Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 3 Ancient Egypt

Africa and Ancient Egypt

Collins, Problems in African History, pp. 7-55.

- this relationship (and indeed other relationships with cultures outside Africa) has been a matter of intense interest and speculation. The interest has been strongly influenced by contemporary concerns and preoccupations.

- in the late 19th C, archeology and Egyptology were making spectacular finds and progress; in Europe especially, Egypt was preeminent over other origins of civilisations—Babylon, China, India and certainly before the Aztec and Inca civilisations. As a result, ancient Egypt held a position of enormous prestige in popular conceptions and being able to claim some link has seemed to convey a halo effect.

Two aspects to deal with:

  1. the debate between ‘diffusionists’ on the one hand and evolution or endogenous development proponents on the other.

    - diffusionists believe that discoveries and innovations (here we are talking about political, religious & social ideas, practices and institutions) are rare, unique events which then spread out as others borrow and copy them; thus, most innovations arrive as a result of borrowing.

    - evolutionists argue that many developments evolve along a natural progression—similar situations and problems give rise to similar but independent solutions; thus, innovations and discoveries may be made a number of times and similar political or religious institutions do not necessarily involve or indicate borrowing.

    - thus, whenever one finds some similarity, this debate flares up; e.g., male circumcision (widespread in Africa)—was it borrowed from the Jews? or ‘divine kingship’ in Africa—was it borrowed directly or indirectly from ancient Egypt?

  2. racism and categorising people on the basis of pedigrees and inheritance.

    - racism has been rampant in western societies in the last 150 years or so and has provided an endemic underlying current to much of the above debate between the diffusionists and the evolutionists. This has tended to make the debate very heated and acerbic; it is far from academic!

    - racism has been especially prevalent among diffusionists with the idea that one group or ‘race’ is superior and responsible for most innovations, inventions, etc.; other groups and ‘races’ are borrowers. To be a borrower is to be less and probably inferior.

    - Egypt, with its growing prestige, was seen as the foundation of western civilisation. Moreover, in the growing racism of 19th C Europe, this inheritance was seen as biological and not just intellectual. Or turning it around in the way that racists did, such outstanding achievements as occurred in ancient Egypt could only have been realised by superior people so they must have been whites or at least the same racial stock as the ancestors of Europeans!

Egypt and Nubia and Kush

- that there were connections and interrelationships over very long periods is indisputable.

- also, after the conquest of Egypt during the Hellenic period and beyond into the Roman, Egyptian culture persisted for hundreds of years, albeit in diminished and diminishing scale, in the upper Nile, especially at Meroë.

- what is not known with certainty is the extent of cultural transmission beyond this area to the rest of Africa.

- as whites began to go to Africa and tried to learn about African society and culture, there was a strong tendency to understand elements in African culture in terms of customs and institutions they knew about elsewhere

- e.g., missionaries found male circumcision and legal concepts which resembled for them elements of ancient Hebrew laws and customs as recorded in the Old Testament.

- lots of questions about how these Jewish or Semitic elements managed to get from the Middle East in ancient times to central and southern Africa in the 19th C. (Some speculated that the story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon was an indication of how Semitic customs were transmitted to Africa, where they spread, presumably because they were superior).

- a couple of elements were of intense interest to anthropologists (both professional and amateur as many whites living in Africa quickly came to regard themselves as authorities):

  1. Divine Kingship, including in some cases the killing of a dying king;
  2. the sacred Ram.

- both elements were pronounced in ancient Egypt; people began to find examples in various parts of Africa, and often, attributed them to borrowing & cultural diffusion.

- but this attribution frequently, even usually, had a distinct racist aspect—racists argued that Africans showed no ability to create or invent anything; therefore, anything that was found was almost certainly due to outside persons or influences.

- probably the most egregious example of this followed the discovery of the Great Zimbabwe ruins; many fanciful explanations and speculations were advanced. Great Zimbabwe was unique in sub-Saharan Africa in being built of stone; it was also unique for being built on the basis of circles rather than squares or rectangles. When some worked out gold mines were found nearby, some writers claimed that these were the lost gold mines of King Solomon implying that there had been an intrusion of outsiders who had built Great Zimbabwe. This preoccupation found its way into Rider Haggard’s novels, especially King Solomon’s Mines, which in turn have inspired several well known movies.

Hamitic Myth

- a theory was concocted to try to explain how all these borrowings and influences came to Africa.

- Sir Harry Johnson claimed to see a physical resemblance between the ruling castes of several interlacustrine kingdoms and ancient Egyptians; this implied that the large, impressive African states in the area were made possible by the infusion of light-skinned people (the Hamites), originally from Egypt.

- however, it was the anthropologist, C. G. Seligman, who made the definitive theory—i.e., a group of Hamites (‘tall white strangers’) who had in very early times been migrating from the Middle East into Egypt, where they founded Egyptian civilisation, but others who made their way across Ethiopia and the horn of Africa into the interlacustrine area.

- the Hamites seemed to have superior ideas and institutions in their blood; however, as they went farther and farther, they intermarried and intermixed so that their genetic inheritance was diluted.

- therefore, the cultural and political development of any African people depended upon the amount of ‘Hamitic blood in their veins’.

[Other versions put the coming of the Hamites a bit later, closer to the beginning of the Christian Era]

- while rejecting the racist assumptions of the ‘Hamite’ explanation, it is important to note that it was an attempt to explain some aspects of early African history and prehistory. There is some basis in fact. For example, there have certainly been migrations across the Red Sea and undeniably the migrants brought many elements of culture, both social, political and religious as well as material culture with them.

- also, there were certainly migrations of cattle-keeping peoples from the upper Nile region of Sudan (called Nilotes by anthropologists) into east Africa and into the interlacustrine area. This seems to have been 800-900 years ago, the stories of which were preserved in oral traditions.

- some of these migrants conquered and dominated the agrarian people living there and created a number of kingdoms. This seems very similar to the way the Normans invaded England and set up a Norman dominated kingdom. In England over 200 years or so, there was an amalgamation and where assimilation took place of the conquerors [this is very common when conquerors start to intermarry with local women; it’s the women who rear the kids. The notion of mother-tongue is often very literal!] This happened in some of the interlacustrine kingdoms; by modern times in Buganda, there is complete integration, partly perhaps because agriculture was more important than cattle-keeping. However, in other kingdoms, the separation has remained very distinct—Nkole, Burundi and Rwanda. That seems to have the basis for the differences between the Hutu and Tutsi that have produced such horrific actions there.

- please note that underlying the ‘Hamite’ hypothesis is an unexplained mystery: Who are the Nilotes? Where did they come from? [Collins, Problems in African History, pp. 115-66.]

- this problem goes back to a time before some of them migrated down into the interlacutrine area.

- sometimes, scholars have tried to use language as a source of clues to early mysteries. The Nilotic language group has been categorised by some linguists as a sub-group of the West African language group. This last has been recognised as being derived from a very old prehistoric language in the same way that most European languages were derived from an ancient Indo-European language. The West African language group itself shows great variation and large differences indicating long development and perhaps outside influences.

- this categorisation of the Nilotic languages as a sub-group of the West African group has been disputed by other linguists. What is clear is that the Nilotic languages are distinct form the Bantu languages that completely dominate to the south in most of east Africa and all of central and southern Africa. The uncertainty is probably an indication that the Nilotes are a mixture of peoples.

- another point should also be noted. The ‘Hamite’ thesis had a presumption that the cattle-keepers were ‘superior’ (at least militarily and probably politically as well); the large impressive state structures of several interlacustrine kingdoms were considered proof of that. Thus the scale of the state was often used as a measuring stick of development—larger = higher and superior.

- such a correlation and inference is at least superficial and simplistic. Is it even true? Do cattle-keeping warrior conquerors really produce ‘higher’ civilisations?

- this does not seem to be true. Ghengis Khan and his Mongols certainly conquered China, but in the end, it was they who were assimilated and civilised.

- thus, some scholars have criticised the undue admiration with gushing descriptions of cattle-keeping warriors, such as the Maasai, the Tutsi, etc. that many white commentators have lavished on them. In many ways it is the stolid, settled farmers who are more admirable and it is agricultural surpluses that they produce which makes for more complex societies and more sophisticated culture. Thus, while ‘cowboys’ may be more colourful, it is probably the ‘sodbusters’ who contribute most to economic, social and political development.

- while the racist aspects of the ‘Hamite’ thesis were not always adopted, other scholars still insisted that many (perhaps most) African ideas were borrowed; it was the ideas which spread, not the ‘tall, white strangers’. Thus, there has been a cultural version of the ‘Hamite’ thesis.

- much of this argument still revolves around ‘divine kingship’ as one of the most prominent ideas.

- others have argued that divine kingship evolved independently in Africa: incidents of the institution are not necessarily contiguous and many African peoples do not have it.

- even more importantly, ‘divine kingship’ or similar institutions have been found rather widely among agrarian peoples in the western hemisphere and Polynesia, even in Japan where derivation from Egypt seems highly improbable!

[However, there are those who argue that civilisations in the western hemisphere could have been derived from Egypt. The Norwegian, Hyderdal, used a reed boat like those made by the ancient Egyptians and sailed from the Mediterranean to the West Indies to demonstrate that such a voyage might explain the development of civilisations in Mexico.]

African responses

- moreover, this question of diffusion vs independent invention is too frequently overladen with unwarranted conclusions and implications.

- borrowing was interpreted as evidence or indication of inferiority of the borrower and superiority of those from whom borrowed; consequently, ludicrous conclusions are drawn, but ones which make sense only in a racist context.

- does the fact that Albert Einstein had a light skin make me any smarter than I am?

- does it make any difference to us today whether the majority of ancient Egyptians had light skins or dark skins?

- the debate over diffusion vs independent evolution has been over-laden with these inappropriate inferences; racists (especially among white settlers in Africa) tried to use these inferences of supposed inferiority of Africans to justify their actions and their claims to power and dominance in spite of being minorities. How many racists who charged that Africans invented nothing had invented anything themselves? Even their racism is borrowed! Almost all culture is inherited or ‘borrowed’ from preceding generations anyway. Even most inventors do not ‘invent’ most things from scratch; their ‘inventions’ are usually merely the last link in a long chain of innovations.

- some Africans have argued against diffusion, even when it might be a likely explanation, because they regarded it as derogatory.

- however, people borrow not because they are inferior or those who already have a custom or institution are superior. They borrow because they have needs and they think that the borrowed custom may be useful.

- invention and borrowing are rooted in the same situation: people have needs and are trying to solve problems. When they see something they think useful, they may borrow it; otherwise, they may invent something. Even if they borrow something, they usually adapt it to fit their own needs and situation; few cultural innovations are borrowed without some (even extensive) modification. Adaptation or use in a different context probably amounts to as much or more ‘creativity’ as does an ‘invention’ which is merely the last modification in a long line of gradual improvements.

- besides, the vast majority of us are borrowers (even inventors); very few invent anything so it is ludicrous for me to try to pump myself by claiming that some ancestor invented something. It is even more ludicrous when it is impossible to see any connection with an inventor centuries ago whose only possible connection may be a similarly pigmented skin!

What do the arguments signify?

- as already indicated, the prestige of Egypt is very great. The response of Diop (and his African defenders) is understandable and white racists have no grounds to complain of ‘black racism’. Neither form of racism is appropriate or likely to enlighten us very far.

- unlike earlier generations of scholars who tended when noting similarities to jump to the conclusion that this was evidence of borrowing and diffusion, more recent scholars are also prepared to accept the possibility that there could be independent invention. But independent invention should not be adopted as an explanation (as it has by some Africans) for emotional reasons. That involves accepting the same criteria for measuring worth and self-worth as racists use—as proof of superiority or inferiority. Ideas, institutions etc are solutions and are much more important for what they reveal about humans and their society.

- diffusion is undoubtedly a major explanation for the spread of ideas; when people see a better solution, they will adopt it even when religious leaders rail against it! On the other hand, independent invention is much more common than some scholars have suggested. Thus, we should be open for both possibilities.

- also, the racist contentions about lack of inventiveness of Africans is surely contradicted by the wealth and variety of African political and social organisation.

N.B. In African history it is essential to become sensitive to and aware of the degree to which racism and racist assumptions influenced perceptions and evaluations. We must keep this in mind while using sources. We can’t simply throw out such sources even when contaminated seriously by racism because there are not replacements.

- instead, we have to interpret them with filters to filter out and discount the racism. Also, we must try to purge our own attitudes by eliminating unconscious biases and presumptions.

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