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Finally in Africa? Egypt, from Cheikh Anta Diop to Theodore Celenko

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. (78) 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)

[ Egypt in Africa is a collectiv work edited by Theodore Celenko ]

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'.

[ Diop in Dakar, C14 Carbon- Laboratorium ]

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. (88) 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. (98) 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)


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