Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

The Question of Race in ancient Egypt

A disputed terrain

The human catastrophe of early modern slavery juxtaposed west and central Africans with northwest Europeans in the Americas. Out of this genocidal experience, race has become a dominant category for uniting and dividing people in modernity. Within the race debate, ancient Egypt has become a terrain contested by three mutually exclusive views:


1. Human remains: The direct evidence for debating the question is the ancient population as it survives in human remains. There are two dominant problems:

  1. published physical anthropological study of groups remains astonishingly rare, with most attention going to studies of a single individual
  2. objectivity remains elusive within the race debate, and is perhaps impossible

The contributions by Keita are outstanding exceptions to the general lack of both demographic study and objectivity (Keita 1990; Keita 1992). DNA research is expected to transform this debate, though self-critical consciousness is not always displayed by proponents.

2. Material culture: Archaeology also provides evidence for supraregional groupings of peoples, by revealing which areas shared, and which areas differed in, material culture: however, modernity abounds in examples of shared material culture exported across cultural divides (for example, cans of North American soft drinks in the Arab world).

3. Language groups: Another broad category of evidence is language: here again, though, the modern world illustrates the use of the same language across different groupings.

A social constructivist might conclude that ethnicity is, like everything else in human societies, a socially agreed category combining geographical and historical origins. An Afrocentric historian might reply that such an attitude amounts to a European strategy to defuse the issue of race, now that it undermines as much as reinforces European and North American domination. The terrain is still contested.


An ancient Egyptian view on race?

The question of race can be approached from another vantage-point: how did the ancient Egyptians group human beings? For this question, there are more diverse published sources, including pictorial and written.

Pictorial sources: differences in depicting peoples include differences in

Substantive differences can only be verified from observation of the original, or from good photographic reproductions; an Egyptological publication may assert clear differences in skin colour and facial features, where the original depiction is not clear or reveals no difference. The various types of difference may be borne out in the archaeological record. Examples on this website include:

  1. distinctive treatment of hair and different material culture and burial customs revealed in 'Pan Grave burials' of the Second Intermediate Period
  2. the blonde hair and burnt groups found by Petrie at the New Kingdom palace town at Gurob
  3. different pottery traditions between local (Nubian) and intrusive (Egyptian), among finds from the Egyptian smelting colony at Buhen in Nubia, Old Kingdom


Written sources: in their writing, people (at least the writers) may define themselves or others as the same or different. Written sources for the ancient Egyptian categories include references to foreign lands (see on this website the translation of the Hymns to Senusret III) and lists of words for types of people (see on this website the page on the Onomasticon of Amenemipet, from the late New Kingdom, after 1300 BC). The Great Hymn to the Sun, from the reign of Akhenaten, ascribes differences in skin colour and language to the will of the creator, in a divine impetus towards diversity as an expression of creation. In these sources, there is, though, no ancient Egyptian definition of Egyptianness: in the Prophecy of Neferty (a literary composition, probably of the Middle Kingdom), Egypt seems to be defined in contrast to the Asiatics encroaching on the eastern fringes of the Delta, but this is a central motif of the composition, and therefore it is too closely tied to its context to be able to provide a more generally applicable definition.

Together, the pictorial and written sources indicate most often four broad divisions of human beings, as in the Underworld Books (in tombs of kings in the New Kingdom):

  1. Egyptians
  2. those living to the south (Nubians and others)
  3. those living to the west (western nomads, 'Libyans' in the sense of anyone living west of the Nile and south of the Mediterranean)
  4. those living to the east (Asiatics)

Rarer references to peoples from the north include, from the Middle Kingdom, the Keftiu (Minoans from Crete), and from the New Kingdom the Mycenaeans (from mainland Greece) and the Hittites (from the central and eastern part of modern-day Turkey). At the end of the New Kingdom, other peoples of the north appear, sometimes called 'peoples of the sea' or 'in their islands', with distinctive costume and headgear; they have been identified in some studies as Aegean island and coastal groups emerging at the breakdown of the Hittite Empire. See foreign contacts.


A definition of 'ancient Egyptian' in an ancient Greek tale

The fifth century BC Greek writer Herodotus records a legal dispute that provides one definition of Egyptian identity: a community on the western Delta fringes argued that it should not pay tax, because it was outside Egypt, but the oracle consulted in the case gave the answer that all who drank of the Nile north of Elephantine were Egyptians (Herodotus Book II, 18).

Two features set Elephantine as a natural southern border for this Nile Valley Egypt:


Copyright © 2003 University College London. All rights reserved.