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There is much debate on the origins of the people of the Nile Valley
The Peoples of the Nile Valley

For many years now there has been a debate about whether the ancient peoples of the Nile Valley were 'black' or 'white'. Much Western scholarship, particularly in the early twentieth century, refused to accept that black peoples could have built such a great civilisation.

In 1930 for example, Charles Seligman (1873-1940), an English ethnologist who wrote a book titled 'The Races of Africa' said that the ancient civilisation of Egypt was created by a race he called 'Hamites', who he regarded as coming from Asia.

Some African historians, including the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi, Simiyu Wandibba, believe that European writers developed such theories to discredit Africa and make it easier for the continent to be colonised.

"In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were theories that Africa was inhabited much later than Asia and that the people occupying Africa today were the result of waves of migration from western Asia, the Middle East and the Far East.

I want to say that this is not true. But if you want to rule a people, you don't want to give them credit."
Professor Simiyu Wandibba, University of Nairobi.

One of the main academic proponents of the view that the ancient Egyptian civilisation was founded by black Africans was the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop.

"Ancient Egypt was a Negro civilisation. The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in the air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt. The African historian who evades the problem of Egypt is neither modest nor objective nor unruffled. He is ignorant, cowardly and neurotic. The ancient Egyptians were Negroes. The moral fruit of their civilisation is to be counted among the assets of the Black world."
Cheikh Anta Diop, taken from The African Origin of Civilisation.

In his two major works Nations Negres et Culture and Anteriorite des Civilizations Negres he profoundly influenced thinking about Africa around the world.

Cheikh Anta Diop argues that:
  • As humankind began in East Africa it was likely that people were black skinned.
  • People populated other continents by moving either through the Sahara or the Nile Valley.
  • In the period before the start of the great Egyptian dynasties the whole of the Nile river basin was taken over by these negroid peoples.
To support his theory, Diop cited the writings of several Greek and Latin writers who had described the ancient Egyptians.

The Greek historian Herodotus, for example, described the Colchians of the Black Sea shores as "Egyptians by race" and pointed out they had "black skins and kinky hair."

Apollodorus, the Greek philosopher, described Egypt as "the country of the black-footed ones" and the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus said "the men of Egypt are mostly brown or black with a skinny desiccated look."

Diop also argued that the Egyptians themselves described their race as black and that there were close affinities between the ancient Egyptian tongue and the languages of Africa.

The issue of the peopling of Egypt came to a head in 1974 when UNESCO hosted a conference in Cairo aimed at discussing the latest research.

The symposium provoked ferocious debate and many of Diop's theories were strongly challenged, however, the meeting concluded with the following statement, "the overall results…will be very differently assessed by the various participants."

The closing statement also pointed out that not all participants had prepared for the conference as painstakingly as Professor Diop or his academic ally Theophile Obenga of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The argument still remains largely unresolved to the extent that UNESCO's General History of Africa is somewhat cautious in its final analysis of the issue.

"It is more than probable that the African strain, black or light, is preponderant in the Ancient Egyptian, but in the present state of our knowledge it is impossible to say more."

The issue was given more impetus with the publication in 1987 of Martin Bernal's Black Athena in which he argued that Classical civilisation had it roots deep in Afroasiatic cultures which had been systematically suppressed for mainly racist reasons.

Listen to Zahir Hawass, Director of the Pyramids in Egypt, as he debates Egypt's link to African civilisations