The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality
by: Cheikh Anta Diop
Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology
by: Cheikh Anta Diop
Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State
by: Cheikh Anta Diop, Harold J. Salemson
The Peopling of Ancient Egypt & the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script
by: Cheikh Anta Diop
Black Africa: Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State
by: Cheikh Anta Diop
Cheikh Anta Diop: An African Scientist (Pan African Internationalist Handbook, Book 1)
by: Cheikh Anta Diop, E. Curtis Alexander
Cultural Unity of Black Africa
by: Cheikh Anta Diop
“The return to Egypt in all domains is the necessary condition for reconciling African civilizations with history, in order to be able to construct a body of modern human sciences, in order to renovate African culture,” the late Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop proposed in his last work, Civilisation ou barbarie: anthropologie sans complaisance (translated as Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology ). One of twentieth-century Africa’s most influential scholars, Diop sought to prove not only that ancient Egyptians were descendants of black Africans—that Egypt was a black society—but that the cultural achievements of that society predated and directly influenced the cultures of Greece and Rome, and consequently, modern Western civilization. Penetrating and controversial, Diop’s theories also challenge the nineteenth-century notion that ancient African cultures were more depraved and uncivilized than their counterparts. His point, however, was not to suggest the overall supremacy of ancient Egypt, only its primacy in the world’s cultural history and its rightful connection to Africa’s cultural history.
The impetus behind Diop’s lifelong goal of unmasking an indigenous, united black African culture can be traced to the cultural legacy of his birthplace. He was born on December 23,1923, in Diourbel, Senegal, a community with a fertile intellectual tradition that had produced manyMuslim scholars and griots— oral tribal historians. After receiving his baccalaureate in Senegal, Diop, already conceptualizing his African cultural unity theories, pursued doctoral studies at the Université de Paris. At the university, however, Diop met resistance; his dissertation, presented in 1954, was rejected. Undeterred, Diop published his thesis the following year asNations nègres et culture (“Black Nations and Culture”). It was not until 1960, however, that Diop—backed with a team of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians who supported his findings—was able to obtain his doctorate.
In Nations nègres et culture Diop displaced contemporary theories on the founding of ancient Egypt by postulating that Egypt was culturally and historically related to other African nations, distinct from Europe and Asia. He continued to advocate this theory throughout his career, expanding and refining it in his subsequent major works, including 1967’s Antériorité des civilisations nègres (portions of which were translated in The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality ) and 1981’s Civilisation ou barbarie
Name pronounced “Shek An-ta Dee-op ” born December 23, 1923, in Diourbel, Senegal; died February 7, 1986, in Dakar, Senegal. Education: Université de Paris, Litt.D., 1960.
Professor of Egyptology, University of Dakar, Senegal, 1961-86; founder and director, Radiocarbon Laboratory (first carbon-14 dating laboratory in Africa), Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, University of Dakar; member of International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1971-86; writer. Founder of two political parties in Senegal, Bloc des Masses Sénégalaises, 1961, and Front National Sénégalais, 1964; both parties subsequently outlawed by the ruling government.
Selected awards: Honored, with W. E. B. Du Bois, as a scholar “who had exerted the greatest influence on African people in the twentieth century,” First World Black Festival of Arts and Culture, Dakar, Senegal, 1966.
(revised and translated in 1991 as Civilization or Barbarism ). Diop argued for a black, African-based Egypt on three major points: the physical anthropology of ancient Egyptians, the nature of Egyptian race according to reports by classical writers, and the linguistic affinity of the language of ancient Egypt with Wolof, a Senegalese dialect.
Diop recognized that anthropological research in the physiology of ancient Egyptians did not provide definitive proof that they were black, but the evidence unearthed in the process did allow sound extrapolation. “Although the conclusions of these anthropological studies stop short of the full truth, they still speak unanimously of the existence of a Negro race from the most distant ages of prehistory down to the dynastic period [approximately 3000 B.C.],” Diop wrote in a chapter he contributed to volume two of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) eight-volume General History of Africa. He emphasized studies that, in examining the skulls from the pre-dynastic epoch, showed a greater percentage of black characteristics than any other type. From this information, Diop reasoned that a black race existed in Egypt at that time and did not migrate at a later stage as some previous theories have suggested.
To provide additional proof for his theory about the nature of the Egyptian population, Diop cited recognized paleoanthropological theories on the origin and subsequent racial differentiation of humans. He noted that eminent British paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey hypothesized that humankind originated near East Africa’s Great Lakes region; to this belief, Diop applied Gloger’s Law, which states that warm-blooded animals in a hot and humid climate are pigmented. The result, he stated in the General History of Africa, was that the earliest humans, appearing around 150,000 B.C., “were ethnically homogeneous and Negroid.”Subsequent movement of this race, he maintained, was through the Sahara and the Nile Valley, where the basin in what is now Egypt was peopled.
In approximately 40,000 B.C., black homo sapiens — Grimaldi Man—migrated to the European continent, differentiating over a 20,000-year span into Cro-Magnon Man, the first “white” race of humans. The Nile Valley “was necessarily populated solely by Blacks from the origin of humanity up to the appearances of the other races (20,000 to 15,000 years ago),” Diop wrote inCivilization or Barbarism. “Prior to some infiltrations at the end of the fourth millennium, Whites were absent from Egypt, and it practically remained that way until 1300 B.C.”
For further evidence, Diop focused on both how the ancient Egyptians represented themselves in their art and how they were represented in the literature of other cultures, namely classical Greek and Latin. “The images of men of the proto-historic [prehistoric] and of the dynastic period in no way square with the idea of the Egyptian race popular with Western anthropologists,” Diop stated in the General History of Africa. “Wherever the autochthonous [native] racial type is represented with any degree of clearness, it is evidently Negroid.” As an example Diop cited the generic table of the races represented in the tomb of Egyptian King Ramses III from the twelfth century B.C., which he felt showed Egyptians as black. “In fact,”Diop postulated in Civilization or Barbarism, “The Egyptian artist does not hesitate to represent the generic type of the Egyptian as a typical Black.” Diop concludes that the Egyptians held themselves as directly related to other black Africans—there was no ethnic difference.
Diop believed representatives from contemporary cultures viewed the ancient Egyptians in the same manner. He cited in particular the fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, who toured Egypt during his travels. In the General History of Africa, Diop quoted Herodotus on the appearance of Egyptians and their cultural ties to other Africans: “They have black skins and kinky hair and... alone among mankind the Egyptians and the Ethiopians have practiced circumcision since time immemorial.”
Diop tried to illustrate the strength of the cultural ties between ancient Egypt and its African neighbors—briefly alluded to by Herodotus and other classical authors of antiquity—by comparing the Egyptian language of the pharaonic epoch with Wolof, a Senegalese language spoken in western Africa near the Atlantic Ocean. “The kinship between ancient Egyptian and the languages of Africa,” Diop wrote in the General History of Africa, “is not a hypothetical but a demonstrable fact which it is impossible for modern scholarship to thrust aside.” He believed the kinship to be genealogical, and he provided examples: In ancient Egyptian “kef” means “to grasp, to take a strip (of something)”; in Wolof it means “to seize a prey.” “Feh” means “go away”in ancient Egyptian; in Wolof it means “to rush off.” To further show the correspondence between the two languages, Diop also examined verb forms, demonstratives, and phonemes. The results, he believed, showed little difference between the two.
Much of anthropology is theoretical in nature, and its community of scholars are often not in complete agreement, even on the meaning of what appears to be tangible evidence. Gamal Mokhtar, an Egyptian specialist in archaeology and editor of volume two of the General History of Africa, differed with Diop’s claim of the homogeneity of the ancient Egyptian populace. He wrote in the volume’s introduction, “The traditional criteria applied by physical anthropologists—facial index, length of limbs, etc.—are no longer accepted by everyone today. Nevertheless, it is highly doubtful whether the inhabitants who introduced civilization into the Nile Valley ever belonged to one single, pure race. The very history of the peopling of the valley refutes such a possibility.”
One area of Diop’s theories that has drawn more intense skepticism and criticism is his belief that ancient Egypt not only influenced other cultures but was also responsible for achievements wrongly ascribed to those cultures it directly influenced. “Most of the ideas we call foreign are oftentimes nothing but mixed up, reversed, modified, elaborated images of the creations of our African ancestors, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, dialectics, the theory of being, the exact sciences, arithmetic, geometry, mechanical engineering, astronomy, medicine, literature (novel, poetry, drama), architecture, the arts, etc.,” Diop put forth in Civilization or Barbarism. He argued specifically that Aristotelian metaphysics, the Pythagorean theorem, the concept of pi, Platonic cosmogony, and other commonly believed Greek creations actually were developed in ancient Egypt. “Consequently, no thought, no ideology is, in essence, foreign to Africa, which was their birthplace,” he wrote.
“Few anthropological problems have given rise to so much impassioned discussion,” Mokhtar noted. Indeed, the debate continues, and the work and theories of Diop, whether universally accepted, bring the question of Egypt’s cultural legacy—and with it, Africa’s—to the fore. More than any other twentieth-century scholar, Diop tried to give people of African origin a cultural identity, something he believed could act as a force of cohesion, empowering and enriching not only certain groups but an entire continent and, consequently, the world.
During his lifetime, Diop gained recognition as the leading black Egyptologist, linguist, anthropologist, scientist, and historian of the modern era. Despite the controversy surrounding his theories, Diop’s desire to promote unity among Africans has provided inspiration for others to study and elaborate on his work. “The rediscovery of the true past of the African peoples,” he declared in the General History of Africa, “should not be a divisive factor, but should contribute to uniting them, each and all, binding them together from the north to the south of the continent so as to enable them to carry out together a new historical mission for the greater good of mankind.”
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