Attention to our common social history, from the food we eat to the human ideals and values we proclaim, is more likely to lead us to a better world than that shaped by the recent colonial past and its aftermath.
The African Dimension of Egyptian Origins
11 May 2021
Egypt is an African country situated in the northeastern part of the African continent. Throughout its long and complex history, the Nile River connected it to other African countries upriver, and its desert once verdant due to climatic fluctuations connected it with African regions south and west, and with southwest Asia via the Sinai Peninsula. Situated at the northern fringe of Africa, Egyptians engaged with peoples of the Mediterranean Islands and southern coastal regions.
Originating in eastern and southern parts of Africa, Early Humans made their way to Egypt, which served as the incubator of the Early Humans that were later to spread from northern Egypt to Southwest Asia and eventually to the rest of Asia and Europe permitted by the climatic fluctuations during the last Ice Age. The genetic split from African Egyptian population and non-African populations occurred at ca. 55,000 years ago.
Favored with agricultural production and an interrupted flow of the river irrigating a cultivable flood plain from Nubia to the apex of the Delta, and in response to local fluctuations in agricultural yield, villages in Egypt began the process of cooperation creating ever-expanding alliances that eventually led to the rise of the Egyptian state.
At the end of the last Ice age, global warming from 18,000 to 10,000 years ago, a transitional period of rapid alternation of dry and wet conditions, permitted an acceleration of cultural innovations. These included the emergence of cultivating domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated cattle, sheep/goats and pigs in southwest Asia. From there, herding spread to the Red Sea hills and the Western Desert of Egypt around 7800 years ago although cattle herding likely arose independently. At that time, African peoples of the Nile Valley depended on fishing as a dependable source of subsistence, while peoples in other regions of Africa diversified their dependence on wild food resources.
By around 7000 years ago when dry desert conditions shaping the desert landscape we now know began to replace the green Sahara, agricultural production became established along the Nile Valley from the Delta to the Sudan. After the introduction of food production in Egypt, desert oases fed by groundwater and areas of hilly ranges and basins began to serve as stations in the cultural connections between Egypt and the Central Sahara as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.
Favored with agricultural production and an interrupted flow of the river irrigating a cultivable flood plain from Nubia to the apex of the Delta, and in response to local fluctuations in agricultural yield, villages in Egypt began the process of cooperation creating ever-expanding alliances that eventually led to the rise of the Egyptian state. In the meantime, agricultural and herding practices spread from Egypt and the Sudan to other African provinces due the ongoing cultural contacts among African peoples associated with trade, population movements and transmission and exchange of ideas and goods. Herding prevailed where pastures were present, whereas farming was practiced where land and water were available.
African peoples maintained a political organization known as chiefdoms, which in later times became the basis for the rise of African kingdoms in many countries in response to changing political situations due to trade and encounters with colonial forces.
Other studies reveal that the elite who ruled the Nagada region during the Nagada Period (3800–3500 BC) were an intermarrying segment of the local population more closely related to populations in northern Nubia than to neighboring populations in southern Egypt. Intermingling with peoples from southwest Asia was more prevalent in the northern parts of the country.
The original African populations of the Nile Valley, who showed a local gradual change in physical traits from south to north due to distance, hosted peoples who drifted from southwest Asia. The peoples of Nagada (Naqada) from 3800 to 3600 BC, near Luxor, were more similar to the earlier herding/farming communities in Badari, near Assyut (starting around 4400 BC) who in turn were closer in their biological affinity to the Nubians. In addition, examination of 12 Egyptian and Nubian groups revealed that they are similar, which indicates there may have been some sort of gene flow between these groups of Nubians and Egyptians or a common adaptation to similar environments.
Other studies reveal that the elite who ruled the Nagada region during the Nagada Period (3800–3500 BC) were an intermarrying segment of the local population more closely related to populations in northern Nubia than to neighboring populations in southern Egypt. Intermingling with peoples from southwest Asia was more prevalent in the northern parts of the country. Greater interregional exchanges homogenized the biological profile of Egyptians increasing the similarity between northern and southern populations.
Yet another study, of the dental features, reveals that 1) the Badarian and Naqada peoples may be closely related, and 2) by 3000 BC, when the Egyptian unified state was established, the Nile Valley became a melting pot of original inhabitants of the Nile Valley with their southern affinities, and drifters from the North African Sahara and Southwest Asia. The Dynastic period that followed was an indigenous continuation and transformation of the Naqada culture. 3) There is support for overall biological uniformity through the dynastic period, and 4) this uniformity continued into Post- dynastic times. The indigenous origins of the Egyptian state and the overall biological uniformity throughout the dynastic period is confirmed by another recent study.
Genetically, recent studies reveal that the Egyptians include genetic imprints of the peoples of North Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as Middle Eastern peoples, indicating the significance of the geographic situation of Egypt and the cultural relationships between Egypt and its neighbors. The early Nile Valley populations were coextensive with regional African populations, and were later in constant contact with other neighboring African populations.
The idea of an Arab identity under the slogan of Arab nationalism was most emphasized by [President Gamal Abdel-Nasser] as a means by which an Arab alliance could be established to counteract western hegemonic forces. Nevertheless, Egypt was also a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and supported independence/decolonization liberation movements in Africa from Algeria to the Congo.
Throughout its history, peoples from the regions adjacent to the Nile Valley, including the Mediterranean basin, came and settled in Egypt (especially during the period from the 4th century BC to the 7th century AD with a significant influx from peoples from the Greek and Roman empires). The influx of peoples from the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century AD, converting Egypt into a colony of the Arabic/Islamic empire, led within a few centuries, not without resistance, to the adoption of Arabic language and eventually the conversion of the majority of the population to Islam. By then Egypt had been from 30 BC to 395 AD under the rule of the Romans with their forays in North Africa. Christianity found its way to Egypt before the commencement of the Byzantine rule in 395 AD. Notwithstanding the relatively small number of Arab settlers who flocked to Egypt after capture and recapture of Alexandria (642 AD and 646 AD) , the predominant use of the Arabic language as an official language and the conversion to Islamic faith coupled with the loss of the Egyptian language as well as the disappearance of ancient Egyptian religious establishment and the marginalization of Coptic traditions, gradually transformed Egypt into an “Arab” country in the cultural sense. Egyptian scholars became actively engaged in the evolving “Arab” culture of the Islamic empire, especially later when religious identity was fundamental to the struggle between medieval [Moslem] Mamelukes and [Christian] crusaders. This “Islamic identity” was maintained under the Ottomans who ruled Egypt after the Mamelukes and remains the foundation of contemporary Egyptian ethos in part due to the authority and teachings of Al-Azhar which was until recently the bastion of learning and education in Egypt.
Although President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1918-1970) championed the perspective that Egypt had three identities (Arab, African, Islamic), the idea of an Arab identity under the slogan of Arab nationalism was most emphasized by him as a means by which an Arab alliance could be established to counteract western hegemonic forces. Nevertheless, Egypt was also a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and supported independence/decolonization liberation movements in Africa from Algeria to the Congo.
In his opening speech of the 1964 conference of the OAU, attended by nearly all the heads of the 34 member African states, Nasser listed the achievements toward peace and social justice in the world in the last year, hailing in particular the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in the United States. He called on African leaders to make a major effort to organize and unite the nearly score of liberation movements opening in the remaining colonial territories.
At the start of Egyptological studies, emerging within a colonial context, numerous theories, with no factual basis, were propagated to explain the emergence of Egyptian civilization.
However, although the heightened emphasis on the Arab identity for political objectives might have contributed both to obfuscating the relationship of modern Egyptians to ancient Egypt, and at the same time, their deeply rooted African affinities, other reasons for distancing Egypt from its African partners and neighbors might have been the breakdown in Egyptian-Libyan relations, the Ethiopian Revolution, and Soviet penetration of the African continent during the reign of President Anwar Sadat. Although during the succeeding reign of President Hosni Mubarak there were efforts to establish good ties with African countries, the assassination attempt in Addis Ababa and the expanding role of many foreign countries in Africa led to a diminution of Egyptian ties with other African countries coinciding with and contributing to conflicts over Nile waters in the Nile Basin.
From an African perspective, the developing views of Egypt under new African regimes, found ammunition in the role of Arab slave traders in the sub-Saharan and transcontinental slave trade along with Europeans and some local African rulers and agents, manipulated by European colonial forces within the strategy of divide and rule, even within the same African country, and at times by African rulers who were inclined to adopt exclusive nationalist policies. Sadly, and shamefully, the enslavement and trade in “Black” slaves in Egypt, which persisted until 1877–1895, still casts its dark shadows on the way many Egyptians view their African neighbors under the influence of the European racist colonial discourse, as well as the esteem and envy towards the Turkish ruling elite and their Circassian (white) female wives and harem slaves.
At the start of Egyptological studies, emerging within a colonial context, numerous theories, with no factual basis, were propagated to explain the emergence of Egyptian civilization. One of the now defunct theories is that Egyptian civilization was due to an invasion by a Master race; this was the Dynastic Race theory. In addition, some anthropologists and philologists used racial theories to distinguish what they called a “Hamitic” race vis-à-vis another, but related, race called “Semitic,” speaking Hamitic and Semitic languages, respectively. These terms in this instance were associated with a theory that postulated that some northern and eastern regions of Africa had been colonized by “civilizing” SW Asians, “Europeans” who spoke Hamitic languages and were later joined by Semitic speakers (Phoenicians and Arabs). Today most historical linguists no longer use these terms associated with this racist theory, and use a different nomenclature, specifically Afroasiatic or Afrasian.
The linguistic evidence and models best support Afro-Asiatic as having emerged in Africa because all of the branches are restricted to Africa except one; this is called the locale of the greatest diversity.
The family or phylum of languages to which Ancient Egyptian belongs is called Afro-Asiatic in most accounts, and is perhaps related to the 21,000–32,000 years before present during the end of the last Ice Age. The linguistic evidence and models best support Afro-Asiatic as having emerged in Africa because all of the branches are restricted to Africa except one; this is called the locale of the greatest diversity. Based on the principle of “least moves,” the ancestral language is to found there, somewhere between Egypt and the Horn of Africa, i.e., near the center of the distribution of the constituent families. This language phylum extends from Mauretania to Egypt down to Tanzania.
The other language family spoken in Saharan and parts of sub-Saharan Africa is called Nilo-Saharan, which is spoken in 17 nations in the northern half of Africa: from Algeria to Mali in the west; from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the center; and from Egypt to Tanzania in the east. Eight of its proposed constituent divisions are found in the modern countries of Sudan and South Sudan, through which the Nile River flows. The Nilo-Saharan linguistic unity apparently dates back to the end of the last Ice Age (late Upper Paleolithic archaeological period).
Sadly, one of the main impediments is the persistence of inherited statements that perpetuate defunct racist constructions of African peoples that were once provided in the context of “science.”
Today, the wave of racialist colonialism, associated in part, with the spread of Christianity by preachers in Africa confronting both indigenous African religions and earlier Islamic enclaves established through trade and Arab colonies is receding. Having gained their independence, after decades of colonial deleterious interferences with indigenous political systems, economics and education, African peoples are still struggling with disruption of their political systems, serious economic inequities and political interference due to the economic, political and military might of ex-colonial European nations, as well as other rising political economic powers in America, India, China, Japan and petrodollar countries. Africa today is a contested continent, yet to shape its own destiny as one of the most promising world powers on the basis of equitable union and cooperative development.
Sadly, one of the main impediments is the persistence of inherited statements that perpetuate defunct racist constructions of African peoples that were once provided in the context of “science.” This is appalling given that Modern anthropological and linguistic studies have destroyed the myth of races quite some time ago. In addition, to be “African” does not mean to necessarily be “Black” or “Brown” or to have certain facial features judging by the extensive variations in Africa, even sub-Saharan Africa, which begins in southern Egypt. The biological assimilation of various peoples into a range of African populations is a part of African biological history. As Uroš Matić concludes in 2018, at the end of a detailed examination of scientific racism in the archaeology and historiography of Egypt and Nubia , the de-colonization of the intellectual discourse in Egyptology requires a fundamental rethinking of the colonial remnants of scientific racism in the present, and how these remnants still shape our interpretations of Egypt and Nubia. It is time to rid our minds of the racialist discourse with its confusion between biology and culture and of the falsehood of racial purity and the futility and perils of racial discourse.
In addition, to be “African” does not mean to necessarily be “Black” or “Brown” or to have certain facial features judging by the extensive variations in Africa.
The case of the “Naqada” skulls reveals clearly the racialist context associated with the now defunct claims of the origins of Egyptians. W. M. F. Petrie, who retrieved a collection of skulls from the cemeteries of Nagada, thought initially that they belonged to a dynastic “New Race” of the same stock as “Libyans” who had invaded Egypt from the East with connections to the Red Sea and Mediterranean and possibly to Phoenician traders . Jacques de Morgan, who excavated at Naqada after Petrie left in 1897, assigned the Naqada culture to a pre-dynastic period.
Petrie conceded but still considered the objects to show a wide difference due to the entry of a different race between 5000 BC and 4000 BC. Fawcett who studied the Naqada skulls concluded that they appeared to be “racially” homogeneous; some features indicated primitive characters, others “civilized”; they belonged to substantially the same race of Theban populations in 1500 BC with some divergence in characteristics, but Fawcett did not find evidence of a distinct race or a race comparable to the ‘Libyans’ as Petrie had claimed. Later, non-metric parameters, such as teeth, were used still with the assumption that they can be used to detect biological (racial) affiliation. Using non-metrical variation, Berry and Berry found that the series of Egyptian crania from different excavations now in British collections changed very little through Pre-dynastic, Old and Middle Kingdom times. Only in the New Kingdom (when there was considerable immigration into the Nile Valley) was the earlier stability upset. Moreover, Berry and Berry state that “comparison with non-Egyptian series showed the early Egyptian ‘type’ to be much more like a north Indian series than ones of semitic, negroid or north European origins.” It is remarkable that such confusion of biological affiliations, language, culture, not to mention associated traits of “intelligence” and “moral character” associated with “race” in early 20th century scientific discourse, persisted until the 1970s, and do sadly have some lingering remnants today. I am personally skeptical of the results of cranial metric and non-metrical parameters and their significance not only on grounds of sampling problems and representation of the target population, but more importantly because of their dubious link to “origins” and “migrations” in view of other non-cranial physical attributes as well as non-osteological attributes. This explains, for example, how a recent study of Saharan and Egyptian populations using non-metrical data reveal four clusters of the (Libyan) Garamantes, the second included the Egyptian Gizeh and Nubian Kerma, and the third comprised the Nubian Soleb, Alexandrians, Algerians and Tunisian Carthagenians. The Garamantes appeared rather isolated possessing distant affinities to their neighbors. Pre-dynastic Badarian and Nagada populations clustered separately from later populations. The authors could not fully explain their results which may be due to the pitfalls of the methods used.
Peoples of Africa, including Egyptians, have to recognize the course of historical events and how they contributed to the recent current cultural and political differentiation of African peoples who share a common background going back to the prehistoric past. Egyptians and fellow Africans have also to develop a deeper understanding of the situations Americans of African descent face….
Peoples of Africa, including Egyptians, have to recognize the course of historical events and how they contributed to the recent current cultural and political differentiation of African peoples who share a common background going back to the prehistoric past. Egyptians and fellow Africans have also to develop a deeper understanding of the situations Americans of African descent face with the painful memories of the forced abduction from their African homelands, cruel mistreatment in plantations, and decades of struggle to reclaim their rights as equal and free citizens in a hostile society still ridden with its fantasies of white supremacy.
Attention to our common social history, from the food we eat to the human ideals and values we proclaim, is more likely to lead us to a better world than that shaped by the recent colonial past and its aftermath.
As all of us, in and outside Africa, move forward to an era of global interconnectivity, we have to put aside racial myths and the reductionist approaches to history replete with false, distorted and biased views of who we are and how we came to be what and who we are. Recent investigations clearly reveal the common history of humankind and the intercultural connections between peoples of the world beneath the veneer of state politics and the exploits of kings and emperors. Attention to our common social history, from the food we eat to the human ideals and values we proclaim, is more likely to lead us to a better world than that shaped by the recent colonial past and its aftermath.
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