MacGaffey notes that contemporary historians of Africa have begun to incorporate a number of new sources of information into their conceptual schemata, including work on physical anthropology. ( This resulted in a deserved abandonment of the concept of race and of the Hamitic hypothesis which ‘is to be rejected as a racial label not . . . because it is properly a linguistic label, but because the racial category which it designates, and the entire theory of race with which it is associated, is inadequate’. (9) MacGaffey approvingly cites Livingstone’s view that the idea of race should be ‘dispensed with entirely’, since: ‘Idealistic racial classification has now been displaced in physical anthropology by the genetic concept, which emphasizes adaptation and variability and studies the genetic structures of particular places and periods with little or no reference to racial taxonomy.’ (10) He sees Diop’s work as an important refutation of the concept of the ‘brown race’ hypothesis, but then incorporates Diop into the same tradition as Junker and Seligman. Diop’s methodology is dismissed as one best left behind in the 1950s and as utterly irreconcilable with current techniques of archaeology and historical investigation. The importance of MacGaffey’s essay lies in his uncompromising refutation of the race concept, which he uses to attack understandings of physical variety and skull measurements. Explaining human variety as the result of a mixture between ‘historically discrete types or races’ is incorrect according to genetic understandings, as are skull measurements, and distorts our understanding of the populations of ancient Africa.
Edith R. Sanders’ often-quoted piece, also in the Journal of African History, three years later, signalled the end of the Hamitic hypothesis as an explanatory paradigm for population groups in Africa. (11) Sanders’ reading reveals the presence of two Hamitic hypotheses, generated at different times to serve the ideological needs of the societies that created them. The shifting, dubious nature of the meaning of ‘Hamite’ over time and its hegemony over the academic discourse on African civilisations is, for Sanders, a ‘problem of epistemology’.
The original Hamitic myth grew out of the Babylonian Talmud of the sixth century AD, and it is generally accepted that it was an ideological justification for Israelite suzerainty over Canaan, incorporated into Jewish mythology as the curse of Noah. The Hamite at this time was seen as unquestionably black. The myth proved to have remarkable longevity, lasting well into the 1700s, as it provided a ready justification for slavery in the Americas. The birth of the Enlightenment, with its move towards a polygenetic understanding of humanity, created a tension within the Hamitic myth, which had previously allowed Christians to see Africans as their fellow men–albeit accursed.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt took place. This event was of considerable significance, since it alerted Europe to a fact that it had lost from its historical memory–that civilisations older than Greece and Rome had existed in antiquity. This led, Sanders points out, not only towards a fundamental rethinking of history, but also to the construction of a new Hamitic myth. A reexamination of the Book of Genesis led scholars to conclude that Canaan alone of the sons of Ham was cursed and that the Egyptians were actually the descendants of Mizraim, another son of Ham, whose progeny were spared God’s wrath. The black race could then be seen as descended from Canaan, while the Egyptians were Caucasoid Hamites of the racial stock required to create a great civilisation. Even this distinction was not enough for the nineteenth-century scientific racists, who made it clear that a hierarchy existed within the Caucasian race, with the Hamites filling the position at the bottom just below the Slavs. By 1969, Sanders could see the end in sight for the Hamitic hypothesis, but acknowledged that ‘the word still exists, endowed with a mythical meaning; it endures through time and history, and, like a chameleon, changes its colour to reflect the changing light’. (12) Two decades later, Basil Davidson, in his review of Black Athena, could exult that ‘the Hamites and their Caucasoid quick wits have in any case vanished from the scientific scene . . . The scholarship of the last thirty years and more has simply tipped them into the dustbin of exploded fantasies . . . It may even be claimed that this achievement is among the most significant intellectual advances of the twentieth century.’ (13) The question becomes whether the full extent of the critiques launched at the Hamitic hypothesis with respect to its racialised understanding of population groups has been fully internalised in the scholarly–and popular–understandings of ancient North African civilisations.
The impact of the attack on the Hamitic myth by Greenberg, MacGaffey, Sanders et al. seems to have first seriously affected the scholarly approach and popular understanding of the other great African civilisation that shared North Africa with Egypt, ancient Nubia. The Egyptologist Bruce Trigger’s article for the 1978 exhibition ‘Africa in antiquity: the arts of Nubia and the Sudan’, held in Brooklyn, captures this point well. (14) Trigger caustically cites the ‘bizarre and dangerous myths’ associated with previous racist scholarship on northeast Africa. These studies were quite simply ‘marred by a confusion of race, language, and culture and by an accompanying racism’. (15) In his comment on the ‘racial’ affinities of the people of northeast Africa, Trigger declares that ‘all of these people are Africans. To proceed further and divide them into Caucasoid and Negroid stocks is to perform an act that is arbitrary and wholly devoid of historical or biological significance.’ Trigger’s disavowal of the ‘race’ concept leads him to conclude:
“The people of Nubia are an indigenous African population, whose physical characteristics are part of a continuum of physical variation in the Nile Valley. This population has occupied the middle portion of the Nile Valley throughout recorded history and probably for much longer. There is no evidence to suggest that it is as a result of a mixing of different racial stocks.” (16)
The significant shift that this view of Nubia entailed cannot be overestimated, since at one time every element of ‘civilisation’ in Nubia was seen as the result of an invasion of Caucasoids, with its decline beginning upon intermarriage with the local inhabitants. The term ‘Nubia’ now enjoys an immense popularity in black popular culture in the United States and conservative publications like the Washington Post run full-length pullout features on Nubia, which is readily referred to as a civilisation of black-skinned Africans. (17) Egypt’s African status has not been so easily reconciled, however. In the period under scrutiny, pre-Black Athena, the confusion over whether Egypt’s geographical position meant it warranted the description of an African civilisation continued, as can be seen in the work of the prominent historian J. D. Fage. Fage’s (197 A History of Africa is an important transition point in the conventional opinion of Egyptian civilisation. (1 For Fage, ‘One of the earliest great civilizations, that of Pharaonic Egypt, was itself based in Africa’. After making brief references to Mediterranean civilisations like Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece and Rome, he announces his aim as ‘consider[ing] the influence which these civilizations on the fringes of Africa may have had on the development of human society in the continent as a whole’ (my italics). Although Egypt ‘was of course founded on African soil’, it was ‘quite unlike any other part of Africa’. (19) As Davidson puts it, this represents a view that ‘the land of Ancient Egypt appears to have detached itself from the delta of the Nile, some five and a half thousand years ago, and sailed off into the Mediterranean on a course veering broadly towards the coasts of Syria’. (20) Egypt appears in Fage’s analysis to be little more than a geographical absurdity–in Africa, but not of it.
The UNESCO symposium on ‘The peopling of ancient Egypt and the deciphering of the Meroitic script’, held in Cairo from 28 January–3 February 1974, was perhaps the largest assemblage of Egyptologists and Africanists to examine the populations of Africa in antiquity. The conference’s focus was on attempting to ascertain the ‘ethnic origin and . . . anthropological relationships’ of the ancient Egyptians as part of UNESCO’s larger General History of Africa project. (21) This conference, and indeed the whole UNESCO project, elicited considerable controversy. The rapporteur’s comment that ‘the overall results of the symposium will be very differently assessed by the various participants’ appears an understatement given the reviews of the UNESCO series that have since appeared. (22) Moreover, as the rapporteur carefully concluded, ‘not all participants had prepared communications comparable with the painstakingly researched contributions of Professors Cheikh Anta Diop and Obenga. There was consequently a real lack of balance in the discussions.’ (23)
But, while Diop and Obenga undoubtedly made a great contribution to the Cairo conference, its importance for the debate on Egypt’s Africanity lies in the adherence on the part of almost all the participants to a concept of ‘race’ that was both shifting and problematic. Jean Vercoutter’s paper, commissioned by UNESCO beforehand, epitomised the lingering confusion over the concepts used in the past to describe the ancient Egyptians:
“Whilst acknowledging that the ancient Egyptian population was ‘mixed’, a fact confirmed by all the anthropological analyses, writers nevertheless speak of an Egyptian ‘race’, linking it to a well defined human type, the white, ‘Hamitic’ branch, also called ‘Caucasoid’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Europid’ or ‘Eurafricanid’. There is a contradiction here: all the anthropologists agree in stressing the sizeable proportion of the Negroid element–almost a third and sometimes more–in the ethnic [i.e. biological] mixture of the ancient Egyptian ‘population’, but nobody has yet defined what is meant by the term ‘Negroid’, nor has any explanation been proffered as to how this Negroid element, by mingling with a ‘Mediterranean’ component often present in smaller proportions, could be assimilated into a purely Caucasoid race.” (24)
Vercoutter further distinguished the most ‘extreme’ versions of the two opposing theories on Egypt’s population as one which saw the Egyptians as ‘white’ though their pigmentation was dark (to be blunt, black-skinned whites) or a second, which viewed ancient Egyptians as black Africans. The conference report suggests that the first theory had been discarded: ‘None of the participants explicitly voiced support for the earlier theory concerning a population which was “white” with a dark, even black, pigmentation. There was no more than tacit agreement to abandon this old theory.’ (25)
However, this did not mean that the alternative, championed by Diop, was accepted either. Diop presented evidence from anthropology, blood groups, iconography, ancient written sources, melanin tests and the significance of the word KMT. (26) The conclusions of his evidence, and particularly his translation of KMT, were fiercely challenged by some participants. But it was the question of the ethnic origin of the ancient Egyptians–which quickly became simply a question of their ‘race’–that caused much of the conference to dissolve into a series of ’successive and mutually contradicting monologues’. (27) Ghallab claimed that, during the Palaeolithic era, Egypt had been inhabited by Caucasoids; Vercoutter was unequivocal that Egypt had always had a ‘mixed’ population; and Abu Bakr, adopting a position similar to Vercoutter’s, said that Egypt had never been sealed off from other populations; it was a ‘mingling of men from the west and east’. In countering these positions, Diop suggested that the Egyptians were from two black races, one with straight and one with crinkly hair. Diop and Obenga’s proposition of a homogenous population met with ‘total disagreement’ from the majority of scholars, who proposed a mixed population. The summary positions were described as follows:
“The conclusion of the experts who did not accept the theory, put forward by Professors Cheikh Anta Diop and Obenga, that the Nile Valley population had been homogenous from the earliest times until the Persian invasion, was that the basic population of Egypt settled there in Neolithic times, that it originated largely in the Sahara and that it comprised people from the north and from the south of the Sahara who were differentiated by their colour. In opposition to this theory, Professors Diop and Obenga submitted their own theory to the effect that the valley was peopled uniformly by black people and that the movement had been from south to north.” (2
The confusion over the conceptual category of ‘race’ haunted the Cairo conference. The inability of the participants on both sides of the divide to take scientifically-based positions beyond it led Obenga to state (as recounted by the rapporteur) that ‘the notion of race [is] recognized as valid by scientific research and . . . the study of races . . . [does] . . . not necessarily involve racialism’. (29) The recommendations from the conference asked UNESCO to organise an international inquiry, geared towards ‘establishing very precise standards on the strictest possible scientific principles for defining races and for identifying the racial type of exhumed skeletons’. (30) Lost amid the confusion was Obenga and Diop’s linguistic evidence, regarded by the participants as ‘very constructive’, and a crucial link in the chain between Egypt and Africa. The tragedy of this aspect of the locus on race at the conference was the loss of the opportunity to settle once and for all the African nature of Egyptian civilisation, especially since the dynastic race theory had, by this time, been largely discredited.
The Black Athena ‘explosion’
To what ‘race’, then, did the Ancient Egyptians belong? I am very dubious of the utility of the concept ‘race’ in general because it is impossible to achieve any anatomical precision on the subject. Moreover, even if one accepts it for the sake of argument, I am even more skeptical about the possibility of finding an answer in this particular case. Research on the question usually reveals far more about the predisposition of the researcher than about the question itself. Nevertheless I am convinced that, at least for the last 7,000 years, the population of Egypt has contained African, South-West Asian and Mediterranean types. It is also clear that the further south, or up the Nile, one goes, the blacker and more Negroid the population becomes, and that this has been the case for the same length of time. As I stated in the Introduction, I believe that Egyptian civilization was fundamentally African and that the African element was stronger in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, before the Hyksos invasion, than it later became. Furthermore, I am convinced that many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties which were based in Upper Egypt–the 1st, 11th, 12th and 18th–were made up of pharaohs whom one can usefully call black. (31)
Despite Bernal’s wearily testy claim that the only word in the title of his proposed tetralogy that has not been critiqued is ‘the’, it is fair to claim that ‘Black Athena‘ has been the most contested part of that title. The above paragraph has been obsessively picked apart for its inconsistencies by a number of commentators on the Black Athena debate. Bernal’s claim that Egyptian civilisation was ‘fundamentally African’ and made up of pharaohs that one ‘can usefully call black’ has been rightly critiqued as sounding more like a ‘value judgement . . . than a statement of fact’. (32) His subsequent equivocations have hardly helped his cause, no better seen than in his response to Frank Snowden at the presidential panel of the American Philological Association. In his response, Bernal astonishingly states that he ‘make[s] no claim that the Egyptians were black’. (33) In an effort to develop a consensus with Snowden, he moves to a position that describes the Egyptians as a ‘mixed’ people–’we both agree that the Egyptian population was mixed and that there were “black elements in it”‘–but then contradicts this position by critiquing the idea of a single ‘African type’ in Africa. Contesting his own title, Bernal first admits that it was his idea, then reveals that he wished to change it to a more palatable ‘African Athena’, but his publisher insisted on the original title, arguing that ‘Blacks no longer sell. Women no longer sell. But black women still sell!’
The Black Athena debate has produced a variety of critical perspectives on the nature of the relationship between Greece and Egypt in antiquity. Its contribution to the central purpose of this paper–ascertaining whether we can finally speak, without qualifications, of ancient Egypt as an African culture and civilisation–has been, in many ways, not an intentional result of Bernal’s scholarship, but an indirect and, I hope to show, major consequence of the explosion of debate on the nature of ancient Egyptian civilisation. Black Athena may be, for some, an ‘arresting but grossly misleading title’, (34) but Egypt as an African civilisation is tangential to Bernal’s main concerns. Bernal goes on to point out, immediately after his famous paragraph above, that ‘the actual African nature of Egyptian civilisation . . . is not relevant to our present discussion, which is concerned with the ambiguities in the perceived “racial” position of the Egyptians’, (35) All Bernal really needs to demonstrate his historical argument sufficiently is to show that a tension may have existed in the minds of certain racist European scholars on the question of the racial composition of Egypt, which he does with aplomb. His shifting position on the African nature of the Egyptian population has been critiqued by a number of commentators in the Black Athena debate, and this has been responsible for the intensity of the discussion of this issue post-Black Athena. One of Black Athena’s most significant effects in relation to Africa was to force into open debate the perspectives and prejudices of modern scholars on the issue of the ‘race’ of the ancient Egyptians. It also indirectly led to the intervention of the scholar who was to provide its solution.
The temper of most of the discussion about the African nature of Egyptian civilisation immediately after Black Athena, much of it conducted through reviews of volumes I and II, shows little evidence that the hard fought gains of physical anthropology or Egyptology had sunk into the perspectives of the scholarly community. David Kelley’s paper in The Classical Outlook, entitled ‘Egyptians and Ethiopians: color, race and racism’, is one of the few pieces that directly deal with the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians, and is typical of the ahistorical, uninformed approach. Kelley is willing to concede Egyptian influence on Greece, but denies that ‘the Egyptians were members of the Negroid race’. (36) Kelley sneers at what he terms Diop’s ‘desperation’ in the claim that black people could have both curly and straight hair, and claims that ‘race’ is an ‘intrinsic[ally] useless’ concept. He then immediately follows this disavowal of race by quoting Yurco’s research on Egyptian mummies, concluding that certain features noted by Yurco are ‘obviously . . . somatic features regularly associated with Caucasoids’. This disturbing attribution of certain features as the heritage of the ‘Caucasian race’ brings Kelley close to Seligman’s ‘true Negro’ hypothesis, a distinction that he then corroborates by following Snowden in claiming that the Greeks used the term Ethiopian to refer only to Africans living to the south of Egypt, a perspective that has been critiqued by Bernal and Keita. (37) Kelley’s paper adds nothing to the debate except to generate further confusion, particularly in his constant references to the Egyptian population as a ‘mixed’ race. Only the most slippery logic can accept the idea of a population group as a ‘mixed race’ while claiming as one’s objective the deconstruction of the concept of race.
A survey of a number of scholars, most writing in response to Black Athena, reveals a similarly problematic approach to the African nature of Egypt. John Baines, professor of Egyptology at Oxford, in his attack on Black Athena II in the New York Times, is similarly a victim of the confused approach seen in Kelley. For Baines, ancient Egypt ‘was an African society of diverse ethnic origins’. (3 He further seems to believe that Egyptians’ representations of themselves in paintings as reddish-brown (men), yellow (women) and of the people to the south as black is of importance in determining their actual physical characteristics–surely one of the more astounding statements made recently on the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians. (39) Peter Young, editor-in-chief of Archaeology magazine, in an editorial in its special issue Egypt and the Rise of Greece, states that ‘the suggestion that ancient Egypt was a black civilization because it was situated geographically in Africa holds little merit’ (emphasis added). (40) The status and nature of ‘blackness’ here are important, as this is little more than another way of saying that ancient Egypt is not an African civilisation, despite its location in Africa. In much the same way as there was a ‘true Negro’ for Seligman, there are ‘true Africans’ for Young. He further approvingly quotes his Egyptian advisor Robert S. Bianchi that ‘to call it [ancient Egypt] a black society is like calling the United States a black society’. An approach that claims that the Egyptians were ‘black’ is thus a ’serious misreading of the historical and archaeological record’. (41)
While these reviews of Black Athena were not specifically written to respond to the issue of Egyptian ethnicity, the three essays included in the ‘Race’ section of Black Athena Revisited hardly resolve the issue, posed in each essay, as to whether the ancient Egyptians were ‘black’ or not. Echoing Fage, Kathryn A. Bard opens her essay with the comment that, since Egypt ‘was located on the African continent, ancient Egypt was an African civilization’. (42) Bard suggests that Egypt was ‘the recipient of earlier technological developments in southwestern Asia, especially agriculture’, a popular but hardly universally held view, since some think there may have been a separate agricultural hearth in Ethiopia. (43) To her credit, however, she is quite clear that Egyptian civilisation was an indigenous development. Commenting on the ‘race’ of the Egyptians, Bard makes the following statement:
“Ancient Egyptians were Mediterranean peoples, neither Sub-Saharan blacks nor Caucasian whites but peoples whose skin was adapted for life in a subtropical desert environment. Ancient Egypt was a melting pot; peoples of different ethnic identities migrated into the Nile Valley at different times in its prehistory and history.” (44)
Bard’s formulation of ’subtropical desert environment’-adapted people has merit, but calling Egypt a ‘melting pot’ seems strange, since the first large-scale attested entry into ancient Egypt by the Hyksos took place well over a millennium after the first dynasty. It obscures the idea that the population was fully African, which emerges more clearly in Bard’s other comments. While discussing Egyptian artistic representations of the people of Punt, Bard says the ‘Puntites’ facial features look more Egyptian than “black” ‘. Since Punt is generally believed to be in the area of Somalia, Bard’s vision of authentic ‘blackness’ seems related to her view of ’sub-Saharan blacks’. Are the people of Somalia (both in ancient times and contemporaneously), who live on the same latitude as Nigerians, less African than they are? Bard’s conclusion, that ‘to state categorically that ancient Egypt was either a black–or a white–civilization is to promote a misconception with racist undertones that appeals to those who would like to increase rather than decrease the racial tensions that exist in modern society’, is more a construction of her conservative fantasies than anything else. (45)
The centrepiece of the scholarship on ‘race’ in Black Athena Revisited comes from a team of physical anthropologists led by C. Loring Brace. (46) Brace takes issue not with Bernal’s doubts about the utility of ‘race’, but with ‘his claim that “it is impossible to achieve any anatomical precision on the subject” of the biological relationships of the ancient Egyptians’. (47) For Brace, the question of ‘who the ancient Egyptians were’ is fascinating, but ‘completely unrelated’ to the issue of their biological relationships. This point is important, as it suggests that the answer to this vexed question can be solved by the correct application of science and a critical assessment of the evidence. Turning directly to the hard science he intends to employ, Brace notes the inadequacies of past attempts at finding solutions to this problem through craniometry, but insists that it is ‘a matter of adjusting our theoretical expectations, asking the right questions, and then applying the increasingly powerful arsenal of methods that are at our disposal’. (4 The wrong questions, of course, are ones built upon the teleological assumption of the existence of ‘race’. The poverty of an analysis based on groupings into discrete ‘races’ becomes obvious when multivariate analysis is used, as it refutes such assumptions. The use of ‘clusters’ which can then be used to create dendrograms showing the closest resemblance of one cluster to another produces a model which, for Brace, gives us the most accurate description of the biological relationships of one population group to another.
Given this theoretical framework, what results does Brace achieve relevant to the discussion of the ethnicity of the Egyptians? His samples indicate that ‘Predynastic and the Late Dynastic Egyptians are more closely related to the European cluster than they are to any of the major regional clusters in the world’. His data thus ‘provide no support for the claim that there was a “strong negroid element” in Predynastic Egypt’. (49)
Understanding this conclusion demands that one takes a closer look at Brace’s and his team’s concept of Africa. (50) Their mention of the ‘true Negro’ hypothesis is instructive here:
“The category in the minds of the users of those various names is the same as the ‘true Negro’ of traditional ‘racial’ anthropology. We do not deny that such a configuration exists and is identifiable, and that people who exemplify it can be found in known areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. The problem lies in the assumption that those separate elements are invariably linked together so that the presence of one can inevitably be taken to indicate the presence of the others.” (51)
This comes as part of a denunciation of the pundits of a ‘black presence’ in ancient Egypt, which, in Brace’s view, equates to ‘the old-fashioned typological essentialism of the “race” concept’. But such essentialising is exactly what Brace and his colleagues do. ‘Africa’ in their dendrograms represents sub-Saharan Africa exclusively. Again we must ask, are Somalians and Sudanese Africans? Does the average Sudanese living on what some have called the ‘western front’ encounter racism to the same degree as an African-American of mainly ‘West-African’ descent? (52) Brace’s statement that the ‘Somalis, on their part, never tie in with any of the other populations of Sub-Saharan Africa’ perfectly corroborates recent evidence that this may have been the region from which homo sapiens left the continent to people the world. (53) It is to be expected that they would show some of the greatest genetic variance of any population in Africa, and might not tie in neatly with the rest of the continent.
There should be little surprise that Brace views statements made by Diop and Bernal on the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians as ‘hopelessly simplistic, misleading and basically wrong’, as he does Bernal’s characterisation of ancient Egypt as ‘fundamentally African’. In a truly remarkable argument, Blumenbach is considered preferable to Diop, and his considerations are ‘more sophisticated than the crude, categorical “either/or” treatment of his nineteenth- and twentieth-century successors’. (54) Blumenbach (who incidentally was convinced that the Egyptians were white) is the scholar who popularised the concept of the ‘Caucasian race’ and who believed that the other races came about as a result of degeneration from the perfected ideal of the Caucasian. (55) Perhaps the difference between Blumenbach and Diop might be that Diop was trying to undo the distortions the race concept had introduced, while Blumenbach was heavily involved in its institutionalisation. Why this means that Blumenbach should be privileged over Diop can only be adequately explained by the author’s ideological or sociopolitical agenda. Ending with a flourish, Brace provides an epitaph for ‘race’: ‘Because it has neither biological nor social justification, we should strive to see that it is eliminated from both public and private usage. Its absence will be missed by no one, and we shall all be better off without it. R.I.P.’ But this remains little more than rhetoric.
The conservative nature of the response on ‘race’ in Black Athena Revisited finds its zenith in Frank Snowden’s ‘Bernal’s “Blacks” and the Afrocentrists’. Snowden’s contribution is mainly a restatement of his major criticisms of Diop and Bernal, along with some of the issues previously covered in his book Before Colour Prejudice. (56) His ill-concealed wrath at Bernal is doubtless related to Bernal’s comment in Black Athena I that ‘most blacks will not be able to accept the conformity to white scholarship of men and women like Professor Snowden’. (57) The substance of Snowden’s attack on Bernal and subsequent debate with Keita will be dealt with later, but two comments deserve mention. Snowden believes that the evidence from the Nile valley does not allow us to estimate ‘the extent of Nubian-Egyptian racial mixture’. (5 So the ancient Egyptians were a separate ‘race’ from the Nubians! Perhaps Snowden thinks that the majority of people in Egypt were white, as in the US, with a black admixture. His following comment seems to corroborate this; citing the contemporary US as an example, he states that:
“Even on the basis of the substantial documentation relevant to the size of the black population in the United States and to the existence of racial mixture from slavery onward, it would be inaccurate to describe the United States as either a black or a predominantly black nation. It would be equally inaccurate to describe ancient Egypt as either black or predominantly black when much less is known about the Nubian element in the population.” (59)
Worse yet in the link between ancient history and contemporary understandings are the comments of Emily Vermeule, an emeritus professor of classics from Harvard University. Such devastation has been wrought by Bernal’s ‘turning of the world upside down’ that normal historical understandings have been cast aside. As a result:
“Bernal also believes that Egypt was essentially African, and therefore black. But he does not say what we are to make of historical accounts of Egyptian pharaohs campaigning against black neighbours in the south, in the Land of Kush, as when Thutmosis I of Egypt, around 1510 B.C., annihilated a black Kushite army at the Third Cataract and came home with the body of a black Kushite prince hanging upside down from the prow of his ship. Perhaps Bernal thinks of this as African tribal warfare.” (60)
Students who follow Vermeule’s historical methodology in centuries to come will surely have grave difficulty in understanding twentieth-century history. Could France and Germany really have been part of the same economic union, after three wars in seventy years? The extent of a hostility that resulted in three generations of young men losing their lives on the battlefield must be the result of a deeper animosity between the two peoples; perhaps they were of different ‘races’ to begin with. (61) Shomarka Keita’s dry commentary on this bizarre statement by Vermeule says it all. ‘Excusing the pejorative “tribal warfare” (in Europe it is called ethnic conflict), it is clear that she is saying that this must have been a racial war . . . [However] the antagonisms between Kush and Egypt were political and not racial’ (emphasis in original). (62)
In the entire debate on the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians, a debate which has been given far more coverage than the vastly more interesting issue of Egypt as an African civilisation, few have asked why there is a need to project the question of whether the Egyptians were black, rather than whether they were African. Robert Young has suggested that ‘if the Egyptians were not African, if they were not black, then the wider cultural consequences of the whole argument of Black Athena for our own contemporary cultural politics would collapse’. (63) This may well be so, but in an even more convoluted manner than Young imagines. The problem posed by Bernal’s stance on Egypt and Africa is that the African or non-African nature of Egyptian society becomes reduced to whether Egypt was ‘black’ in our contemporary understandings of that term–or not. If Bernal’s comments had been on the African nature of Egyptian civilisation and he had referred to cultural similarities/continuities rather than race, much of the polemical storm over his comments might have subsided. The question that arises, of course, is how much this would have reduced his objective of ‘lessen[ing] European cultural arrogance’. For many of Bernal’s opponents, it seems enough to cast doubt on the ‘blackness’ of the Egyptians, in order circuitously to call into question whether they were indeed ‘African’, and hence the legitimacy of Afrocentric appropriations of ancient Egypt. And, one might ask, whose conception of black? Though the main furore over Black Athena has been in the US, certainly America’s ‘one-drop’ criterion is not being used. The absurdity of race becomes compounded by using the terminology arising from modern social constructions to discuss an ancient society, but not even applying that terminology to its logical conclusion. A number of African-Americans rightly accused the scholarly establishment of hypocrisy, since few seriously doubt that the ancient Egyptians resembled them more closely than whites, whether northern or Mediterranean Europeans.
The fact remains that the ancient Egyptians simply did not have our conceptions of ‘race’, a point that has been made by those on both sides of the debate. In a second and widely quoted attempt to deal with this question, the Egyptologist Frank Yurco correctly states:
“The whole matter of black or white Egyptians is a chimera, cultural baggage from our own society that can only be artificially imposed on ancient Egyptian society. The ancient Egyptians, like their modern descendants, were of varying complexions of color, from the light Mediterranean type (like Nefertiti) to the light brown of Middle Egypt, to the darker brown of Upper Egypt, to the darkest shade around Aswan and the first Cataract region, where even today, the population shifts to Nubian.” (64)
Yurco’s attempt to deal with the ethnicity of the Egyptians in a balanced manner is certainly one of the more progressive articles on this subject in print. Yurco’s sensitivity to the dynamics of the political rivalry between Egypt and Nubia results in far more nuanced explanations of periods in Egypt’s history during which it shut its borders to Nubians than Vermeule’s distasteful approach. He also makes the legitimate plea that the achievements of Egyptian society lie in their lack of race consciousness and the provision of legal and social equality for women, which are of greater interest than the ‘race’ they belonged to. Buried in Yurco’s essay is one puzzling statement on the Nubian people that is, however, a shortcoming of the article. To quote Yurco: ‘Among the foreigners, the Nubians were closest ethnically to the Egyptians. In the late predynastic period (c. 3700-3150 BCE), the Nubians shared the same culture as the Egyptians and even evolved the same pharaonic political structure’ (emphasis added). The use of ‘even’ here seems strange, given the growing research that suggests that the roots of the Egyptian state and culture lie in Nubia, as attested by Bruce Williams’s discovery of the Qustul incense burner and of a city at Kerma dating back to 4,500 BCE. (65) Nowhere in this article is the simple fact asserted: the ancient Egyptians were a fully African culture, society and population group. MacGaffey’s comment that ‘the transition to the new logic required by modern theory has been imperfectly accomplished in physical anthropology and still less adequately in disciplines which draw upon its conclusions’ remained unfortunately a feature of the scholarly and semi-scholarly writing on ancient Egypt into the 1990s.
The intervention of Shomarka Keita
Shomarka Keita, an African-American bio-anthropologist, made his first intervention into the Black Athena debate in the communications pages of the American Historical Review. (66) In a response to Robert Pounder’s dismissal of Black Athena II, Keita made a number of significant points on the nature of the ancient Nile valley population. (67) The attempt to categorise the ancient Egyptians as ‘black’ or ‘white’ is incorrect since ‘a population that consists of individuals who have ancestry from multiple biologically defined groups is a hybrid population and should not be labeled by either group’s designation’. The ‘role of the blacks’ in ancient Egypt is ‘nothing less than having been a part of the original Nile Valley population. There is no one authentic African phenotype.’ Sounding a warning to the polemicists who refuse to acknowledge Egypt’s African nature (a group that for Keita includes Pounder) Keita states that ‘Ancient Egypt’s culture clearly reflects a Saharo-Nilotic base, and this African foundation never changed. Is there some special definition of African rooted in certain scholarly traditions?’ (6
Pounder in his response totally missed the thrust of Keita’s argument and resorted to claiming that all the evidence showed that the ‘population of ancient Egypt was not predominantly black’, relying primarily on D. O’Connor and Frank Snowden. (69) While Pounder insists that ‘ancient Egypt was obviously African’, he claims, citing Snowden, that ‘blacks were not the predominant physical type in Lower Egypt and could not have defined the course of Egyptian civilization, much less an early Greek civilization spawned by Egyptians, as Bernal would have it’. Again we see the trend that suggests that Bernal’s argument has little relevance unless he can claim the contribution of Seligman’s ‘true Negro’ to western civilisation. Egypt is still sufficiently divorced from Africa in the minds of some members of the academy for it, even when acknowledged as African, to be a different African from ‘the rest’.
Keita’s major statement on the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians came in an article in the Journal History in Africa (1993), entitled ‘Studies and comments on ancient Egyptian biological relationships‘. This was an attempt to reconcile three issues that relate to biological relations in ancient Egypt: the location of Egypt in antiquity at a geographical crossroads, its relations with the rest of Africa, and the problematic understanding of ‘race’ that has been part of attempts to come to conclusions on this question in previous times. The questions that Keita poses are as follows:
“were the Egyptians in the main emigres to the Nile valley from outside of Africa in ‘Egypt’s’ earlier periods? Or were they merely another African population, differentiated from a common African ancestral group? Were the Egyptians natives of Africa with greater affinities to Nubians and other southerly peoples? Is there a difference between northern and southern Egyptians? Did this change? Do the early ‘Egyptians’ share biological traits with ‘tropical’ Africans which represent tropical adaptations, obtained via shared ancestry?’ ” (70)
Deconstructing the concept of ‘race’ is an important task that Keita takes on, rehearsing again the arguments well known to physical anthropologists, but not, apparently, to the general scholarly community. The idea of ‘race’ as an explanation of human variation is invalid, as ‘the assumption that variation could be partitioned into monotypic types is . . . [a] fundamental flaw’. (71) In contrast, ‘modern population biology has demonstrated that variation within geographically defined breeding populations, or those more related by ancestry, is the rule for human groups’. Keita is devastating in his dismissal of the ‘race’ theorists of the past, whose ’sophistry with the terms Negroid, African, and “true Negro”, rooted in a biased polygenism, can be ignored in this era of modern population biology’. The romance of racial thinking led to the belief that ‘true’ Africans did not possess the range of physical variations that ‘true’ Caucasians possessed, leading to ideas that ‘narrow-faced, narrow-nosed’ African populations must derive from mixture with another ‘race’, a non-African people. (72)
The time has come to dispense with the ‘authentic African’ as a paradigm, since ‘the concepts of variation and microevolution clearly allow better understanding of the early Saharan-Upper Egyptian peoples. They were tropical variants, not cold-adapted migrants.’ The spurious concept of the Nile valley populations as an invading population, seen in a number of ingenious theories like that of the ‘dynastic race’, is directly repudiated by the scientific evidence from metric analysis:
The southern affinities of the series are striking given that commonly held or stated classical ‘racial’ views of the Egyptians predict a notable distinction from ‘Africans’. Thus any scheme that labels Nubians and all Egyptians as a ‘Caucasian’ monotypic entity is seen to be a hypothesis which is easily falsified. Metric analysis in fact clearly suggest that at least southern ‘Egyptian’ groups were a part of indigenous holocene Saharo-tropical African variation. (73)
The process of seeking a new terminology to describe the biological relations of the ancient Egyptians will require that ‘the terms “Negro” and “Black African” be dropped from the biological lexicon in favor of “Saharo-tropical variant” which subsumes the range of morphologies of great time depth found in Africa’. No serious argument can be made to the position that Egypt was a ‘Nilotic-African’ culture ‘on all levels’. (74)
Armed with this understanding of ancient Egyptian biological relationships, Keita’s next target was Snowden, Bernal and the Black Athena debate in a special symposium later reprinted in the classics journal Arethusa. (75) In one of the most important articles of the Black Athena debate, Keita interrogated Black Athena and Snowden’s response for a number of inconsistencies in their approach to ancient Egyptian populations. Keita is dubious about the utility of ancient testimony for resolving the question of the biological relationships of ancient Egyptians, a technique adopted by both Bernal and Snowden. This approach is highly questionable as
“there is a problem of language or logic here since the ‘ancient authors’ did not have any race concepts, terms or theory synonymous with those ‘in twentieth century usage’ . . . It cannot be stated that the Graeco-Romans (or Egyptians) had no race concepts and then claim that their words or art depict ‘race’. Their words and art only depict the ethno-nationalities they knew, not ‘race,’ a more recent idea (emphasis in original).” (76)
A full appreciation of this renders Snowden’s perspective seriously outdated by contemporary anthropological understanding, while Bernal’s concern with perceived notions of race does him no credit, since it contributes to rather than clarifies the confusion surrounding the debate. These perspectives are based on an ignorance of contemporary population biology, the techniques of which are far more sophisticated in determining ethnicities than quarrels over what Herodotus did or did not say, or the artistic skill of the ancients in representing human variation.
In response, Bernal accepted Keita’s claim that the inconsistencies of his previous arguments were related in large part to ‘uncertainties over the semantic field of “black”‘. (77) Snowden, on the other hand, continued to disagree without seriously engaging with any of Keita’s main points. Keita’s perspective remained largely uncontested and accepted.
At another conference, hosted by the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage and designed as a hostile condemnation of Afrocentrism, Keita’s contribution ‘Is studying Egypt in its African context “Afrocentric”?’ offered an important disruption to the generality of opinion. (7 In his presentation, Keita outlined four ways in which one can formulate an answer to the question of whether Egypt was an African culture, through evidence from geography, language, archaeology and biology. Geographical evidence suggests that ‘Nilotic flora and fauna are well integrated into the culture of the early Egyptians; this suggests that the people were indigenous, or at least that the culture developed locally and was not an import’. Ancient Egyptian is universally accepted as part of the Afro-Asiatic language family, the origins of which are in the Horn of Africa. The archaeological record shows that ‘the sequence of cultures which clearly leads to dynastic Egypt is found in southern Egypt’ and that pre-dynastic Egypt ‘arose most directly from a Saharo-Nilotic base’. Besides rehearsing his earlier arguments about biological relations, Keita adds two important points. In further exploding the paradigm of racialised thinking, Keita declares it ‘conceptually wrong to say that “Africans” split from “Caucasians”, “Mongoloids”, “Australoids” etc. ad nauseam, as has sometimes been done, or even the reverse, because these terms carry certain stereotyped physical trait associations’. An understanding of this concept shows us clearly that ‘there is no evidence that the region was empty and primarily colonised by non-African outsiders, who had differentiated outside and then returned to Africa’ (emphasis in original). Keita’s summary position is that ‘It is not a question of “African” “influence”; ancient Egypt was organically African. Studying early Egypt in its African context is not “Afrocentric,” but simply correct’ (emphasis added). (79)
The unwarranted persistence of racial thinking and the idea of the ‘fissioning’ of one race from another was further developed by Keita in an article co-authored with Rick Kitties. Their attack centres not merely on the racial thinking still embodied in physical anthropology–despite the fact that this is the site where the idea of ‘race’ had been most thoroughly deconstructed in the past–but also, in a telling observation, on the use of racial categories in ’sampling strategies used in studies addressing the origin of modern humans’. In a direct attack on the study by Brace et al., ‘Clines and clusters versus “race”‘ (1993), Keita and Kittles accuse its authors of distorting the picture of the true genetic diversity of Africans and, as a result, of complicity with the very thinking they appear to denounce:
“Another example of the use of a socially constructed typological paradigm is in studies of the Nile Valley populations in which the concept of a biological African is restricted to those with a particular craniometric pattern (called in the past the ‘True Negro’ though no ‘True White’ was ever defined). Early Nubians, Egyptians, and even Somalians are viewed essentially as non-Africans, when in fact numerous lines of evidence and an evolutionary model make them a part of African biocultural/biogeographical history. The diversity of ‘authentic’ Africans is a reality. This diversity prevents biogeographical/biohistorical Africans from clustering into a single unit, no matter the kind of data (emphasis added).” (80)
Keita and Kittles conclude their essay by urging that ‘the ghosts of the pregenetic synthesis era must be exorcised’. Certainly Keita’s work has contributed significantly to that rethinking, and answers Diop’s call for scholars to test ideas that he had advanced. (81) His work points us towards the concluding position on Egypt seen in the collection of essays, Egypt in Africa.
Egypt in Africa
The fact that the first evidence of circumcision comes from the continent and is documented in ancient Egypt and in more recent African cultures; the fact that body art occurred in African rock art depictions that predate ancient Egypt, as well as in ancient Egypt, and still exist in Africa today; and the fact that the veneration of ancestors as intermediaries between the living and forces in the supernatural world has been important throughout the continent–all help us to think of Egypt as African. (82)
T. Celenko, Introduction to Egypt in Africa
Egypt in Africa came out of a exhibition held, under the same title, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It was the result of a deliberate attempt to reflect on the African nature of ancient Egypt, a relationship continuously distorted by the institutional arrangements governing scholarship on Egypt, as well as popular and scholarly prejudice. (83) In his introduction, Celenko acknowledges the contribution that African diasporic and Afrocentric scholars made in stimulating awareness of the need for the exhibition. Indeed, as the quotation shows, he sounds like a good Diopian himself. He notes that the ‘Africanisms’ highlighted in ‘Egypt in Africa‘ had been previously commented on (citing, among other works, Diop’s Nations Negres et Culture), and suggests, importantly, that ‘these “Africanisms” force us to see ancient Egypt within a broader African context without adhering to the concept of a unified African culture’ (emphasis added). (84) One significant feature of the collection is its willingness to allow scholars whose views at times contradict each other space to make their arguments. Its focus on culture, rather than colour, means that in Egypt in Africa, the cultural links between Egypt and Africa can finally be discussed without undue concern over the chimera of ‘race’.
In his essay, Christopher Ehret confirms that the earliest domestic cattle and pottery makers came from the south of Egypt, adding to the evidence that the main features of Egyptian civilisation came from the south. (85) Fekri A. Hassan declares, in his take on predynastic Egyptian civilisation, that the ‘cultural continuity with an African substratum and the strong historical cultural interactions between Egypt and other African societies clearly demonstrate that Africa was the cradle of Egyptian civilization’. (86) Martha Ehrlich finds similarities between mother and child figures in Egypt and the rest of Africa, while Lanny Bell and Chapurukha Kusimba concur on the question of ancestor worship and divine kingship. The section on body art reveals fascinating similarities in painting, scarring and tattooing, while the case over circumcision–a feature previously noted by authors from Herodotus to Diop–is again argued.
Egypt in Africa, to its scholarly credit, does not present a simplistic analysis without dissenting voices. Keita and Snowden present articles that restate their points of disagreement, Yurco shows the shortcomings of Ivan van Sertima’s use of the tomb paintings of Ramesses III, while Bianchi and Wolinski differ sharply on the case for ceremonial masking in ancient Egypt. The strangest point of discord comes between Yurco and Ray, with respect to the origins of ancient Egyptian writing. Ray’s desire to establish a Mesopotamian source leads him to conclude:
“Early Egypt soaked up ideas from Mesopotamia, in architecture and the arts, and imported Mesopotamian pottery was found at several Protodynastic sites in Egypt, especially Buto. This influence is so strong that at one point the idea was seriously entertained that an early Mesopotamian state had even conquered Egypt and turned it into a province. This theory has long been discredited, and a more convincing analogy is to liken early Egypt to a child learning to walk, looking around for a prop to help it to do so. This prop was the advanced city culture in Mesopotamia. When Egypt had found its confidence, it was able to throw away the prop, and many Mesopotamian motifs came to be discarded in favor of Egyptian ones. Writing, however, was an exception. It was too useful to be abandoned.” (87)
Despite his dismissal of the Dynastic Race theory, Ray’s patronising portrayal of ancient Egypt re-inscribes its fundamental ideology for another age. Yurco strongly disagrees with this stance, and only future debate between scholars will resolve this issue. (8 The quality of the scholars involved and their brief, precise and highly informative contributions make it clear that an analysis of cultural features overwhelmingly confirms the Africanity of ancient Egypt. Molefi Asante puts it simply: ‘Egypt in Africa is an affirmation of what has always been the truth.’ (89)
Since the publication of Egypt in Africa, further archaeological discoveries continue to legitimise the southern origin of Egyptian civilisation. After twenty years of hot debate over the archaeologist Bruce Williams’s claim that there were southern predecessors of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, (90) one of the latest results of archaeological explorations in the northern Sahara should be noted:
“The Sahara west of the Nile in southern Egypt was hyperarid and unoccupied during most of the late Pleistocene epoch. About 11,000 years ago the summer monsoons of central Africa moved into Egypt, and temporary lakes or playas were formed. The Nabta Playa depression, which is one of the largest in southern Egypt, is a kidney shaped basin of roughly 10km by 7km in area. We report the discovery of megalithic alignments and stone circles next to locations of Middle and Late Neolithic communities at Nabta, which suggest the early development of a complex society. The southward shift of the monsoons in the Late Neolithic age rendered the area once again hyperarid and uninhabitable some 4,800 radiocarbon years before the present (years BP). This well-determined date establishes that the ceremonial complex of Nabta, which has alignments to cardinal and solstitial directions, was a very early megalithic expression of ideology and astronomy. Five megalithic alignments within the playa deposits radiate outwards from megalithic structures, which may have been funerary structures. The organization of the megaliths suggests a symbolic geometry that integrated death, water, and the Sun. An exodus from the Nubian Desert at ~4,800 years BP may have stimulated social differentiation and cultural complexity in pre-dynastic Upper Egypt (emphasis added).” (91)
In retrospect then, it is possible to look at Diop’s contribution on the question of the ‘race’ of the Egyptians as similar to that made by some women in excising race from the anthropological vocabulary. Leonard Lieberman in his review ‘Gender and the deconstruction of the race concept’ states that ‘the women identified here as antiracist did not reject the race concept; it was unthinkable to do so until racism had been reduced. But neither did they necessarily utilise the nineteenth-century idea of race as a fixed component of traits or as an essence.’ (92) So, too, with Cheikh Anta Diop, which explains his remark to Mauny that ‘We apologise for returning to notions of race, cultural heritage, linguistic relationship, historical connections between peoples, and so on. I attach no more importance to these questions than they actually deserve in modern twentieth-century societies.’ (93) Diop did not entirely unthink the ‘race’ concept. (94) Yet his schema of an African or black population that incorporated new elements over time, rather than a mixed-race population, is actually closer to the evidence now at our disposal from recent research in bio-anthropology. It takes no stretch of the imagination, nor partisan reading of Diop’s work, to see clear parallels between his and Keita’s understanding of Egyptian biological relationships. That Diop reached the same conclusion, forty years previously, as Keita (that–without resorting to the race signifier–Egypt is ‘biologically African’ (95)) is a major victory for him and the Afrocentric movement in general. Yet it is one for which the general academy has been unwilling to give any credit. While Diop may have got some of the specifics wrong, the movement of his historical project continues to be legitimised by new archaeological discoveries. A historical survey of thought on Egypt and Africa that minimises or distorts Diop’s contribution is refuted by the very ‘objective’ evidence claimed in the past to discredit him.
Finally in Africa?
While it would be too early to pronounce the substantial paradigm shift seen in Egypt in Africa as the uncontested new view of Egypt in and out of the academy, the presence of many major scholars within its pages will make it hard to refute. It is, however, worth noting that John Iliffe, in his recent one-volume history of Africa, finds it necessary to respond to Diop by stating that ‘Egypt was remarkably unsuccessful in transmitting its culture to the rest of the continent’. (96) It is, quite simply, no longer possible to title a scholarly article ‘Ancient Egypt and Black Africa–early contacts’ as David O’Connor did in 1971. (97) Nor is the line of reasoning that sees Egypt as ‘inconveniently placed on the African continent’ which we see in the scholarship of Fage and Bard, acceptable. (9 However, Michael Rice’s recent book on the origins of the Egyptian state accepts the evidence for pre-dynastic kingdoms to the South and makes the point that Egypt continually turned to the South ‘to refresh herself and to restore her institutions’ and views ancient Egypt as ‘profoundly African, not by any means wholly impervious to alien influence in the earliest times, though the character and extent of that influence is much debated still’. (99)
At the end of an essay entitled ‘Egypt, Africa and the ancient world’ delivered at the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Josep Cervello Autuori reached similar conclusions to those of Egypt in Africa:
“Since the 1960s, black Africans, firstly through the Senegalese writer Ch. A. Diop and then later by his followers, have claimed Egyptian civilization as the cradle of their own cultural tradition. Apart from some exceptions (J. Leclant, J. Vercoutter), the West has failed to consider its contributions, sometimes ignoring them completely, and sometimes considering them as the fruit of the socio-political excitement in the era of African independence. Irrespective of the debatable scientific value of Diop’s work (though not of that of some of his current followers), of the question of race at the centre of his interests (the ancient Egyptians as black Africans), and of diffusion taken to the extremes (black African cultures derive directly from Egyptian culture via migration), I believe that his work must be recognised, if not for its content at least for its significance, for what it entails as a new suggestion, and alternative view, a historical ’southern’ claim, a re-contextualisation and a rethinking of the Pharaonic civilization from an African perspective. After all, the parallels between Egypt and Africa continue to be there.” (100)
If it strikes you that this is a vulgar conceit that Diop’s legacy can now be re-appropriated by the mainstream academy after years of dismissal, I would entirely agree. Diop, however, foresaw the possibility of precisely this type of appropriation. In his defiant 1973 introduction to The African Origin of Civilization, he stated: ‘In fact, our conception of African history, as exposed here, has practically triumphed, and those who write on African history now, whether willingly or not, base themselves upon it.’ (101)
Kamugisha, Aaron. Finally in africa? Egypt, from Diop to Celenko. “Race & Class” 45 (2003): 31-60.
*Aaron Kamugisha is a doctoral candidate in social and political thought at York University. Toronto. He has previously studied at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus and the University of California, Berkeley.
[I’ll post an unedited version with references]
Posted in Archives | 4 Comments
4 Responses to “Finally in Africa? Egypt, from Diop to Celenko”
4 Responses to “Finally in Africa? Egypt, from Diop to Celenko”
on January 27, 2007 at 4:53 pm1 sonofisis
on January 29, 2007 at 6:04 pm2 gess
I’m glad to read, that you liked the article. Before I posted the article, I was very unsure if someone will find it interesting, and not to mention the amount of time it takes to read.
on July 15, 2007 at 2:59 am3 verily
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for that marvelous contribution to the internet, Mr. Abdullah. When the human genome was mapped and then all the astounding, totally logical information, about the “variable” nature of African peoples’ genes compared to that of peoples on some other continents was revealed, I knew that the ancient Egyptian “question” would get answered to the satisfaction of every reasonable person interested in it. The findings so far are amazing. The ongoing research must be thrilling. I am literally beside myself with excitement. Thanks again, Hakim!
on July 15, 2007 at 3:07 am4 verily
Oops, I guess I should have been thanking, “Gess,” for placing the article here to the delight of people ( who are interested in truth) everywhere! We are MOST appreciative, Gess!