Cheikh Anta Diop, the man who gave the pharaohs back to Africa

By Laurent De Saint Perier

Posted on Saturday, 18 February 2023 11:30
Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop ©Jeune Afrique montage, all rights reserved

“Pharaonic Egypt is an African civilisation, developed in Africa by Africans”: what seems obvious today – except, perhaps, for Nicolas Sarkozy and his “monkeys” – has long been passed over in silence, or even openly denied by the Egyptology developed in European laboratories. We owe it to the scientist, historian, anthropologist and politician Cheikh Anta Diop for having given what belongs to Africa back to Africa.

Born almost a century ago on 29 December 1923, in Thieytou, Senegal, the researcher went to Paris to study and provoked a scandal in academic circles by publishing, in 1954, Nations nègres et culture (Negro Nations and Culture), the doctoral thesis for which he had been unable to assemble a jury at the Sorbonne three years earlier, due to a lack of interest from the teachers.

His chapter, ‘Origine des anciens Égyptiens’, which opened Volume II of the General History of Africa (published in 1984 by UNESCO and Jeune Afrique two years before his death, in Dakar, on 7 February 1986), summarised his final conclusions.

‘Negroid features’

Relying on ancient and contemporary European sources on pharaonic iconography, linguistics, invoking craniometry, the study of blood groups and skin pigmentation, Anta Diop asserted that “the Egyptian population was Negro during the predynastic period” and that it was the same during the dynastic period (that of the pharaohs), where “wherever the indigenous racial type is rendered with any degree of clarity, it appears to be Negroid”.

“The typically Negroid features of the pharaohs Narmer, 1st dynasty, the founder of the line of pharaohs, Djoser, 3rd dynasty (with him all the technological elements of Egyptian civilisation were already in place), Cheops, the builder of the Great Pyramid (of Cameroonian type) […], show that all the classes of Egyptian society belonged to the same Black race,” he wrote.

Egypt, the matrix of African cultures

For the scientist, trained in physics and chemistry, the Nile Valley was not only the crucible from which a Black people drew the civilisation that shone on the world for three millennia but also the matrix of the social, dynastic and ritual structures of later African cultures.

According to Diop, this was proven by numerous similarities in customs and language.

“When it was discovered that Egypt had a prehistory, Egyptologists went looking for its sources in the great Mesopotamian civilisations, still convinced that the light could only come from the East. This theory prevailed until the 1960s,” says Béatrix Midant-Reynes, a specialist in Egyptian prehistory and director of research at the CNRS in Paris.

Rediscovered scientifically and militarily by Europe with the expedition of General Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, isn’t Egypt also the cradle of Orientalism?

Orientalism was an artistic movement in vogue in a Europe possessed by fantasies of a “sensual and mysterious Orient” but also as a discourse of European and then Western political and cultural domination, denounced in 1978 by the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said in Orientalism.

The creation of the Orient was answered by the creation of Africa, a land outside of history to which Europe had the duty to bring its civilisation. Egypt, the “mother of science, art and history” celebrated by Athens and Rome before Paris and London, studied by scholars from the academic orientalist establishment, could not be linked to it, despite its obvious geographical membership.

Detached from its continent, set up as an autonomous world, daughter of the Nile alone, fertilised by the East, Egypt was placed in the wrong place on the map of white cultures, supposed to have brought civilisation and power to Europe from Asia, via Athens and Rome.

Ignorance and contempt

In 1908, as colonial expansion accelerated, Hachette’s 6th grade French manual taught: “There is much discussion about the origin of the Egyptians. The most competent Egyptologists, M. Maspero in particular, consider them to be a people of mixed blood, but where Semitic blood dominates, that is to say, the blood of the descendants of Shem, son of Noah. The Egyptians, therefore, came from Asia, whereas the Greeks believed they came from Africa, from the southern countries and from Ethiopia”.

The typically Negroid features of the pharaohs Narmer … show that all the classes of Egyptian society belonged to the same Black race.

In 1954, Diop brought back to the forefront of Egyptology those testimonies of the time, of “Westerners”, who, from Herodotus to Strabo, mention the Black skin and the African ancestry of the ancient Egyptians.

“Cheikh Anta Diop’s contribution is to have thrown a spanner in the works and forced scientific circles to consider this question more carefully if only to try to contradict it,” continues the palaeontologist. “Today, no one denies the strong African influence on the constitution of the Egyptian civilisation, nor its ancient settlement from the sub-Saharan belt, at the time of the rise of the monsoons towards the North, around 10,000 BC.

“But we must put this into perspective and also take into account the important role played by the cultures of the Negev and the Nile Delta that were oriented towards the Levant.”

In 1960, Sorbonne finally granted Anta Diop a doctorate for the thesis he had been unable to submit a decade earlier. Nevertheless, the academic world, both Western and Egyptian, for a long time ignored him and sometimes treated him with contempt.

Martin Bernal, a professor of history at Cornell University, revived the debate in the 1990s with the first of three volumes of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, published in 1987, a year after Diop’s death. For its author, Greek civilisation, considered to be the origin of Western civilisation, was the result of a period of Egyptian and Phoenician colonisation, i.e. Afro-Asian. In line with Diop and Said, Bernal denounced “the appropriation by the West of the culture of the ancient Near East in the service of its own project”.

Political ideology or historical approach?

“Every era has its own filter of thought, and the human sciences, of which history is a part, are no exception,” says Midant-Reynes. “Institutions such as the CNRS are now very sensitive to the major questions of climate, the invention of the Anthropocene, etc., and in a few years’ time, the current research will appear to be marked by this debate.

In the same way, Diop’s research is situated at the turning point of African independence, at a time when these young nations were claiming an identity and a historical depth that they had been denied. The problem is when political ideology is imposed on the historical approach”.

The criticism levelled at Anta Diop by the Cartesian academicism of European research is that he uses certain facts to demonstrate an often radical conviction, rather than studying all the facts without any preconceived ideas in order to draw conclusions.

In 1996, in L’Afrique de Cheikh Anta Diop: histoire et idéologie (Cheikh Anta Diop’s Africa: History and Ideology) François-Xavier Fauvelle, the current holder of the first chair of African studies at the Collège de France, dissected for the first time the Senegalese intellectual’s method and thought process. For Diop, he writes, “the establishment of truth does not require the mobilisation of facts. The truth stems from simple logical reasoning […]. The facts are secondary. The facts are ancillary. They allow, at most, for verification”.

“His work is indeed a thesis,” says Beninese pan-Africanist historian Amzat Boukari-Yabara, “but the author relies on largely Western sources, both ancient and modern, as well as on linguistics and ethnology. Yet French academics persist in their obsession with stripping Cheikh Anta Diop of his scientificity and focusing specifically on Egypt, even though he has dealt with many other subjects.”

It’s like a dialogue of the deaf, in which each party considers the other to be irrelevant, Boukari-Yabara sums up, echoing the regret expressed by Spanish Egyptologist Josep Cervelló Autuori at the end of a Barcelona colloquium which, in March 1996, brought together – for the first time – recognised Egyptologists from the “Dakar School” and Western academia: “The Western Academy continues, consciously or unconsciously, to construct “its” truth, which it believes to be universal and obvious, by virtue of its scientific and philosophical method, and the elements, resulting from unorthodox approaches, that foreign groups barely integrated into its discursive universe can bring to it, hardly interest it.

“Black African intellectuals, on the other hand, active [in their circles] but passive outside, seem to seek, with their own academicism and for the use of their political-university segment, a series of cultural categories capable of explaining the past, the present and the characteristics that define their societies. If dialogue mattered more to them, perhaps they would no longer need to resort to accusations of racism […] against Westerners ‘who don’t listen’.”

Melanin and blood types

Will the exponential progress of technology, especially in the field of genetics, make it possible to definitively settle the debate on the origins and physical appearance of the ancient Egyptians? In his chapter of the General History of Africa, Diop called for a thorough analysis of mummies’ melanin grains and blood types, which he believed would confirm a sub-Saharan Negroid ancestry and appearance.

In 1985, a year after the publication of this book, a researcher succeeded in studying the DNA of a mummified Egyptian child. However, it took years of progress before palaeogenetics could be developed in the 2010s. The first discoveries of this new discipline have sometimes contradicted – and sometimes confirmed – Anta Diop’s conclusions.

In 2017, scientists from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany published the conclusions of their genetic research on 151 mummies from the New Empire to the Roman period in the journal Nature: “Our analyses reveal that ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than contemporary Egyptians, who received a sub-Saharan contribution in more recent [post-Roman] periods. In view of this early research, the sub-Saharan element appears to be far less important in Egypt than Diop assumed.”

In contrast, in 2018, British geneticists discovered that the “Cheddar Man”, like other Mesolithic congeners unearthed in Europe, had dark skin, frizzy hair and blue eyes. Further sequencing now suggests that between 40,000 BC and 6,000 BC, the inhabitants of Europe had dark skin and hair, far from European school images – which seems to confirm Diop’s thesis of a recent settlement of Eurasia by Africa.

…If dialogue mattered more to them, perhaps they would no longer need to resort to accusations of racism […] against Westerners ‘who don’t listen’.

“Paleogenetics is going to change many things, but it is not yet advanced enough to be able to offer physiognomic details,” says prehistorian Midant-Reynes. “So no one can say when and under what influences the ‘negroid features’ dear to Diop appeared”.

Plaque paying homage to Cheikh Anta Diop, 31 rue des Écoles, Paris. ©CC/Celette

The exploration of the origins of humanity has only just begun and its surprises have not ended, both at the Dakar School and at the Collège de France. “Egypt belongs only to itself, but it was formed on African soil, by African people. And the whole of its southern part, at the gateway to Sudan, has been, for thousands of years, its most dynamic region, the cradle of its ideological construction and its monarchy. For us, this is an obvious fact, but perhaps it needs to be made clearer to the general public,” concludes the French prehistorian. He recommended starting with schools, where the youngest students still hold a real fascination for the pharaohs.

Reductive school lessons

In 2017, participants in a conference at the University of Toulouse II on the theme “France in the mirror of Egypt. Cultural imperialism, heritage and scholarly knowledge (1880-2015)” noted that even as the lessons on Ancient Egypt were greatly reduced in primary and secondary schools, the theme’s presentation remained faithful to the obsolete prism of the Third Republic, that of an Egypt that was the daughter of the East and the mother of European civilisations.

“From 2008 onwards, Egypt has been diluted in the history of the East and the lesson on the beginnings of writing. […] Its evocation also serves as a gateway to Antiquity and Gaul, and thus to the national novel”.

The evidence that ancient Egypt was African is far from settled. Worse, a January 2023 survey revealed that one in five French people aged between 18 and 24 believed that the Egyptian pyramids had been built by aliens. Shouldn’t this “conversion of France’s view of Africa and Africa’s view of France”, which French President Emmanuel Macron regularly invokes, begin with teaching the African nature of ancient Egypt?

“Cheikh Anta Diop was a pioneer in the decolonisation of history and the revaluation of the African historical narrative. However, he remains banned from school curricula, and universities refuse to discuss his work,” laments Boukari-Yabara. Yet this task might not be so daunting for Pap Ndiaye, the current French Minister of Education, a historian of Black minorities and whose father, Tidiane, was a compatriot and contemporary of Anta Diop.

Wasn’t it Ndiaye who – a year ago in these pages – asked for the society to “definitively turn the page of Françafrique and to engage France in a new path in its relations with the continent”? For, beyond the improvement of relations between France and the African people, the shared recognition of the Africanness of ancient Egypt touches on the universal, as the poet Aimé Césaire, who coined the term “négritude”, recalled:  “Historians have always considered Egypt as a kind of fact apart in Africa, we even forgot that Egypt was an African nation. By giving Africa back its past, Cheikh Anta Diop may have given humanity back its past”.

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