10 Intriguing scientific versions of what the ancient Egyptians looked like

Abu Simbel, Egypt; February 12, 2023 -Vistors admire the Abu Simbel temple, Aswan, Egypt,

10 intriguing scientific versions of what the ancient Egyptians looked like

In 2014, Ridley Scott directed his biblical epic Exodus: Kings and Gods and inadvertently unleashed a rather unexpected conflict. In the film, ancient Egyptian characters are played by white actors, and this angered those who believe the Egyptians were dark-skinned. But what did the ancient Egyptians really look like?

Vintage engraving of a Ancient Egyptian family bearing gifts

Most Egyptologists insist there is no reason to believe that the modern concept of race can be applied to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, there are some historical “clues” as to what the Egyptians might have looked like, although we will immediately stipulate that these are just versions.

1. Herodotus
Herodotus, the father of history.

The Father of History Herodotus.

The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote extensively about Egypt around 450 BC, was one of the first to indirectly shed light on the appearance of the ancient Egyptians. Writing more than 100 years before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Herodotus claimed that the people of Colchis (an area on the eastern coast of the Black Sea) were of Egyptian descent because, like the Egyptians, they had dark skin and thick curly hair. Both groups also practised circumcision.

Herodotus’ brief description has been the subject of endless debate. To be precise, the historian used the words melanchroes (having dark or black skin) and oulotriches (having curly or frizzy hair). Some scholars believe that the word melanchroes may simply mean people who had darker or swarthier skin than Herodotus himself. Herodotus also notes that the physical appearance of the Colchians “proves nothing, since other peoples also have these traits,” which could mean that the Colchians were not very different from other Asian peoples. The only thing that is clear from Herodotus’ records is that the Egyptians were probably not very light-skinned.
2. Ramses II
In the early nineteenth century, slavery advocates and other racists argued that ancient Egypt could only have been so advanced because it had a Caucasoid civilisation. They also assumed that the Egyptian ruling class was white and their slaves were black. Afrocentric historians, on the other hand, emphasise the sub-Saharan origins of Egyptian civilisation by claiming that the ancient Egyptians were black. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle.

The mummy of Ramses II.

In 1881, the mummy of Ramses II (an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from about 1279-1213 BC) was discovered. Almost a century later, in 1974, archaeologists in Paris had the mummy forensically examined. Their analysis showed that the pharaoh had red hair, a trait never seen in sub-Saharan Africa. Ramses II was about ninety years old when he died, his grey hair had been dyed red with henna, but microscopic analysis confirmed that it was originally red. Since Ramses was known to be of Libyan descent, historians have surmised that he probably had relatively fair skin, especially since the ruler of Egypt did not need to appear in the sun very often.

3. Tutankhamun
Contemporary depictions of Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh who began his reign at the age of nine in the 1330s BC, are a source of controversy. Some Afrocentric scholars argue that popular depictions of the pharaoh as a white-skinned man are racist and blatantly inaccurate.

Mask of Tutankhamun.
Mask of Tutankhamun.

The controversy erupted anew when Egyptian scientists sequenced Tutankhamun’s DNA. Although the researchers have not released any information about the pharaoh’s race, various neo-Nazi organisations have cited a blurry screenshot from a Discovery Channel documentary which they insist “proves” that Tutankhamun was white or even Scandinavian, as he supposedly had a blood type common in northern Europe.

Egyptian authorities have even been accused of trying to hide Tutankhamun’s possible Jewish heritage because of current tensions in the Middle East. However, most genetic experts recognise that ancient DNA is incredibly easy to confuse (in one known case, DNA identified as belonging to a dinosaur turned out to belong to a modern human). And this makes any study of Tutankhamun’s DNA highly controversial.

4. Kemet
Just as Germans call their country Deutschland rather than Germany, the ancient Egyptians didn’t call their country Egypt; they called it Kemet, which means “black.” As you might expect, there is much debate about the specific meaning of the word Kemet. The two main arguments are that the Egyptians used the word “Kemet” to refer to their country as “the land of the black people” or they called it “the black land.”

Kemet is the black land.
Kemet is the black land.

Most modern linguists lean toward the second variant. They argue that the annual floods of the Nile River brought fertile black soil that provided agricultural prosperity for the country. As a result, the Egyptians named their land Kemet. The black soil provided a sharp visual contrast to the sandy deserts around the Nile, which the ancient Egyptians called “Deshret” (“red land”). But only the part of Egypt closest to the Nile had black soil, and also the Egyptians had no word for race, so perhaps neither argument is entirely correct.

5. Cleopatra’s mother
Of course, the famous Cleopatra was not really Egyptian, but was descended from one of Alexander the Great’s diadoch warlords, Ptolemy. But what was her ethnicity? Most Egyptologists believe she was a mixture of Macedonian Greeks and Persians, but they don’t know exactly who her mother was.

The mystery of Cleopatra’s origins.
The mystery of Cleopatra’s origins.

For political reasons, Cleopatra ordered the murder of her sister Arsinoe IV (they had the same father, but possibly different mothers). Some scholars have argued that Arsinoe IV was black, meaning that Cleopatra’s mother (and Cleopatra herself) could have been African. In the 1990s, an archaeologist claimed to have identified Arsinoe’s tomb and found her skeleton. However, the results of DNA testing on the bones were inconclusive, and scientists are still unsure if they are her bones. Most likely, Cleopatra had a mixture of blood from a number of Mediterranean peoples, Greeks, and various other nationalities.

6. Egyptian art
Now on to how the ancient Egyptians portrayed themselves. There are statues, wall paintings and illustrated papyri in Egyptian temples that give some idea of how their creators saw themselves. Egyptians depicted themselves with a variety of skin colours, from light brown, red and yellow to black.

Egyptian art.

Men were often darker-skinned than women. This probably indicates that men did manual labour outdoors, but it is worth remembering that ancient Egyptian artwork was not realistic, and most skin tones were symbolic rather than realistic. For example, Egyptians depicted with red faces or hair could mean that they were under the spell of Seth, the evil desert deity.

Some scholars argue that the Egyptians used colours in their paintings to distinguish themselves from the Nubians (people who lived in what is now Sudan), which is why they painted themselves with reddish or copper skin and the Nubians with black skin.

7. The Great Sphinx
With its human head and lion body, the Great Sphinx of Giza is a huge and incredibly ancient sculpture (it was probably built around 2500 BC). No one knows exactly whose face the sphinx has, but most Egyptologists believe it is the pharaoh Khafra. When French historian Count Constantin de Volnay visited the Sphinx in the 1780s, he stated that the sculpture had Negroid facial features.

The Great Sphinx

In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes, like all native Africans.” Modern scholars find it almost impossible to judge the Sphinx’s ethnicity because millennia of rain, winds and heat have erased the statue’s face. However, in the early 1990s, Frank Domingo used his expertise (he worked as a forensic scientist at a police station in New York City) to measure the Sphinx’s face.

The face he modelled was definitely not like other statues of Khafre, indicating that the Sphinx’s face was made in the likeness of someone else. Instead, the resulting model contained distinctive African features that were generally absent from other depictions of Khafra.

8. A New Race
In the 1880s, historian and archaeologist Sir Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was one of the leading researchers of Egyptian artefacts. Petrie made enormous contributions to Egyptology – among other things, he was the first to identify the prehistoric culture that preceded ancient Egypt as we know it today. But some of Petrie’s ideas remain controversial. For example, he insisted that the civilisation of early dynastic Egypt was not the successor to the local prehistoric peoples, but was in fact a “New Race” that invaded and conquered the “decadent civilisation of the prehistoric period”.

At the excavations in Egypt.
On excavations in Egypt.

Petrie argued that there was no continuity between Egyptian artefacts from the prehistoric and dynastic periods, meaning that the New Race must have “destroyed or expelled the entire Egyptian population”. He believed that the “New Race” could have been from Libya or Persia. Modern historians have suggested that Petrie’s theories were more likely based on nineteenth-century European colonial ideas, and that the dynastic race he identified was actually local Egyptians. Interestingly, Petrie himself eventually admitted that he was wrong.

9. Eastern Desert
In the early 2000s, Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson published a study of rock paintings found in the ancient Eastern Desert, in the Sahara region between the Red Sea and the Nile. The rock paintings, which date back to the early fourth millennium BC, depict typical Nile Valley imagery, crocodiles, hippos, and images of people wearing headdresses and armed with maces. These images have significant parallels with later works of dynastic Egyptians, so Wilkinson concluded that the roots of the Egyptians go back to the Eastern Desert.

Where are your roots?

According to Wilkinson, the ancestors of the dynastic Egyptian peoples were semi-nomadic pastoralists who travelled between riverbanks and the dry areas of the Eastern Desert. This desert in question encompassed parts of modern Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Wilkinson’s theory has not been conclusively proven, however, and he himself admits that it is difficult to identify rock art accurately.

10. Teeth
Can the study of the teeth of the ancient Egyptians shed light on their origins and who they resembled. A 2006 study of the jaw remains of nearly 1,000 Egyptian skeletons found that the teeth of Egyptians remained similar throughout ancient history – in other words, the ancient Egyptian population probably remained remarkably homogeneous throughout the thousand years between the pre-dynastic period and the early Roman Empire.

Everything changes, even teeth.

The teeth mostly just shrank slightly in size over this time, and they were very similar to the teeth of modern populations across North Africa (they were less similar to the teeth of people from Europe and West Asia). Interestingly, the study’s author, Joel D. Ireland, suggests that the dental studies showed “a mixture of many biologically different peoples, including groups from the Sahara, Nilotic and Levant.” However, he argues that this “mixture” occurred in the pre-distastic period, before the Golden Age of Ancient Egypt.

Abu Simbel, Egypt; February 12, 2023 -Vistors admire the Abu Simbel temple, Aswan, Egypt,

When Egyptian civilisation flourished, the population remained genetically similar, thanks to the extensive trade links that existed throughout the country, which largely outweighed any outside influences. However, it is worth noting that dental measurements can vary widely, even among closely related populations.

 

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