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.
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.