Ancient Egyptians, DNA and origin stories – Afrocentrism as therapeutic pseudoscience

Ancient Egypt has long been recognised as a treasure trove for the archaeologist – no pun intended. The subject of numerous documentaries, popular movies and biblical mythology, the ancient Egyptians have been the target of an enduring fascination. However, one question that keeps arising about that civilisation exposes our own misconceptions about the ancient Egyptians.

What race were the ancient Egyptians? This question is misleading for a number of reasons. Egypt has been conquered by successive waves of empires – Greek Macedonian, Assyrian, Roman – among others. Did these waves of new conquerors change the genetic makeup of the Egyptian population? Ancient Egypt did not think in terms of race; we are applying a misconceived 18th century categorisation and imposing it on a civilisation that was multicoloured in the first place.

To be certain, white supremacists have long deployed pseudo archaeological fantasies to claim that the ancient Egyptians were of white Nordic descent. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi party ideologist and racist, made the claim in his writings that the ancient Egyptians (including Tutankhamen) were of Northern European white ancestry. Today’s white nationalist groups have followed in his footsteps. In this way, white supremacists seek to illegitimately acquire ancient Egyptian credibility for their ancestry, as opposed to the putatively ‘lesser’ Semitic races.

Sub-Saharan Africa had numerous empires and civilisations for centuries prior to European colonisation. While Europe remained a backwater, Africa had the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and the west African Malian empire, to name but two examples.

There is the stereotypical of the African bushman in a loincloth hunting their prey with a spear – but I would venture to suggest that there is no a single cent of difference in intelligence between the Zulu and the Oxford don. The latter possesses technical intelligence; the former possesses a practical knowledge of their environment and culture.

Ancient DNA

Over the last two years, there has been an increase in news stories covering the scientific results of ancient DNA findings. Extracting ancient DNA does pose its own problems, but they are not insurmountable. Egypt is not exactly a hospitable environment for DNA; in the hot Egyptian sun, DNA is usually incinerated. The pyramids, trapping humidity, are also a hostile environment for ancient DNA.

What if ancient DNA could be extracted from mummified bodies? Surely teeth and bones, even preserved hair and skin, can provide DNA from the bodies of ancient Egyptians, thus resolving the question of what racial background predominated? A team of geneticists and researchers did just that.

Johannes Krause, a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany – and his team – managed to successfully extract ancient DNA from mummified remains. The mummies, ranging from between 2000 and 3000 years old, originated from middle Egypt in a region called Abusir el-Meleq. The remains date from a period of pharaonic Egypt dating from the New Kingdom, up to the time of Roman rule.

What the researchers found was not entirely surprising – the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the people of the Levant. The latter comprises the current nations of Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. In other words, the ancient Egyptians were not black African, but close in genealogy to the Arabic speaking nations.

The conquerors of Egypt did not have a significant impact on the genomes of the population. In fact, the presence of sub-Saharan black African DNA in the Egyptian population increased in the centuries after the Roman conquest had ended. This was due to increased trade and intermixing after the decline of the pharaonic period.

Ancient Egypt was never a black African empire, even though today’s Afrocentric writers have engaged in an exercise in Kemet-speculation. To be fair, the drive by Afrocentric scholars to prioritise the teaching of African civilisations is legitimate and commendable. They are responding to the centuries of European colonial subjugation and denial of sub-Saharan cultures and knowledge.

No, black separatism is not ‘just as racist’ as white nationalism. The latter is the offending structure; black Afrocentrism developed as a response to the suppression and denial of African history. Let’s have a respectful disagreement with Afrocentrism, the latter being a therapeutic mythology, in the words of one expert of African history.

It is completely erroneous to pressure-fit Ancient Egypt into modern racial categories. In fact, Afrocentrism has a distinctive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim undercurrent to it. We have departed a long way from the 1960s, when Malcolm X and W E B Du Bois upheld Nasser’s Egypt, and revolutionary Algeria, as solid Arab allies of the pan-Africanist cause.

The Islamic Arab invasion of North Africa, while violent, did not result in mass racial displacement or the extermination of the original inhabitants. Let’s not overstate the impact of the Islamic invasion. Egyptians were not displaced, but rather absorbed by the new conquerors. This particular interpretation gained traction, in alliance with American evangelical churches, to drive a wedge between the Arab and African peoples.

Progressive and leftist voices are being drowned out by parochial nativists, Afrocentrism in particular being a kind of black Zionism. Do not break down the bonds of solidarity between sub-Saharan Africans and Arabs. Afrocentrism wrongly portrays the Near Eastern Arabs as violent intruders and marauders into an otherwise pristine Africa.

Distorting the history and legacy of ancient Egypt only serves to reinforce divisions between sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab nations of Northern Africa.

Italian Americans get sick and tired of being asked about the mafia

What is one question you hate to be asked? Explain.

I was thinking about ways to answer the question above. Rather than talk about myself, I have decided to approach this prompt from a different angle.

Each ethnic group attracts its particular stereotypes. Being of Egyptian Armenian background – Armenians born and raised in Egypt, I get asked all kinds of irritating questions, based on the obnoxious and laughably ignorant stereotypes about people from Egypt.

In similar vein, Italian Americans have expressed their despair and irritation at being asked about one subject in particular – the mafia. My precise answer to the prompt above is please stop employing crude mafia stereotypes when interacting with Italian Americans – or Australians of Italian descent, for that matter.

John Cottone is a psychologist, the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Renaissance school of medicine at Stony Brook University. He is also an Italian American, and wrote about the subject of Hollywood promoting harmful cultural stereotypes regarding Italians.

The movies which we have all seen and loved, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Casino, and more recently the new special House of Gucci, all in their own way deploy the stereotypes of Italian American men as ravenously libidinous, cunning and barely literate mafiosi, and Italian American women as volatile, temperamental ‘ball-busting bitches’ with garish jewellery who can cook up a mean pasta fazool.

These kinds of stereotypes seep their way into the public consciousness, and leave the non-Italian communities with a deeply flawed picture of Italians in the diaspora. Michael Parenti, Italian American socialist academic and author of numerous books on political science, writes of his experiences in dealing with the question of the mafia stereotype as an Italian interacting with the wider Anglo majority society.

To be certain, the 1951 Kefauver committee exposed the inner workings and structure of Italian organised crime. Parenti writes that while Al Scarface Capone and Lucky Luciano were already figures of infamy, the Kefauver commission uncovered, among other things, the multitudinous variety of personalities that made up the mafiosi:

…Lucky Luciano, Scarface Al Capone, Sammy the Bull Gravano, Joey Bananas Bonanno, Crazy Joey Gallo, Jimmy the Weasel Fratiano, Sonny Red Indelicato, and Sonny Black Napolitano.

One could go on with Joey Kneecap Santorielli, Johnny Bingo Bosco, Itchy Fingers Zambino, Big Paulie Castellano,and Lupo the Wolf Saietta. Also Johnny Blind Man Biaggio, Vinny Gorgeous Basciano, and Fredo the Plumber Giardino.

Finally, none of us will ever forget AnthonyChicken F**ker Bastoni (don’t ask).

Parenti relates that in one job interview for a teaching position at a university, he was asked about the mafia – the interviewers referenced the Godfather movie as their source regarding close-knit relationships among immigrant communities. He tried unsuccessfully to steer the discussion towards the rich variety of Italian authors, scientists and sociologists, but somehow the mafia was the subject which captivated the interview board.

We all know that the mafia come from Italy. That much is unmistakable. However, what is less well known is how such an organisation started. In the Mezzogiorno – Southern Italy – the majority of land was owned by absentee landlords. The latter protected their latifundia from peasant uprisings and foreign invasions by hiring middlemen guardians.

These organised gangs, serving their absentee landlord bosses, formed the first instances of a parasitic organisation based on hostility to the peasantry. It is worthwhile to note that until today, the mafia is hostile to peasants, and is an enemy of the working class. Yes, there are ordinary working class people who, motivated by opportunistic reasons, join the mafia. In fact, in the Hollywood depictions, mafiosi are often portrayed as enterprising, self-motivated people, but in an antihero kind of way.

As the capitalist system became the dominant mode of production in a unified Italy, the mafia adapted their ways, parasitising the newly rising labouring class. Capitalist economic relations opened up a transoceanic migratory network for capital export.

The other distinguishing feature of the mafiosi is its parochial racism. It is no exaggeration to state that the mafia are a kind of Sicilian Klan. Like the Klan, the mafiosi claim to respect ancient codes of honour and respect. Strongly patriarchal, the mafiosi claim hostility to the powers that be, but are not averse to cooperating with those authorities as footsoldiers deployed against trade unions, labour and peasant organisations.

Instead of asking about the mafia, how about we ask Italian Americans about Enrico Fermi, the Italian born American scientist who worked on the Manhattan project? Instead of referencing Scarface Capone, or Joey Bananas, or Frankie the pastry chef Cacciatore, how about we ask about Petrarch, Vivaldi, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Giordano Bruno.

As for myself, please don’t ask me about the pyramids, or Tutankhamen, or the curse of the Mummy, or Moses and the Hebrew captives in the fictional Exodus. Let’s also stop recycling regressive stereotypes about Italian Americans – there’s more to Italy than marital problems, cooking pasta, temperamental volatility and organised crime.

Hindutva nationalism is becoming more visible in Anglophone countries

At Jubilee Park, Parramatta – western Sydney – the Indian community contributed to the setting up of a statue to Mahatma Gandhi. This statue is in recognition of the courageous and principled struggle of Gandhi and his supporters to establish a culturally tolerant, democratic India. Sadly, the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu sectarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), follows the ideological tradition of Gandhi’s assassin. Hindutva is steadily making inroads into the Indian diaspora communities in Australia, Britain and the United States.

Hindutva is an ethnonationalist political ideology which advocates for a purely Hindu majoritarian state. An ultranationalist philosophy, Hindutva partisans demand the expulsion of non-Hindu minorities, such as India’s Muslim community, from the lands of historic India. To be certain, Hindutva exploits the religion of Hinduism for political and ethnosupremacist reasons. There is no suggestion that every Hindu is an extremist or fanatic. Please do not conflate Hindutva with Hinduism.

Jacobin magazine has been regularly covering the rise of BJP-affiliated Hindutva lobby groups in the United States. Azad Essa, in an extensive article, details the rise and operations of Hindu sectarian organisations. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, (OFBJP), has been active in projecting a Hindutva image of India externally. Founded in 1991, it has grown into a powerful lobby group in the halls of the US Congress.

To be sure, projecting a Hindutva image of India overseas is nothing new. In the early 1990s, the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, carried out by Hindu nationalists (under the protection of the authorities), created a public relations problem for India.

The Hindutva supporters overseas quickly mobilised to promote a Hindu supremacist rationalisation of the mosque demolition, framing it as a legitimate reclamation of land by majoritarian Hindu forces. The Indian Muslim community has long been stigmatised as the products of foreign invaders.

Indeed, the main philosopher behind the ideology of the BJP and its associated Hindutva organisations, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883 – 1966) was an outspoken Hindu supremacist. Savarkar, the creator of this ethnonationalist ideology, was anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and anti-British. Let’s clarify that while he opposed Britain, he was never an anti-imperialist. His opposition to Britain was based on his hostility to non-Hindus.

It is no exaggeration to state that Savarkar is Modi’s original inspiration. In fact, Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was motivated by Savarkar’s vision of a Hindu supremacist India. Savarkar expounded his views, which included the expulsion of Muslims from India.

He sympathised with Nazi and fascist movements in Europe, and expressed his support for Zionism, as an allied ideology committed to building an ethnonationalist state in Palestine. Shared hostility to Muslims contributed to this burgeoning ideological correspondence.

Islamophobia is a potent ideological glue, cementing alliances between various ultrarightist political groups. Hindutva organisations, such as the BJP, have long been Islamophobic, agitating for the violent expulsion of India’s Muslims. However, since 2001 and the launch of the purported war on terror, Islamophobic ideology moved to a new level of state policy.

From Azad Essa’s article, the following observation is directly relevant here:

The War on Terror didn’t merely usher in programs of surveillance and racism against the Muslim community. It also facilitated the cross-pollination of essentially right-wing ethnonationalisms and helped normalize anti-Muslim bigotry in different parts of the globe.

In the 2000s, Hindu nationalist groups have learned from political lobbying organisations, in particular from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Modelled on AIPAC, Hindutva organisations are creating a new generation of politically engaged Indians in the diaspora. One of their main goals is forging agitating closer cooperation between Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

When Indian PM Modi travels to the US, he is welcomed by a near-rock star reception by Indian audiences. Since becoming PM, the Indian government has oriented strongly towards Tel Aviv, providing support to the Zionist state. Hindutva organisations in the US and Britain have dutifully circulated anti-Muslim and pro-Israeli propaganda, in contrast to India’s traditional support for the Palestinians.

Abdulla Moaswes, writing in 972 magazine, states that in similar fashion to the Israeli government, the BJP intends to make membership of a religion the political basis of citizenship. Modi has constructed the most Israel-friendly government in independent India’s history. Savarkar, the ideological forebear of the BJP and Hindutva organisations, expressed his support for the Zionist ethnostate.

This is not to suggest that there is no opposition to the BJP and its ideology inside India – in fact, opposition to the Hindutva ethnonationalist vision of the BJP is growing. However, we must not allow the Indian communities in the diaspora to become unchallenged partisans of Hindutva philosophy. The ghost of Gandhi’s assassin needs to be exorcised.