DNA from Kemet: does it really have all of the answers?

DNA from Kemet

Thanks to Charles B for raising the following question last week:

What do you say to Eurocentrics who claim that the ancient Egyptians were European Caucasians and they have DNA evidence to to back it up?

I will start by saying that I am not an evolutionary biologist or a biological anthropologist, and I do not undertake research in this very specialised field. It is perhaps worth noting that many people do seem to feel qualified to comment on this subject, when they themselves are equally placed. For this reason, I would urge caution when reading and referencing even academic articles when using DNA to identify ‘race’. Here are some pointers:

  1. If you can access them*, read academic papers that are peer-reviewed by specialists within a particular field. This process is meant to ensure a certain quality control and involves the process of academic research being checked by two or three other scholars within that field before it is accepted for publication. In the Social Sciences and Sciences, the source of evidence and methodologies are rigorously checked. Egyptological research, unfortunately rarely utilises theoretical frameworks, models, or tested methods of investigation in the same way that other fields do.
  2. If you are struggling with the technical terms used in these papers then I would recommend that you look at the following workshop presented by Dr Shomarka Keita. Dr Keita is well qualified to write on both Kemite culture and biological genealogy. Has studied medicine, biological anthropology and Egyptology. I defer to his research because it is clearly evidenced, and when he presents it he explains any issues of interpretation that many other academics either assume non-specialists understand, or choose to disregard.

*Many of these papers can be found by a using google scholar search and accessed for free because the authors have loaded PDFs onto their academic profiles or websites.

Key points to remember when thinking about DNA

Like many people I once assumed that DNA had all of the answers when it came to the genealogical ancestry of the people from Kemet. However, having attended workshops and conference papers by Shomarka Keita, and having had the privilege of discussing this subject with him in person, I now accept that this is not necessarily the case.

Biological genealogy is one of a number of types of evidence that can be used to understand more about the people of Kemet. Others include: the physical and cultural geography of the land, the language, and the culture. In the workshop that is referenced above Dr Keita is keen to stress that these lines of evidence do not necessarily run parallel; and he is right to do so.

My reasons for initially believing that science had the answers is that the other types of evidence listed above are restricted by the knowledge of the people who interpret them. I have noted previously that if cultural parallels are restricted then those who are investigating them are ignoring potential links to other groups simply because they are not aware that they exist. Similarly, in regard to language, very few people have the language skills that range from Ancient Kemite to other African regions. It is only in recent years that scholars such as Dr Abdul Salau have started to fully explore similarities between Yoruba and the language of Ancient Kemet.


DNA testing also relies on comparison. This is a key point in answer to Charles’ question above. If, when you compare DNA samples, you do not have a large enough dataset, and if the model that you use is not rooted in African diversity then the results can be misleading.

Simplification of ‘racial’ types

There are other methods rooted in the biological sciences to compare groups of people. Cranial and limb ratio studies are also used to determine shared physiological traits of groups of people. Models of ‘racial’ types work on the assumption that people who belong to the same group share well-defined sets of physical traits. Many people assume that if people look the same they must be connected, and by the same argument any difference is appearance is often explained through mixture.

In his lecture Dr Keita uses the Berber people of North Africa as an example of how this approach can be misleading. Many people who belong to this cultural group have light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. It is therefore often assumed that they have some kind of European ancestry. However, when their genealogy is compared to African and European groups they cluster with the former as Africans.

African biological variations  

Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep, Thebes, Egypt. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

I have noted in previous posts that people often work from the premise that in order to be categorised as ‘African’ an individual has to meet discreet criteria. This has led to the acceptance within Egyptology of ‘Nubians’ (see above) as African people but as Kemites as somehow mixed in terms of their racialised identity. In doing this, people fail to take account of biological variations of African people. Whereas those who understand that there is variation in skin colour, physical features and hair types amongst people of African descent will make reference to the fact that Kemite artists showed this when they represented their people; others use an over-simplified interpretation of this variation to claim that the ancient people of Kemet were descended from Europeans.

It is for this reason that the term Mediterranean is often used as a descriptor of the people of Ancient Kemet. In fact, I once heard a colleague who is a forensic anthropologist who works on human remains from Egypt insist that the term was a valid one. When I asked her to explain to me what she meant by the term Mediterranean she responded by stating that Egypt was on the Mediterranean coast. So she was using a geographical term to denote racial identity. I pointed out that more of Egypt is on the continent of Africa and asked why we could not use that term as a descriptor instead. I did not get an answer. The conversation was a public one during a lecture that I presented in Cambridge in 2014.

In conclusion

I would urge people to look at the lecture I link to above, in which Shomarka Keita explains many of the pitfalls of categorising humans. It is also important to consider the historical and cultural links between groups of people as well as their genealogy. As I have previously noted, through archaeology and the study of Kemite material culture we can make many connections between the people of Kemet, and other cultural groups on the African continent. DNA offers one way to consider ancestry, but like other methods it can distorted.


Ancient Egypt beyond a colonial past

Presenting Ancient Egypt

The special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum 2016

The earliest religion in Kemet was animism. Like many traditional African religions, the Kemite version looked to nature in order to explain the world, and to provide spiritual support and protection. Animals played an important role within Kemite religion and were seen in two key capacities: (1) as representations of the gods on earth and (2) as symbolic guardians and protectors.

One particular aspect of this phenomenon was the subject of a special exhibition at Manchester Museum: Gifts for the Gods. Animal Mummies Revealed. As the title suggests, the exhibit explored the cultural context and composition of animal mummies, the latter through CT scans. Such technology has enabled museums to see what was inside the wrappings without damaging the actual item. In the Victorian period, when mummies (both human and animal) were first removed from their original contexts and placed in museums throughout the world, they would typically be unwrapped. The legacy of this practice can be seen in museums globally, especially in regard to the display of the remains of Kemite people.

Presenting the past

Any museum curator will tell you how difficult it is to balance the number of objects on display with the information that is presenting about them. Ultimately you are often left with a choice: do you display more objects or give people more information? Some museums have what are called open access displays. This is where all objects are accessible to the public in display cases but there are no explanations, dates or reference numbers accompanying them. I personally really like this type of display because you can see everything. However, such displays can cause frustration, especially if you want to know what something is or where it was excavated because you often can’t even find the registration number in order to write to the museum to ask them.

Detail of an information panel at the special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum

In the Gifts for the Gods exhibition, however, there was plenty of room for information provision. A large information panel entitled British Archaeologists in Egypt included an archive photograph of the Egyptologist John Garstang sitting in front of a union flag (above). Egypt was, of course, occupied by British forces between 1882 and 1952; and although the country retained its autonomy as part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914, British archaeologists and Egyptologists often raised their national flag at excavation sites. The text accompanying the photographs reads:

John Garstang’s workroom inside a rock-cut tomb at Beni Hasan, showing him seated to the right, 1902-4

I was disappointed that the opportunity was not taken to comment further on the colonial nature of this photograph or indeed the history of Egyptology. For visitors, such images have the potential to reinforce and accept Britain’s colonial past rather than to question and consider the consequences.

Addressing Britain’s colonial past

The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, April 2016

Upstairs in the the Manchester Museum was another exhibition entitled The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Here, a label that accompanies material culture from the Congo River includes the following text:

These objects were collected from places and people along the Congo River from the late 19th century. Such collections are the legacy of European commercial and colonial interests in this part of Africa, the same interests that drive Charles Marlow in the novella Heart of Darkness.

These objects were also collected during a similar time period to those in the exhibition on Kemet. Why then is there such a discrepancy in the way in which this practice is presented in two exhibitions in the same institution? Is it not timely and appropriate for Egyptologists to adopt a more critical approach to the history of their subject? I would suggest very strongly that it is.

Idealised and Romantic (and Racist?)

edwin_longsden _long_the_gods_and_their_makers
The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Longsden Long. Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnely

The painting above was used in the exhibition to illustrate a woman carving a statue of a cat. I was struck immediately by the appearance of the ‘Egyptians’ in the work, identified by the artefacts that they hold and who are clearly of European descent. The only African person to be represented in the painting is holding a cat, that is the model for the sculptor.The panel accompanying the painting read:

European paintings and literature of the 1800s portray an idealised, romantic version of ancient Egypt, inspired by impressive temple ruins. The vast numbers of animal mummies buried in catacombs were well know to travellers. This led to the mistaken belief, based on Western ideas about animals as pets, that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals themselves rather than the gods they represented. The reality for many animals prepared as mummies was very different.

I am not suggesting that museums should not show such works, but they need to be presented through a critical lens, and the blatant racist ideologies that accompany such images need to be deconstructed. Otherwise there is a danger that visitors leave the space with a confirmation that this was a reality. By describing such works as ‘idealised’, ‘romantic’ museums are failing to address a colonial and racist past.


Nubia versus Kush: which term is best?

Nubia and Kush

A few years ago I ran a small survey. I asked a group of adult students, who were culturally diverse, what the term Nubian meant to them. Out of a group of 40 people, only those with a connection to African, Black British or Caribbean heritage had heard of the term and these were their responses:

Black; a place in Africa; old Africans; a forgotten African culture; ancient word for Black people in general; oldest African culture; just a country; part of African people; a Black woman; ancient term for a Black race in Africa; a group of people that Black people evolved from; just a country.

Egyptologists use the term Nubian when referring to the Kingdom of Kush, which is south of Kemet/Ancient Egypt (see detail from the tomb of Sokehotep below). However, they also use the adjective Nubian to describe any representation that has the appearance of an indigenous African person. In doing so, they distinguish between the ancient Nubian people from Kemites (ancient Egyptians).

Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

Since, as I have also previously noted, the majority of Egyptologists in European and North American institutions do not have a direct connection to Africa, I wanted to find out how contemporary Nubian people defined themselves, and if this was an appropriate term to use for the ancient people from this region. So, in 2011 I spent time recording the responses of Nubian colleagues, Elders and community members in both Egypt and Sudan. Many of the conversations were recorded and can be found on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

Nubia as a geographical region

kush_or_nubia_map _of_nubia
Map showing the aproximate region of Nubia (in red)

The territory of Nubia runs from the first cataract of the river Nile in Aswan to the sixth cataract of the river, which is north of the city of Khartoum in Sudan. However, when the second Aswan dam was completed in 1970 Nubian people were forced to move further north in Egypt to the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, both of which are on the river Nile. Many Nubian people were also displaced even further away, to the desert in the east, in a town named Nasr al Nuba.

The new town of Nasr al Nuba in Egypt

The building of the dam destroyed communities and archaeology alike. And although major monuments were moved to new locations away from the flooded land, the communities of Nubian people had to leave their traditional homes and were displaced. Not everyone who lives in this region is Nubian. In fact Nubian people form a minority group, who have had to fight to maintain their cultural identity.

Nubian people

A Nubian family at their traditional house in Darrow, Egypt.

Nubian can also refer to a group of peoples who form a distinct cultural group who originate from this region. Today, the majority of Nubian people are Muslim, however, many of their traditions from the time before they adopted this religion remain. One such tradition amongst some Nubian people is to take a child to the river Nile when it is born. This is because the river has always been important within Nubian traditions.

Many of the people who I interviewed in Egypt made reference to the fact that Nubian people today are “mixed”. That their ancestors married other Islamic people who came to this region; religion being a common link between two groups that were originally culturally diverse. Perhaps because of this Nubian people have a range of different appearances, as can be seen from some of the photographs that were taken as part of the research project I mentioned. These can be viewed on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

In North America the term Nubian can be used to refer to African American or African people.

Nubian as a language

Nubian is also a language that has at least three distinct dialects. However, as the Elders die so are some of these dialects. Preserving the Nubian language was such a concern that the Nubia Museum in Aswan began a programme of teaching it to young people, in order to preserve it. For the majority of Nubian people, their first language is now Arabic. Young people naturally feel that it is more useful to learn a European language in order to be better placed to find employment. Thus, Nubian, like many African languages, is literally dying out. When I spoke to Elders of Nubian communities in both Egypt and Sudan in 2011, the majority said they simply don’t use Nubian on a daily basis.

Nubian as an ancient culture?

Should we then be using Nubian when describing ancient people from this region? Or is the ancient term Kush or Kushite preferable?

Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

The adjective Kushite is generally used to describe rulers of Dynasty 25. These rulers originated from Kush and ruled their own country alongside Kemet. This dual rule was referenced on their statuary by the two cobras that they wore on their brows; most kings of Kemet only wore one cobra. The cobra symbolised protection for royalty and also gods. The phenomenon can be seen on the statue of King Taharqa above.

I would use the term Nubia in regard to the region, in the same way that I might use Egypt or Sudan. However, as with Egypt I feel it is important to make a distinction between the ancient peoples and those who live in this region today. The cultures, religions, languages, and also a large percentage of the population has changed considerably since ancient times.

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to the question that I posed at the start of this post. For now, I feel happiest using the terms Kemet and Kush, but I would be interested to hear other people’s views on how they feel the term Nubian should be used.