Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships

Even though Egypt is in Africa, in popular culture, Ancient Egyptians are often reconstructed as looking European or Southwest Asian (see for example the movies Ten Commandments and The Mummy). Many people, particularly those of African descent, have long argued that, being Africans, the Ancient Egyptian people would have been what we would call "black". Countering this are those who insist that Egyptians were somehow of "Mediterranean Caucasian" extraction (i.e. resembling Italians, Syrians, or Spaniards; people with similar morphology, but darker skin, than northern Europeans). What does the anthropological evidence really say?

Craniofacial Morphology

Keita (1990) compared the skulls of ancient Egyptians with those of pre-Islamic North Africans, Europeans, northern Sudanese, and sub-Saharan Africans. He found that (a) Northern Egyptians, and pre-Islamic North Africans in general, had a craniofacial morphology intermediate to that of Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans (thus, they could not be grouped into a larger “Caucasian” cluster with Europeans as Eurocentrists would want), while southern Egyptians were closest to northern Sudanese followed by more southerly Africans. He replicated ths finding greater southern Egyptian affinity to southerly Africans than “Caucasians” in Keita (2005).

It must be noted, though, that native Africans even south of the Sahara are physically diverse in appearance; they do not all show traits stereotyped as “Africoid features.” As Hiernaux (1975) writes, “In sub-Saharan Africa, many anthropological characters show a wide range of population means or frequencies. In some of them, the whole world range is covered in the sub-continent. Here live the shortest and the tallest human populations, the one with the highest and the one with the lowest nose, the one with the thickest and the one with the thinnest lips in the world. In this area, the range of the average nose widths covers 92 per cent of the world range: only a narrow range of extremely low means are absent from the African record. Means for head diameters cover about 80 per cent of the world range; 60 per cent is the corresponding value for a variable once cherished by physical anthropologists, the cephalic index, or ratio of the head width to head length expressed as a percentage.” Indeed, in the region adjacent to Egypt, many of the very black natives have features once judged “Caucasian” but probably the result of convergent evolution.


Postcranial Skeletal Morphology

Robins (1983) (cited in Zakrezewkis (2005)) measured the proportions of the limb bones of ancient Egyptians, and found that they were similar to those of populations in more tropical latitudes, calling them “super-Negroid”. This finding was replicated by Zakrezewski (2003), who concluded that “Egyptians generally have tropical body plans”. While limb proportions do not determine biological affinity with given populations as precisely as do genetic and craniofacial studies, they can determine what climate a population’s ancestors originated in. Since Egypt does not lie in the tropics, but is downriver from tropical Africa, this implies that the progenitors of the Egyptian nation settled the area from somewhere in tropical Africa.

Mummy Analysis

Mekota & Vermehren (2005) analyzed soft tissue from several New Kingdom Egyptian mummies, and found that the basal epithelial cells in the mummies’ skin were “packed with melanin as expected for specimens of Negroid origin.” “Negroid” is an old anthropological term traditionally used to denote people of tropical African heritage; while it is falling into disuse as anthropologists move away from a race-based paradigm, it still sometimes pops up in the literature.

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