The question of skin color or even the genetic history of the ancient Egyptians has many problems.
Scientists today still discuss the validity of skeletal measurements, while many political pundits prefer to refer to 19th-century texts to make their points.
Artist renditions are often mistaken for scientific facts, and too often, people focus on a single person and attempt to argue that all Egyptians must look like them,
Why Does The Race of Ancient Egyptians Matter?
During the 18th century, a debate arose regarding the skin of Ancient Egyptians. Were they “Copts” or “Ethiopian”?
George Cuvier, the great French scientist, believed that autopsied mummies proved they were “Caucasian.” Other academics referred to Herodotus, who described Egyptians as “dark-skinned” and “woolly-haired” and existed long before other races around them.
An Argument for Racism
While it may sound like an academic debate of mild interest, the question was critical to America during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. It was of vital importance to many arguments around the abolition of slavery.
If the people kept as slaves could produce the pyramids, how could anyone suggest they were of lower intelligence or reasoning than the contemporary white man?
Associate Justice John Campbell argued that, because Egypt’s reign continued in Greece, and what “white never loses,” it must be that Egypt was a caucasian country.
While unable to change the contemporary times, scholars continued to push the idea that Egyptians must have been some separate race to be so advanced, with books coming out as late as the 1990s promoting Dynastic Race Theory.
Dynastic Race Theory
Dynastic Race Theory (DRT) was a popular theory from the early 20th century that suggested the first kings of Egypt were invaders who had conquered the indigenous tribes of the area, bringing with them an advanced understanding of technology.
It was promoted by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, as he believed there were distinct skeletal differences between the skeletons of early kings and their subjects.
Followers of the theory generally believe these invaders were from Mesopotamia and, therefore, “not African,” DRT became new evidence to support the idea that “black Egyptians” could not be so technologically advanced.
DRT has not been accepted as a reasonable theory for decades, and Petrie’s method for measuring skeletons is considered archaic and unreliable.
Modern archeologists are happy to agree that Egypt’s change in governance and technology came from the same natural evolution of culture and people as any other area around the world.
An Argument for Afro-Centralism
During the 20th century, some writers, like Cheikh Anta Diop, attempted to claim that Ancient Egyptian rulers came from Central Africa. Diops’ views were openly biased by his attempts to promote an “Afrocentralist” viewpoint, which suggests all culture directly resulted from that which evolved in Africa.
Diop has been long praised for increasing awareness of both ancient and modern African culture and influencing the postcolonial movement in historical scholarship.
However, he has often been criticized for lacking robust methodology, ignoring modern linguistic studies, and falling into “pseudoarcheology.”
What Skin Color Did Ancient Egyptians Have?
A 1974 UNESCO symposium titled “On the Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script” was held to determine the history of Ancient Egyptians. It took submissions from experts worldwide, regardless of their conclusions, and the final decisions came to form chapters in a volume of “The General History of Africa.”
No participant in this symposium of nations supported the idea that ancient Egyptians were Caucasian.
The most popular opinion was that Ancient Egyptians were indigenous to the area, with a range of skin pigmentation and some familial relationships to the rest of Africa.
Modern scientists reject the idea of trying to classify race and skin color the same way political minds in America might try to do.
“When you talk about Egypt, it’s just not right to talk about black or white,” said Frank J. Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, when speaking to the Washington Post. “That’s all just American terminology, and it serves American purposes.”
Was Tutankhamun Black?
In 2007, the chief of Egyptian Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, told the world media that Tutankhamun was not black. This was terrific news for followers of Dynastic Race Theory, who supported this quote by pointing to artist renditions of the boy-king.
This conclusion was challenging to make. A 2005 CAT scan of the boy showed the skull of a North African but with a “nose opening suggested narrow nostrils – a European characteristic.”
Scientists agree that determining skin or eye color from scans is impossible, and reconstructions were based on the skin of contemporary Egyptians, affected by the interracial breeding of the last few centuries.
A genetics company attempted to look into the genetic markers of Tut but did not have all the data required to make a solid conclusion.
In the end, we don’t know the background of the child pharaoh other than his family (back to his grandparents) all lived in Egypt.
Was Cleopatra Black?
The argument that Cleopatra VII was black goes back to the 1940s and is repeated every few decades, but there is no evidence for such an argument.
An Austrian scientist in 2009 claimed that her mother may have been black, based on the skeletal measurements of a mummy he believed to be her sister. However, skeletal measurements are a poor indication of race.
The evidence that this particular skeleton was related to Cleopatra amounted to ancient notes and poorly maintained photographs of the original dig site.
Demographics of Egypt Today and Yesterday
By studying blood samples from mummies, scientists have discovered that they are similar to both the Egyptians of today and those in other areas of North Africa.
While studies continue, the current consensus is that the population of Egypt has not changed much over the millennia and primarily finds ancestors in North Africa and the Levant.
Were ancient Egyptians black? Well, it depends on your definition of “black.” Most came from North Africa or below, but there are some reasons to believe they mixed with people from the Levant and Europe.
However, there is no evidence that Dynastic Race Theory is valid, and any attempt to explore this beyond an academic interest is to court racism.
How to Cite this Article
1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:
Thomas Gregory, “Were Ancient Egyptians Black?”, History Hippo, November 15, 2022, https://historyhippo.com/were-ancient-egyptians-black/. Accessed December 3, 2022
2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL: https://historyhippo.com/were-ancient-egyptians-black/
3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:
<a href=”https://historyhippo.com/were-ancient-egyptians-black/”>Were Ancient Egyptians Black?</a>