Ethnic Minorities in Ancient Egypt

An active study of the racial identity of ancient Egyptian society, as well as the influence of various ethnic groups on it, began to develop in the 18th century. In 1787 the book called Travels through Syria and Egypt was published (Sanders 2009). In it, the French traveler Count Volney argued that the ancient Egyptians were of negro origin, which was later also supported by records from Napoleon’s expedition (Foster 1974; Sanders 2009). With the advent of the colonial era, these conclusions began to be questioned, which led to the development of new historiographic approaches to the study of the ethnic origin of the ancient Egyptians. Foster (1974) claims that the Europeans could not accept the fact that the Africans were able to create such a great civilization. After the first autopsy of an ancient Egyptian mummy was performed in 1825, the scientific community began to actively criticize the theory of the negro origin of the ancient Egyptians, arguing about their belonging to the Caucasian race (Milton and Bandia 2009). However, this theory only intensified the debate in the Egyptological community in the 19th century.

For the longest time during the 19th century, Egyptologists used ethnographic methods in the study of the ethnicity of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. During this period, it was also suggested that the main part of the population of ancient Egypt was of Caucasian origin, while the descendants of the African race were an ethnic minority (Baum 2006). These assumptions were put forward on the basis of the colonial idea of the physical and intellectual inferiority of the African race under the influence of the colonial tradition. In the middle of the 20th century, dynasty race theory arose, which claimed that civilization was brought to the ancient peoples who inhabited the territory of Egypt from Mesopotamia, which led to the emergence of the first royal dynasty (Trigger et al. 2008). At the moment, this theory does not find the support of Egyptologists and ethnographers, which also led to a new stage in the development of debate in the field. In the second half of the 20th century a new approach to the racial studies was employed. In particular, a hierarchical model of race based on colonial ideas of races, which later was actively opposed by the scientific community as anachronistic (Bard and Shubert 1999). Further research led to the idea that the Egyptians were indigenous to the Nile Valley.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the genetic approach to the study of the ethnicity of ancient Egypt was popular due to the scientific advances. However, these studies have been widely criticized for questionable methodology based on selective sampling methods (Candelora 2022; Keita and Boyce 2022). Modern research focuses on the study of the ethnic groups of ancient Egypt based on history and language. In particular, the most pervasive debate in the field in the 21st century is the need to move away from a European-centered view of Egyptology. Modern researchers emphasize the importance of considering the ethnic origin of the ancient Egyptians in the framework of the interaction of the African, near east, in the Mediterranean culture (Kristiansen 2021; Matić 2020; Moreno García 2018; Saifullin 2015; Schneider 2018). Researchers argue that the study of the ethnic groups of ancient Egypt should be based on cross-disciplinary data, including social, ethnographic, historical, and others.

Thus, in the modern Egyptological community there is no unequivocal opinion regarding the origin and ethnic composition of the population of ancient Egypt. This conclusion identifies the fact that it is impossible to accurately determine the ethnic minority of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Foster (1974) emphasizes that the peoples of ancient Egypt intermingled actively with each other, resulting in the development of a relatively homogeneous ethnic composition. Ethnic minorities existed at different stages of the historical development of civilization, which requires a detailed study of the ethnic composition in different periods of the existence of ancient Egypt.

Reference List

Bard, Kathryn, and Steven Blake Shubert. 1999. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge.

Baum, Bruce. 2006. The Rise and Fall of Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity. New York University Press.

Candelora, Danielle. (2022). Ancient Egyptian Society Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Approaches. Routledge.

Foster, Herbert J. “The Ethnicity of the Ancient Egyptians.” Journal of Black Studies 5, no. 2 (1974): 175-191.

Keita, S. O. Y., and Anthony Boyce. “Genetics, Egypt, and History: Interpreting Geographical Patterns of Y Chromosome Variation,” History of Africa 32, (2014): 221-246.

Kristiansen, Kristian. “Towards a New Paradigm? The Third Science Revolution and Its Possible Consequences in Archeology,” Current Swedish Archeology 22, no. 1 (2021): 11-34.

Matić, Uroš. 2020. Ethnic Identities in the Land of the Pharaohs: Past and Present Approaches in Egyptology. Cambridge University Press.

Milton, John, and Paul Fabio Bandia. 2009. Agents of Translation. John Benjamins Publishing.

Moreno García, Juan Carlos. “Ethnicity in Ancient Egypt: An Introduction to Key Issues.” Journal of Egyptian Studies 11, no. 1-2 (2018): 1-17.

Trigger, Bruce G., Barry J. Kemp, David O’Connor, and Alan B. Lloyd. 1983. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge University Press.

Saifullin, Rubin G. “Ethnopolitogenesis of Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian Ethnic Groups.” Asian Social Science 11, no. 5 (2015): 158-168.

Sanders, Edith. “The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective,” Journal of African History 10, no. 4 (2009): 521-532.

Schneider, Thomas. “Ethnic Identities in Ancient Egypt and the Identity of Egyptology: Toward a Trans-Egyptology,’ Journal of Egyptian History 11 (2018): 243-246.

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