"UNFITTED BY ages of tropical life for any effective instrusion the White Race, the negro and negroid people remained without any influence on the development of civilization."
Those words in 1926 by James Henry Breasted, dean of American Egyptologists, echoed the dominant sentiment of the time: that black Africa had no share in the creation of any of the first civilizations of man. This message was so powerful and so tenacious that as recently as May 31, Dr. Edward Bleiberg, assistant director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeaology at Memphis State University, stated categorically in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that "Egyptians were considered Caucasians."
This, then, is the crux of a controversy that has flared up repeatedly throughout the 155-year existence of Egyptology. The argument continues today, but in the face of ever-increasing evidence that civilization -- like the human race itself -- began in Africa, it is clearly doomed.
The controversy was opened in 1791 by France's Count Volney, scholar, world-traveler, confidant of Benjamin Franklin and an aristocrat of pronounced republican sympathies. In Egypt, he had seen age-old monuments and temples lying half-buried in the sand and had pondered the meaning of civilization, its rise and its fall -- reflections that he gave free reign in his "Ruins of Empires." . How is it, he mused, that "a people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and the sciences. A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe."
On this point the count had not the slightest doubt: the Greeks had unanimously proclaimed Egypt's Africa origins and the stony evidence of the sphinx -- whose features were clearly etched in the African mold -- confirmed it. Was it not one of the crueler ironies of history that the very people who had given the world civilization were now a race of slaves and outcasts?
In 1799, Napoleon's engineers on his Egyptian campaign discovered the Rosetta Stone. Immediately, it caused a sensation in the learned circles of Europe, for on it were inscriptions in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic (a cursive from of hieroglyphics) and Greek. It was evident the three panels represented the same inscription in three languages, so it was possible to proceed with a decipherment of the hieroglyphs and the Demotic by reference to the Greek. In 1822, the genius of Jean-Francois Champollion finally solved the decipherment riddle. With this, the age of Egyptology proper began. A door to the past was opened that many had thought permanently closed.
Astonishment and Vexation
Averitable explosion of interest in things Egyptian occurred. Champollion and others in France, Germany, and England began translating important Egyptian documents. English and German expeditions mounted large-scale digs and collections of Egyptian artifacts, which soon filled musemums and private collections all over Europe. Unfolding before the eyes of an astounded world was a material splendor quite beyond the most admiring descriptions of the ancient Greeks.
The re-opening of this door to the past, however, contained some disquieting implications. The newly-translated inscriptions and documents revealed an intellectucal culture that had attained a startlingly advanced level of development. The prototypes of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, metallurgy, philosophy, religion and the arts were, by degrees, coming to light among the vast ruins of this intriguing civilization. For a people accustomed to believing for 15 centuries that all learning, all science, and all art had begun with the Greeks, the evidence of Egypt required a radical restructuring of thinking.
This posed vexing problems indeed. The profound success of modern Europe was built upon the system of colonization and African slavery, and Europe, led by her learned men, had persuaded herself not only that the enslavement of Africans was an historical necessity but that it would benefit Africans themselves by passing to them the light of civilization. Volney's ideas were suddenly downright subversive. Cherished Greece, not the father but the child? Not the master but the pupil? Of an African race? It just wouldn't do.
As the 19th century wore on, much of the philology of ancient Egyptian shifted to Germany, whose scholars applied their meticulous methods of research to the study of ancient Egyptian language. Finding many similarities in words and syntax between Egyptian and the Semitic languages, the Germans unhesitatingly proclaimed Egyptian to belong to this group. As a result, their leading Egyptologists -- Eber, Erman and Brugsch -- concluded that the impetus for Egyptian civilization itself came from a western Asiatic or Semitic source. Like others, they saw in the human figures on the Egyptian monuments -- many colored a reddish-brown -- evidence of a non-African "Mediterranean race." Anthropologically speaking, no such race ever existed, but that did not trouble them overmuch and the term has remained in vogue to this day.
By the early 20th century, paleoanatomists had examined many ancient Egyptian skeletons and, using their own craniometric criteria for racial classification, had proceeded to categorize the Egyptian skull samples. Thompson and MacIver classified 24 percent of pre-dynastic skulls and 25 percent of dynastic skulls in their sample as Negroid. The eminent Arthur Keith challenged their parameters because using them to classify a modern English sample of skulls would place fully 30 percent in the Negroid category! Nothing daunted, Faulkenburger, using his own parameters, classified pre-dynastic skulls as 36 percent Negroid, 33 percent Mediterranean, 11 percent Cro-Magnoids and 20 percent "mixed."
After Count Volney, there continued to be a few dissenting voices "crying in the wilderness" of learned opinion, and now and then even one of the recognized members of the Egyptological confraternity swam against the tide. The most conspicuous was the prolific E.A.W. Budge. Unusual for an Egyptologist, he had conducted extensive research among the peoples of the Sudan and Ethiopia -- encountering cultural practices, religious ideas and languages which showed clear and identifiable linkages to ancient Egypt. It became clear to Budge that everything about ancient Egypt could be understood only by reference to Africa; there was nothing fundamentally Asiatic about Egyptian culture. In 1920, in his massive and erudite "Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary," Budge, reversing a 100-year trend and his own earlier opinion, classified Egyptian as an African rather than a Semitic language.
The true reversal of the tide, however, came from outside the circles of European scholarship. From the 20th century's second decade on, a few obscure black scholars in America began to challenge the de-Africanizing impulse in Egyptian historiography. Among these were the journalist J. A. Rogers, William Leo Hansberry, Willis N. Huggins, John G. Jackson and no less than W.E.B. DuBois. But the man who did more than any other to restore Egypt to her place in African history was from the other side of the Atlantic.
Out of the South
The late Cheikh Anta Diop was a Senegalese scholar who first went to Paris in 1946 to become a physicist. He remained there 15 years, studying physics under Frederick Joliot-Curie, Madame Curie's son-in-law and ultimately translating parts of Einstein's Theory of Relativity into his native Wolof. Diop also mastered studies of African history, Egyptology, linguistics, anthropology, economics and sociology as he armed himself for the task of setting the historical record straight. He developed an investigative method that was comparative, eclectic and Afro-centric. Ultimately his arguments in favor of an African or "Negro" origin of Egyptian civilization won widespread international support by virtue of his erudition and brilliance and the logical force of his ideas, and with him appears a whole new school of African historiography. The following elucidation of evidence owes much to the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, who died last year.
The first line of evidence in favor of an African origin of Egyptian civilization comes from the Egyptians themselves. They called their land "Kamit," i.e., "the Black Land," and their own name for themselves was "Kamiu," which translates literally as "the Blacks." Their word for the African lands to the south of them was "Khenti" -- "Khentiu" denoting the Sudanic peoples who lived there -- and this is also their word for "first, foremost, beginning, origin, chief."
Furthermore, the Egyptian word for "east" is the same as their word for "left" and their word for "west" the same as their word for "right." This makes sense only if the Egyptians oriented themselves southward and looked in that direction for the land of their origins. No people coming from north of Egypt would have oriented themselves in this way -- particularly since Egypt's location in the northern hemisphere lends itself more naturally to a northward orientation. Further evidence is found in the Egyptians' anthropomorphic representations of the passage of the sun across the heavens, in which the boat of the sun begins its morning or eastern ascent on the left side of the sky-goddess Nut -- who thus is in a southern heaven despite Egypt's northern hemispheric location.
Moreover, whenever Egyptian inscriptions refer to Egyptian origins, the land of Punt -- present-day Somalia and northern Kenya -- is pointed to as the ancestral homeland. One word for inner Africa, "yau," is the same as their word for "old," making inner Africa "the old country" of immigration. Inner Africa also was Ta-Neter, "the Land of the Gods." Everything about the interior of Africa evoked in the Egyptians a sense of awe, reverence and nostalgia.
Additional evidence of Egypt's origins comes from the geneaology of Noah in Genesis. Noah's three sons are Ham, Shem and Japeth, the ancestors of the three main branches of humankind known to the biblical writers. Ham is indubitably the ancestor of the black race; his name comes from the Egyptian "kam" meaning "black." His sons are Misraim (Egypt), Cush (Ethiopia), Canaan (Palestine) and Phut (Punt or East Africa). Though allegorical on one level, the Old Testament writers were accurately reflecting known ethnic relationships of antiquity by placing the Egyptians in the black or African branch of humanity.
Finally, unequivocal statements on the subject come from the Greek writers of antiquity. Herodotus -- an eyewitness -- makes the most definitive statement when he compares the Egyptians, by virtue of their black skin and woolly hair, to the Colchians and Ethiopians. There are nearly a dozen other surviving references in Greek literature to the race and color of the Egyptians, from writers as diverse as Aeschylus, Aristotle and Strabo, and they unanimously confirm the remarks of Herodotus. The fact that the Egyptians were black and African was so completely self-evident to the ancient Greeks that it was a commonplace seldom worthy of special notice.
Cheikh Anta Diop was the first to challenge the older description of ancient Egyptians as a "dark red" or "Mediterranean" race. As Diop pointed out, many peoples throughout Africa have a reddish-brown complexion -- including the modern-day Masai of Kenya. Diop was also the first to propose a systematic study of the melanin content of Egyptian mummy skin. His own investigations had shown that mummies contained concentrations of that dark pigment entirely comparable to that of sub-Saharan Africans. As for Falkenburger's craniometric studies, Diop demonstrated that many skulls from sub-Saharan Africa meet the "Mediterranean" criteria of Falkenburger's schema -- in effect invalidating the whole premise.
The last issue that Diop disposed of, in collaboration with his Congolese linguist colleague, Theophile Obenga, was that of language. At a landmark symposium in Cairo in 1973, Diop and Obenga showed beyond all doubt what Budge had affirmed nearly 50 years earlier: that Egyptian was fundamentally an African language. The Semitic elements in the language come from late borrowings and, as the noted linguist Joseph Greenberg has attested, from the Semitic languages' own origins in the northeast African group. The Cairo symposium marked the beginning of the end for scholarship that sought to deny Egypt's African origin.
An African Renaissance
The Diopian thesis broke like a tidal wave upon the bulwarks of conventional Egyptology. It occasioned two kinds of responses: (1) absolute silence or (2) shrill rebuttal, and this pattern continues to the present. But in 1980 Bruce Williams, of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, discovered artifacts -- originally recovered in 1962 prior to the opening of the Aswan Dam -- from a pharoaonic kingship in Nubia (northeast Africa) 300 years before the first Egyptian dynasty. With that discovery, the Afrophobic Egyptology born of the 19th century has become a scholarship in retreat.
For Diop and those who have followed him, the study of Egypt's place in African history is fundamental to the African renaissance he envisaged, much the way the rediscovery of the values of Greek civilization gave impetus to the European Renaissance of four centuries ago. It demands a wholesale reassessment of African and world history. Already the imaginative scholarship of Ivan Van Sertima of Rutgers University has brought forth important evidence of an Egyptian presence in pre-Columbian America in 800 B.C. and perhaps even earlier. Heretofore unsuspected connections between ancient Africa and other civilizations are emerging. Our vision of the past, which informs our present and guides our future, is undergoing, as it must, a radical revision.. The consequences of this can be expected to have a profound impact on succeeding generations
The Committee on Africa and the Diaspora of St. Augustine Church in Washington assisted in the development of this article.