Ancient Egyptian Origins (National Geographic)

The origins of ancient Egyptian society, culture, and people have long been of interest to scholars from different disciplines. While the term “origins” is multidimensional, here it refers to the geography of a population’s linguistic, cultural, and biological beginnings and its wider connections.

By S. O. Y. Keita, Senior Research Associate, National Human Genome Center, Howard University; Research Associate, Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute

Like its modern counterpart, ancient Egypt was centered on the Nile Valley in the eastern Sahara, Africa’s largest desert. The climate history of this part of the continent, which has varied over time, has likely played a major role in how humans have moved and interacted through the millennia. This region was likely a major route for the exodus of modern humans from Africa.

Between 50,000 and 15,000 years ago the desert area west of the Nile was inhabited sparsely, if at all, due to the region’s aridity. During this period a succession of cultures flourished on the banks of the Nile. As rains came in from equatorial Africa in the early Holocene, the desert became less arid, and people moved into the Sahara from all directions. Between 10,000 and 6,000 B.C. archaeological evidence has been interpreted to suggest that the number of people living along the Nile fell. At the same time, in the desert west of the river there is evidence of an increase in population and of pastoral societies that built large stone megaliths and sculptures, developed astronomical knowledge, made the earliest known pottery in Africa, and, likely, domesticated cattle. There are rock paintings of people and animals, sometimes using themes that also appear later in Egypt, along with other aspects of the culture. After the climate again grew more arid after 6000 B.C. there is evidence for migration back into the Nile Valley.

Autuori, J. C. “Egypt, Africa and the Ancient World.” In Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, ed. C. J. Eyre. Orientalia Lovaniensia, 1998.

Hassan, F. A. “The Predynastic of Egypt.” Journal of World Prehistory (June 1988), 135-85.

Kuper, R., and S. Kropelin. “Climate-controlled Holocene Occupation in the Sahara: Motor of Africa’s Evolution.” Science (August 2006), 803-07.

Wendorf, F., R. Schild, and Associates. Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara. Kluwer, 2001.

Human Biology
ver. 5 – Tue, Sep 16, 2008 at 12:22:49 PM

By S. O. Y. Keita, Senior Research Associate, National Human Genome Center, Howard University; Research Associate, Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute

Based on fossil and DNA evidence, modern humans may have existed in Africa as many as 140,000 years before they successfully colonized other parts of the world. Considering this from an evolutionary perspective, we should expect great diversity among indigenous Africans, and this is what has been found, even when northern African populations have been excluded from the research. All human populations exhibit biological variation in one way or another, and there is no single way to be biologically African—not by DNA, skin color, hair form, blood type, or variation of face and nose.

Fossil remains of modern humans have been found in the Nile Valley, including those of a child from Taramsa, in Egypt, believed to date to 60,000 to 50,000 years ago, though perhaps to as much as 80,000 years ago. The Nazlet Khater skeleton, also from Egypt, dates to around 33,000 years ago. Excavations in Egypt have also produced skeletal remains that date back to the cultures immediately preceding and following the first kings of a united Egypt, around 3100 B.C. By carefully using various scientific techniques, one can determine changes over time in the skeletal pattern of a particular place. The pattern of the craniofacial region and long bones is believed by most investigators to be helpful in understanding the forces of evolution on a population and, in some cases, when the pattern can be combined with other information, the population’s region of origin. A similar pattern among different groups may indicate either a common ancestral origin, population interactions via intermarriage, and/or a common adaptive pattern related to the environment. Other information may help in assessing the meaning of similarity.

There has been scholarly interest in the biological variation and genealogical relationship of the ancient Egyptians to other populations outside of the Egyptian Nile Valley. There is no scientific reason to believe that the primary ancestors of the Egyptian population emerged and evolved outside of northeast Africa. Skeletal analyses have figured prominently in research. When comparisons to non-Egyptians are made, depending on which samples and methods are used, the craniofacial patterns of ancient Egyptian show a range of similarities to other African populations, Near Easterners, and Europeans. Overall, these studies can be interpreted as suggesting that the Egyptian Nile Valley’s indigenous population had a craniofacial pattern that evolved and emerged in northeastern Africa, whose geography in relationship to climate largely explains the variation. Dental affinity studies generally agree with the craniofacial results, though they differ in the details. The body proportions of ancient Egyptians generally are similar to those of tropical (more southern) Africans.

Very little DNA has been retrieved from ancient Egyptian remains, and there are not many studies on the modern population. However, the results of analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the Y chromosome in the living Egyptian population show the existence of very old African lineages that are consistent with the fossil remains and of younger lineages of more recent evolution, along with evidence of the assimilation of later migrants from the Near East and Europe; mtDNA is passed only through the female line, from mother to offspring, and the relevant part of the Y chromosome, the nonrecombining section, passes only from father to son. The basic overall genetic profile of the modern population is consistent with the diversity of ancient populations that would have been indigenous to northeastern Africa and subject to the range of evolutionary influences over time, although researchers vary in the details of their explanations of those influences.

Brauer, G., and K. Rimbach. “Late Archaic and Modern Homo sapiens From Europe, Africa, and Southwest Asia: Craniometric Comparisons and Phylogenetic Implications.” Journal of Human Evolution. Vol. 19 (1990), 789-807.

Cruciani, F., and others. “Tracing Past Human Male Movements in Northern/Eastern Africa and Western Eurasia: New Clues From Y-chromosomal Haplogroups E-M78 and J-M12.” Molecular Biology and Evolution. Vol. 24 (2007), 1300-11.

Howells, W. W. “Cranial Variation in Man.” Papers of the Peabody Museum. Harvard, 1973.

Irish, J. D. “Who Were the Ancient Egyptians? Dental Affinities Among Neolithic Through Postdynastic Peoples.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Vol. 129 (2006), 529-43.

Mukherjee, R., and others. The Ancient Inhabitants of Jebel Moya. Cambridge University, 1955.

Keita, S. O. Y. “Studies and Comments on Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships.” History in Africa. Vol. 20 (1993), 129-54.

Keita, S. O. Y. “History in the Interpretation of the Pattern of p49a,f,Taq RFLP Y-chromosome Variation in Egypt: A consideration of Multiple Lines of Evidence.” American Journal of Human Biology. Vol. 17 (2005), 559-67.

Keita, S.O.Y., and A. J. Boyce. “Temporal Variation in Phenetic Affinity of Early Upper Egyptian Male Cranial Series.” Human Biology. (April 2008), 141-159.

Krings, M., and others. “MtDNA Analysis of Nile River Valley Populations: A Genetic Corridor or a Barrier to Migration?” American Journal of Human Genetics. Vol. 64 (1999), 1166-76.

Lucotte, G., and G. Mercier. “Brief Communication: Y-chromosome Haplotypes in Egypt.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Vol. 121 (2003), 63-66.

Yu, Ning, and others. “Larger Genetic Differences Within Africans Than Between Africans and Eurasians.” Genetics (May 2002), 269-74.

Vermeersch, P. M., and others. “Discovery of the Nazlet Khater Man, Upper Egypt.” Journal of Human Evolution. Vol. 13 (1984), 281-86.

Vermeersch, P. M., and others. “A Middle Paleolithic Burial of a Human at Taramsa Hill, Egypt.” Antiquity. Vol. 72 (1998), 475-84.

Zakrzewski, S. R. “Variation in Ancient Egyptian Stature and Body Proportions.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Vol. 121 (2003), 219-29.

Zakrzewski, S. R. “Population Continuity or Population Change: Formation of the Ancient Egyptian State.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Vol. 132 (2007), 501-09.

Linguistics and writing
ver. 6 – Tue, Sep 16, 2008 at 12:24:10 PM

By S. O. Y. Keita, Senior Research Associate, National Human Genome Center, Howard University; Research Associate, Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute

Ancient Egyptian, with Coptic, forms one branch or family within the Afro-Asiatic linguistic phylum that also includes Cushitic, Semitic, Chadic, Berber, and Omotic, according to most scholars. (Ongota was recently added by some scholars.) Linguists have found that, in general, two principles—“greatest diversity” and “least moves”—can help determine the likely geographical origin of a language phylum, or family. Greatest diversity can be illustrated by the fact that all but one of the Afro-Asiatic families, Semitic, is found exclusively in Africa; the African branches are spread from East Africa north, west, and northwest down the Nile to the Mediterranean coast, Sahara, and west Sahel. This geographical distribution, coupled with the presence of Omotic and Ongota only in Ethiopia—both viewed as having more features in common with ancestral Afro-Asiatic than do the other branches—is interpreted as indicating that Afro-Asiatic originated in Africa. Using the least-moves principle, one can conclude that this distribution is consistent with an origin in Ethiopia, Sudan, or the eastern Sahara. Analyses indicate that ancestral Afro-Asiatic, perhaps dating to 15,000 to 10,000 B.C., was spoken by hunters and gatherers and not farmers or pastoralists (food producers).

Linguistics and writing can give some clues to migration or major cultural interactions. Semitic and perhaps Sumerian speakers in the Near East developed agriculture some 2,000 years before it emerged in the Nile Valley. If Egypt had been peopled by a mass migration of farmers from the Near East, ancient Egyptians would have spoken either a Semitic language or Sumerian (considered a language isolate, meaning that it has no obvious close relatives). Although certain major domesticated species used in Egypt came from the Near East, it is interesting to note that the words for these in Egyptian were not borrowed from any members of the Semitic family whose common ancestor had terms for them. They are all Egyptian.

The beginnings of Egyptian writing can be traced back to the cultures that led to dynastic Egypt. Flora and fauna used in the hieroglyphs are Nilotic, indicating that the writing system developed locally, with some symbols traceable back to a period before the first dynasty rulers emerged. The titles for the king, major officials, and the royal insignia are Egyptian, which is of interest because one old theory held that the dynastic Egyptians or their elites came from the Near East; however, the archaeological evidence shows that they came from southern Egypt.

Diakonoff, I. M. “The Earliest Semitic Society: Linguistic Data.” Journal of Semitic Studies. Vol. 4 (1998), 209-19.

Ehret, C. Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic, Proto-Afrasian Vowels, Tone, Consonants and Vocabulary. University of California, 1995.

Ehret, C. “Ancient Egyptian as an African Language, Egypt as an African Culture.” In Egypt in Africa, ed. T. Celenko. Indianapolis Museum of Art and Indiana University, 1996.

Ehret, C. “Language and History.” In African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University, 2000.

Ehret, C. and others. “The Origins of Afroasiatic.” Science (December 2004), 1680.

Mokhtar, G., with J. Vercoutter. “Introduction.” In General History of Africa, ed. G. Mokhtar. Vol. 2. UNESCO, 1981.

Nichols, J. “Modeling Ancient Population Structure and Movement in Linguistics.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 26 (1997), 359-84.

ver. 3 – Tue, Sep 16, 2008 at 12:27:53 PM

By S. O. Y. Keita, Senior Research Associate, National Human Genome Center, Howard University; Research Associate, Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute

The Neolithic (food-producing) cultures after 6000 B.C. in the Nile Valley became a part of the foundation for the ancient Egyptian way of life. The archaeology of early Egypt indicates continuity with local cultural traditions along the Nile as well influences from the Sahara, Sudan, and Asia (the Near East). The Neolithic cultures in northern Egypt show evidence over time of varying contacts, with Saharan influences the most dominant. In the case of food procurement, ancestral Egyptians living on Lake Fayum added to their tradition of foraging by raising Near Eastern domesticated plants (wheat and barley) and animals (sheep and goats). Domesticated cattle came from the Sahara but may also have come from the Near East. Considering that wheat and barley agriculture was practiced in Asia (the Near East) 2,000 years before it was in Egypt, it is important to note that the early Egyptian way of life did not change abruptly at this time (around 5000 B.C.), which is what one would expect if Egypt had simply been peopled by farmers migrating from the Near East. These early Egyptians incorporated the new food stuffs and techniques—and likely some people—into their culture and society on their own terms.

The major features of cultural and political development that led to dynastic Egypt originated in southern Egypt during what is called the predynastic period. Some evidence suggests that predynastic Egyptian and early Nubian cultures had ties to the early Saharan cultures and shared a Saharo-Nilotic heritage. Perhaps the earliest predynastic culture, the Badarian-Tasian* (4400 B.C. or earlier, to 4000 B.C.), had the clearest ties to Saharan cultures in the desert west of Nubia. The subsequent development, known as Naqada culture (3900 to around 3050 B.C.) by numerous scholars, had three phases and led directly to the 1st dynasty in southern Egypt without a break or evidence of foreign domination. It had three major centers in Upper Egypt, the small kingdoms of Naqada, Hierakonpolis, and Abydos, which came to be a much revered place in Egypt. The cemetery grounds of Abydos contain the largest tomb of a predynastic ruler, along with the burials of all the kings of the 1st dynasty. Naqada culture expanded north in its later phases, culturally incorporating northern Egypt before the 1st dynasty. There is also evidence at some sites—including Hierakonpolis, where the famous Narmer Palette was found—for interactions with Nubian societies, specifically one called the A-Group, whose kings shared some insignia with Egypt. By the time the 1st dynasty began, Egypt and Nubia were rivals; Egypt defeated the A-Group state and incorporated its territory, which became a part of the first province of Upper Egypt.

(*The existence of the Tasian as a distinct culture has been disputed, and it is usually treated as a part of the Badarian. Some Tasian and early Nubian pottery show striking similarities.)

Bard, K. “The Egyptian Predynastic. A Review of the Evidence.” Journal of Field Archaeology. Vol. 21 (1994), 265-88.

Hassan, F. A. “The Predynastic of Egypt.” Journal of World Prehistory. Vol. 2 (1988), 135-85.

Klees, F., and R. Kuper. New Light on the Northeast African Past. Heinrich Barth Institut, 1992.

Midant-Reynes, B. The Prehistory of Egypt. Blackwell, 2000.

Wetterstrom, W. “Foraging and Farming in Egypt: The Transition From Hunting and Gathering to Horticulture in the Nile Valley.” In The Archaeology of Africa. Routledge, 1993.

Williams, B. B. The A-Group Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery L. University of Chicago, 1988.

Wilkinson, T. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge, 2001

Last updated: September 8, 2008

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