This painting by an ancient Egyptian artist shows Nubians bringing gold to the pharaoh. Obviously differences in skin color registered in the minds of ancient Egyptians, but what these differences meant and how they saw themselves is a subject of debate. Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, courtesy of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt.
I was already thinking about starting a new thread on ancient Egyptians when I received a comment that set the tone for where I wanted to go with the discussion. I've entered it here as the first comment in this new thread. (Those wishing to follow the earlier thread can find it posted January 14).
What this is all really about is human variation in ancient Egypt. Words like "black" and "white," which have been used a lot in the preceding thread, really don't have much meaning when it comes to understanding a population. Here are a few thoughts to get the discussion going. These thoughts were pulled together by myself and some colleagues. We were assisted by S.O.Y. Keita (see our video of Dr. Keita), a scientist with keen insights into this topic and a fellow who is referred to several times in the first comment.
This sculpture from an Egyptian tomb is a good illustration of the problem in assuming that Egyptian artwork alone should guide us on what ancient Egyptians looked like. What would you say about the ethnicity of this Egyptian couple? They lived in the time of the great pyramid builders, about 2500 BC. Photo by Richard Nowitz.
Ancient Egypt: Origins in Space and Time
Some scholars continue to debate the skin color of ancient Egyptians, believing skin color can tell us something about the origins of Egypt’s culture and people. Most scientists agree that this region of Africa, the continent where modern humans evolved, was a melting pot of people for millennia. Human remains from the Nile Valley date back to between 30,000 and 50,000 before present.
Today, skin color is often used to group people irrespective of their language, culture, or national affiliations. To the best of our knowledge, skin color was not the primary factor of classification in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians understood that culture, customs, and language play an important role in determining group affiliations. From artwork still visible in their temples and tombs, however, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians were aware of skin color differences within their own population and that they sometimes associated foreigners with particular skin colors.
Ancient Egyptians had their own ideas about where they came from and how their society achieved greatness. Today, scholars want to understand the origins and background of ancient Egypt and Egyptians using modern scientific and historical perspectives. This approach requires synthesizing evidence from geography, archaeology, linguistics, and biology.
Read the first comment and jump in!