Ancient Egyptians - Cultural Origin, genetics, etc.

Discussion in 'Research' started by Steerpike, Apr 15, 2012.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Instead of derailing the other thread on under-represented cultures, let's continue here. I'm interested in the information people have on the subject, and also happy to share the research I know of. I started the scientific part of my career looking at just such issues - population genetics, primarily in the context of out-of-Africa versus multiregional hypetheses. Most of what I did was on Alu repeats, which are transposable genetic elements found in primates.
     
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I'll start with this summary of the bio-anthropological data on ancient Egyptian remains from Theodore Celenko's Egypt in Africa:

     
  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    More recently, the personal genomics company DNATribes ran some published data on King Tut and his relatives' DNA through their genetic analysis software to determine his population relationships, and they reported the following results:

     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Probably better not to simply cut and paste articles, both for copyright reasons and for fact that it doesn't make for good discussions.

    I'm familiar with that research. In fact, our lab worked somewhat with Dr. Paabo (referenced in that article), who also studies Alu repeats, and we were able to share samples between the labs.

    It is true that there is evidence of sub-Saharan African DNA in some of the samples taken. There is also a lot of evidence of Eurasian elements, as well genetic correlations between Ancient Egyptian DNA an modern Europeans (with some markers a lot more prevalent in Europeans than in the current Egyptian population).

    When you take the genetic evidence as a whole, along with other data (from cultural anthropology, for example), the best conclusion that explains it all is that the Ancient Egyptians were not sub-Saharan Africans. There is more of that particular DNA in the Upper Egypt samples, which makes sense geographically. Most likely, the culture had a good deal of Eurasian origin, though the idea that there was no African influence doesn't seem plausible (and I don't know anyone who holds to that idea).

    The problem with this particular issue is that is becomes politicized. When that happens, like with any political issue people choose a side and look only at the evidence that supports it, discounting the evidence that does not. But to really get at the truth, you have to account for all of the evidence. The best genetic evidence shows varied origins, including sub-Saharan African, though not exclusively so. Again, supporting the idea that the Ancient Egyptians were something other than this, though not without a genetic legacy to those populations.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, and another company looking at a different genetic marker reported the European link. Once again, you have to look at all the evidence, not just cherry-pick the evidence you like from a Google search. Even the article you cut and pasted uses qualifying words. This is because of the uncertainty of the evidence, and the fact that it points toward a diverse origin, not one that is exclusively African.

    The question is why some people seem so personally invested in it, and can't accept the obvious conclusion (supported by the evidence), which is that people living in a land bordering Africa and Asia had a mixed genetic heritage, both African and Eurasian.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  6. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    There is a significant difference in methodology between the DNATribes report and what iGENEA (the company claiming a European connection) did. First, iGENEA took their "data" by screencapping stock footage from a Discovery Channel show and claimed it showed King Tut's Y-chromosome data, when in fact the scientists who actually sampled Tut's DNA did not publish anything on his Y-chromosome.

    King Tut Related to Half of European Men? Maybe Not

    On the other hand, if you read the DNATribes report, they used autosomal genetic data from Tut which the scientists actually did publish. Furthermore, while Y-chromosome data can be useful for tracing population movements, autosomal data like that analyzed by DNATribes is better for determining overall population affinities.

    Of course neither DNATribes nor iGENEA are peer-reviewed publications, so they don't necessarily offer the last word on this issue, but the former's approach is far more credible than the latter.

    Nothing is absolutely certain in science, and few people in the world are racially "pure".
     
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    So what is your argument? The evidence, both genetic and non-genetic, shows a mix (African and Eurasian). Given the mix, it is no more accurate to claim they were sub-Saharan African than to say they were Europeans (which I've heard argued and which is clearly nonsense). If you agree that they were neither of these and had genetic influences from both, then I don't see the issue.

    The exception being the Ptolemaic line, of course (later in history than what we're talking about), though there was probably some African DNA in that line as well, though not a lot from what I've seen.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  8. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I truthfully don't completely disagree with you there. Egypt does lies at a geographic crossroads, so of course they would incorporate many different kinds of people into their empire. I also agree that southern Egyptians would have had a significantly stronger African component than their neighbors in the northern delta (which is common sense anyway). I simply advance that the African contribution to ancient Egypt is far greater than most people acknowledge. Saying Egyptians writ large were Black is probably an over-generalization, but Black Egyptians existed.
     
  9. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istari

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    Right, well. I'm not a research scientist and I have no credentials- at all. But I've looked at the evidence the two of you have presented and here's what I think from a third-party perspective.

    I theorize that the Egyptians were a mixed-race society of African origin. Would that not explain all the data?

    Don't mean to derail this thread too, but let's get to the heart of the matter and face up to it, like men. (Tongue-in-cheek, that.) The only reason this issue is so hotly debated is because (and lets be frank) there are racists out there who don't think that Black people could build a society as advanced as Egypt (even though there are other, indisputably "Black" African societies just as advanced if you care to look a bit farther south). Those who are consciously racist in there opinions are a minority , but they exist. And there are others who are unconsciously racist. On the other side of the argument you have people who consider these biased people to be scum of the lowest order and will work tirelessly to prove them wrong, whether out of a sense of justice or to reclaim what they see as Black people's rightful heritage.

    This is an oversimplification, but it's true. Racism is not as dead as we'd like it to be. And people will let their biases color their work, whether they know they have them or not.

    So what's the truth then? The Egyptians were Africans. Both genetically, and by-definition geographically, given the location of their empire. But they weren't only Africans. The great empires of history: Babylon, Persia, Alexandrian Greece, Rome, and also Egypt all had one thing in common: they were cross-cultural. That's part of what made them effective. Not just war and conquest, but trade. Monetary and cultural trade. At the time Upper Egypt conqured Lower Egypt under Narmer (I think?) the Egyptians, at least the Upper Egyptians, were probably predominantly Black. But as time went on and Egypt traded with other nations, there was likely some cultural and genetic exchange taking place. In all likelihood the Egyptians probably displayed a broad range of skin colors from extremely dark to less so. To say the Egyptians were not Africans is absurd. But to say there was no cultural exchange between them and other nations is equally absurd.

    The reason that people like Jabrosky (and myself, I admit) become so hostile to people like you Steerpike, although you likely mean no harm, is most easily summed up by this trope: But Not Too Black - TV Tropes and also the kind of attitude that caused the Hunger Games issue. Unconsciously, people like you tend to get associated with people who say things like this. (I warn you that link is to an openly racist website. Brace yourself.) Now you see the real problem here.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
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  10. Shockley

    Shockley Scribal Lord

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    First off, let me establish my own credentials in this area: Next to none. I am a history major and I read a lot, but I’ll be the first to admit that Egypt is not my area of primary study. That would be Greeks, Romans and, increasingly as of late, northern European peoples. So when I say anything on this, know that I’m not coming from an area of expertise and most of my points will be made using ancient Greek sources.

    So that said, let me start out with the part of your post I am somewhat qualified to take on:

    The Greeks did indeed use the term ‘Ethiopian’ to apply to the Egyptians from time to time. That’s a fact – that’s something I won’t even try to deny. That said, we’re using a purely modern interpretation of the word ‘Ethiopian.’

    When the Greeks use that term, they are referring to anyone living in the southern regions of the world and even go so far as to divide Ethiopia among multiple continents. Examine the works of Hesiod, especially when he mentions Memnon. He describes Memnon as being an Ethiopian (using just that term) but then goes on to tell us where Memnon is from: Memnon is from Elam, and built the city of Susa. Susa and Elam are, of course, in what we now call ‘Khuzestan,’ a province of Iran. Pindar, writing two hundred years later, also echoes the point that Memnon was an Ethiopian from Susa and Elam.

    Hecataeus of Miletus, a Greek explorer, writes of Ethiopia in the time period between Hesiod and Pindar. Hecataeus, it should be noted, thought that the Nile connected directly to a giant world sea that surrounded Europa/Africa/Asia, so when he says ‘east of the Nile’ he means absolutely east of the Nile in the most definite sense. He describes three distinctive bodies of water. First off, he says, the Ethiopians live (as you probably surmised from the previous sentences) east of the Nile. He then describes their territory as reaching the Red Sea (consistent with modern Ethiopia as well as Egypt) and then lists a third body of water: the Indian Ocean.

    This means that Elam remains consistent as what the Greeks would have called ‘Ethiopia’ (Elam was one of the first civilizations, and grew up on the Indian Ocean) and it points to a larger issue: At no point does Hecataeus list the Ethiopians as having an influence on the Mediterranean. Since he’s listing the bodies of water that encompass the Ethiopian region, it’s interesting that he would leave out the one that defines his peoples’ own border with them.

    In the Greek myth of Perseus, Andromeda is described as being an Ethiopian. This is how the Greeks explained the city of Joppa (which they called Iopeia, associating that with the name Cassiopeia). Joppa is now modern day Yava, and is part of the city of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, obviously, is not in Ethiopia.

    This brings us to Herodotus, who was writing about ten years after Pindar. Herodotus is interesting to historians as he had the terrible habit of making things up. If there was an area he knew nothing about he would fabricate claims, stories, etc. This has been a problem in most fields of study, but actually helps us when trying to define what the Greeks saw as ‘Ethiopia.’ What we can define as true in his account is uniquely interesting.

    Herodotus becomes the man who lays out the difference between African Ethiopia and Asiatic Ethiopia. He states that he went to African Ethiopia, and that the people there were different from the ‘Ethiopians’ elsewhere. Memnon, he says, was not an Ethiopian – he invents a new word for that part of Persia, and thus we have our differentiation.

    Now, that’s the part where Herodotus is just pulling stuff out of thin air. What comes next is the important part:

    *Continued*
     
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  11. Shockley

    Shockley Scribal Lord

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    Herodotus says that, at one point, the Ethiopians ruled over Egypt. He says that, at some point in recent history, Ethiopians had invaded and taken over Egypt and that eighteen different Ethiopians had been pharaoh during that time. This is consistent with what we know of the 25th Dynasty (which I mentioned in the other thread). But here’s the point I’m taking from it: By that period, Egypt had been ruled by hundreds of Pharaohs. Hundreds of individuals had held the throne, and Herodotus takes a moment to say that eighteen of these men were Ethiopians, based on the term that he had just revised to refer explicitly to black Africans.

    If there were hundreds of black Pharaohs, Herodotus would have taken that moment to refer to the eighteen-or-so non-Ethiopians who had ruled. Manetho, a historian from Egypt, confirms the uniqueness of the Kushite Pharaohs.

    The final point to tie all this together is from Strabo: Writing nearly four hundred and fifty years after Herodotus makes the distinction between African and Asiatic Ethiopia, Strabo points out that older authors did not understand the distinction (probably not recognizing it as another part of Herodotus’ fiction) between these nations and says that they used to view Ethiopia as starting at Mount Amanus. Mount Amanus is in the modern-day Nur Mountains (in Turkey) – this means that for a substantial period of human history (the majority of human history, even, considering how far history goes before they start writing things down) the Greeks referred to anyone living in modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, bits of Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, etc. as Ethiopian, and probably a substantial number of Egyptians as well.




    Now, with that out of the way, let me add some things to this discussion:

    The Egyptians were very aware of skin color variations, and had little trouble depicting that in art. That’s not to say that they had any concept of racial superiority (that seems to be missing), but they were conscious of differentiations. Allow me to provide an image from a tomb (Of Ramses III) to illustrate that:

    [​IMG]

    Notice what we have in this image: Depictions of white individuals, just generally dark individuals, black individuals and then several instances of what would be the ‘traditional’ ancient Egyptian.

    Here’s another image, this one of a conflict between the Egyptians and peoples to their north:

    [​IMG]

    The final point I’d like to make is that the Egyptians are, of course, African. Egypt is on the African continent, and that’s how things work. If someone wants to say ‘the Egyptians are African’ then I’ll respond with, ‘Of course they are.’ They will also, for obvious reasons, have more in common with the genetics of sub-Saharan Africans than the Greeks.

    But the evidence that there was a distinction between black Africans and ethnically-Egyptian Africans is overwhelming. That’s why you have the depictions of black Africans at Meroe – because these Ethiopian lords had rolled in and established the 25th Dynasty.

    We should even expect a few black-looking Pharaohs – many of the wives of the Pharaohs did come from Ethiopia (members of the 24th Dynasty married the forerunners of the 25th Dynasty). But that matters little – while the British monarchs might be predominately German, the average Brit is still English, Scottish or Welsh. In that sense, the average Egyptian was of a dark, Semitic stock.
    Now, on to Mindfire’s points:

    All humans have an African origin, and Egypt is in Africa. Egypt was, as well, an important trade center. We know that the fortress of Elephantine (which is in southern Egypt) was built by a Jewish tribe allied with the Pharaohs. We know that Assyrians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Persians, etc. made up the ruling class (the standard theory is that, while being descended from Ptolemy, the majority of Cleopatra’s blood would have been of Persian extraction).

    That’s not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that there are people – of varying races – that are trying to steal the accomplishments that rightfully belong to the Egyptians.

    I’m reminded of the story of a peace talk that happened between Egypt and Israel a few years back. An American diplomat, trying to remind them of what they had in common, commented that the Jews built the Pyramids. The Egyptian dignitary was outraged at this, as the idea that Jewish slaves built the Pyramids is not prevalent in Egypt and, more importantly, is not supported by the historical record (Teams of paid men built the Pyramids, as best we can tell). He saw this an American/Jewish statement to try and steal Egypt’s cultural history. That’s what I see when I see anyone claim that the Egyptians were anything other than Egyptian.

    There are a lot of variations on this idea. There are Indians that claim that Egyptians were Indians, whites that say they were white, etc. They’re all wrong, and it’s all equally unfair to the Egyptian people.

    You’re right in saying that there are some people who would say that black Africans couldn’t build Egypt – they’re wrong. Given the time, resources, access to trade, etc. any racial group in human history could have built Egyptian society. As you rightly pointed out, there are some amazing cultures existing just south of Egypt. But the point at the end of this is that they didn’t build Egypt. They built complex cultures – and they even built a culture that at one time invaded and conquered Egypt – but Egyptian culture was a product of a Semitic people. There’s nothing insulting about saying that they didn’t build Egypt, just as there’s nothing insulting about saying that black Africans didn’t build the Nordic culture or Chinese culture.

    Also, I do find this particularly insulting to the ancient Egyptians. Time and time again we are faced with the historical fact that this is a vibrant, metropolitan culture that interacted with a number of peoples and shows very little concept of race consciousness. While they recognized differences and sometimes commented on them, there’s not one historical piece of evidence showing that they saw a fundamental differences between white, brown or black people. To try and impose modern concepts of race on them is somewhat insulting to what they built – but if we’re going to have a debate as to what they are, we have to go with the facts.

    The Egyptians were African – that’s what isn’t in dispute. Being a country on the African continent, they are African by definition. Let’s bury that little choice phrase right now and get to the debate on whether they’re black African or some other kind of African (the majority of north Africans, for example, are not black, but they’re as African as anyone else on that continent).

    There were definitely black Africans living in Egypt. That much is verified by the Ethiopian Pharaohs. But they weren’t, by any means, indicative of the skin color or genetic origin of the Egyptian people at large.




    The last thing I’d like to say is that it’s extremely offensive to accuse Steerpike (or me by inference, since I also disagree) of having any racist thoughts, unconscious or otherwise, just because we happen to disagree with you on this.
     
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  12. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    The Ancient Egyptian language is not classified as Semitic by most linguists, so whatever may be said of their average appearance, you can't really call them Semitic. Sorry if that sounds pedantic, but the common confusion of linguistics with population affinities is a pet peeve of mine.

    At any rate, Shockley, your argument that the Egyptians cannot be considered Black is apparently based on your interpretation of ancient portraiture, specifically its depiction of skin tones. It's true that the Egyptian characters in those murals are not quite as dark as the Nubians, but I've seen plenty of Black people who were the same medium-brown skin tone or even lighter:

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Saying that one cannot classify Egyptians as Black simply because they were lighter than Nubians is analogous to saying that Italians cannot be classified as White because they are darker than Finns.

    I don't recall myself or Mindfire accusing either of you of racism. I see nothing racist in your posts even if I don't agree with you, and the same goes for Steerpike.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  13. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istari

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    You misunderstood me, Shockley. I am not accusing you of racism. And I'm actually the neutral party in this exchange. I was merely making the point that this whole discussion is based on a very loaded question. And that anyone who takes a certain stance on this issue, regardles of intent or integrity, will be unconsciously associated with some kind of bias one way or the other. And that's a fact. Rational people can move past this and should, but it's still there. And I think you are downplaying the part that racial bias has to play in this issue. The origins of the debate over the Egyptians' origin can be traced back to racial hierarchical psuedo-science from the 1800s. This argument had racial baggage LONG before we came into the picture, and we need to recognize that if we're ever going to come to consensus. THAT was my point.

    Also, I think the angle Jabrosky is pushing in his last post is more phenotypical than genotypical. And in that aspect he is technically correct. Regardless of their ethnic origin, the Egyptians can be considered "Black"... if one defines Black to mean "having African origin and a fairly dark complexion." That picture of the pharaoh you posted is a dead ringer for my father in terms of skin tone.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  14. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Of course, this brings up the question of exactly how we define Black people. When writing about British colonialism in Burma, George Orwell would call some Indian people "black", and I've seen the word used to describe Papuans, Australian aborigines, and Southeast Asian Negritoes too. On the other side of the fence, you have people who think only the darkest Africans are Black, which sounds like the position Shockley is advancing.
     
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think there was more of an African component than historically has been suggested. For some reason, historically people seem to have pursued the Eurasian angle much more fervently. I think genetic studies have shown there is more African DNA in the population than people believed over the years. That said, while skin tone can vary within a given culture, race, etc., I think on the whole Ancient Egyptians we lighter-skinned than sub-Saharan Africans. I think that is borne out in their own depictions, as well as in written accounts as Shockley pointed out. It is too convenient to just dismiss it - many of the ruling Egyptians appear to have very definitely seen themselves as different from the darker-skinned people in the region.

    But it certainly stands to reason that the were a mix of African and other origins. Tying that to skin color is a tenuous proposition, so the genetics are less helpful there. I don't think it matters what color their skin was, at least not to me. If they were all very dark-skinned Africans, or lighter skinned with a good deal of Eurasian genetics, or if they were a bunch of Mongolians who floated over in a raft...I don't care which it is, but out of my intellectual curiosity about ancient cultures, I'd like to know the truth to the extent we can determine it. I don't like seeing the politics come into play, though they do even in science (true story, when I worked in the population genetics lab, the data there (which correctly showed an out-of-African origin for humans) showed that for the particular marker we were looking at, North American blacks were more closely related to North American Whites than African blacks. Note that this does not mean overall, but it does mean for that particular marker. The bit of the study was removed by the administration. This was at a well respected government research lab. So I know how politics comes into this).
     
  16. Shockley

    Shockley Scribal Lord

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    While you are correct that Ancient Egyptian is not one of the 'proper' Semitic tongues (Arabic, Hebrew, etc.) it is very much a part of the family. Afro-Asiatic, which is where Ancient Egyptian is classified, is sometimes referred to as Hamito-Semetic. They are related, unquestionably, and share a root tongue and a root cultural heritage.

    Actually, I'd consider the crux of my argument to be the eighteen Nubian pharoahs. The skin tone issue is merely supplemntary. I devoted less than a third of my post to that issue.

     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Actually, I think that position is the refuge of those who have their own issues; a chip on the shoulder or something. I have no issue with dark skin, in fact I think it can be quite lovely. A former girlfriend of mine (a chemist) is black, and she's not American, but rather her parents were from sub-Saharan Africa. I haven't met many people with skin as dark as hers, or as attractive for that matter. So the implication that there exists some kind of problem with dark skin, even if unintended, is preposterous, which is hardly surprising as that is the usual result of trying to characterize people you don't know...
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't want to get into what qualifies as black or not. I know there are differing views on that. I do think the Ancient Egyptians were lighter than their relatives to the south, but that makes them neither better nor worse, it just seems to me to have been the case :)

    (btw I haven't been offended by anything in this thread; I think it is an interesting topic)
     
  19. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istari

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    Politics has always colored science. Probably always will. Psychologists have discovered that people naturally pay attention to evidence that supports what they believe and dismiss evidence that doesn't. And the scary part is that they're not doing it on purpose. They have no idea that they're essentially creating sample bias.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yep. To be honest, I think we're wired that way. There is evolutionary value to sticking with a proposition that has served the organism well in the past. These sorts of things, once they become established, are hard to shake.
     
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