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African Origin of Civilization

African Origin of Civilization

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by Cheikh Anta Diop, Cheikh Anta. Diop

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Edited and translated by Mercer Cook.Laymen and scholars alike will welcome the publication of this one-volume translation of the major sections of C. A. Diop's two books, Nations negres et culture and Anteriorite des civilizations negres, which have profoundly influenced thinking about Africa around the world. It was largely because of these works that, at the World


Edited and translated by Mercer Cook.Laymen and scholars alike will welcome the publication of this one-volume translation of the major sections of C. A. Diop's two books, Nations negres et culture and Anteriorite des civilizations negres, which have profoundly influenced thinking about Africa around the world. It was largely because of these works that, at the World Festival of the Arts held in Dakar in 1966, Dr. Diop shared with the late W. E. B. DuBois an award as the writer who had exerted the greatest influence on Negro thought in the 20th century.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
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1st ed.

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The African Origin of Civilization

Myth or Reality

By Cheikh Anta Diop, Mercer Cook

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1974 Lawrence Hill & Co.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-88208-022-2


What Were the Egyptians?

In contemporary descriptions of the ancient Egyptians, this question is never raised. Eyewitnesses of that period formally affirm that the Egyptians were Blacks. On several occasions Herodotus insists on the Negro character of the Egyptians and even uses this for indirect demonstrations. For example, to prove that the flooding of the Nile cannot be caused by melting snow, he cites, among other reasons he deems valid, the following observation: "It is certain that the natives of the country are black with the heat ..."

To demonstrate that the Greek oracle is of Egyptian origin, Herodotus advances another argument: "Lastly, by calling the dove black, they [the Dodonaeans] indicated that the woman was Egyptian...." The doves in question symbolize two Egyptian women allegedly kidnapped from Thebes to found the oracles of Dodona and Libya.

To show that the inhabitants of Colchis were of Egyptian origin and had to be considered a part of Sesostris' army who had settled in that region, Herodotus says: "The Egyptians said that they believed the Colchians to be descended from the army of Sesostris. My own conjectures were founded, first, on the fact that they are black-skinned and have woolly hair ...,"

Finally, concerning the population of India, Herodotus distinguishes between the Padaeans and other Indians, describing them as follows: "They all also have the same tint of skin, which approaches that of the Ethiopians."

Diodorus of Sicily writes:

The Ethiopians say that the Egyptians are one of their colonies which was brought into Egypt by Osiris. They even allege that this country was originally under water, but that the Nile, dragging much mud as it flowed from Ethiopia, had finally filled it in and made it a part of the continent. ... They add that from them, as from their authors and ancestors, the Egyptians get most of their laws. It is from them that the Egyptians have learned to honor kings as gods and bury them with such pomp; sculpture and writing were invented by the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians cite evidence that they are more ancient than the Egyptians, but it is useless to report that here.

If the Egyptians and Ethiopians were not of the same race, Diodorus would have emphasized the impossibility of considering the former as a colony (i.e., a fraction) of the latter and the impossibility of viewing them as forebears of the Egyptians.

In his Geography, Strabo mentioned the importance of migrations in history and, believing that this particular migration had proceeded from Egypt to Ethiopia, remarks: "Egyptians settled Ethiopia and Colchis." Once again, it is a Greek, despite his chauvinism, who informs us that the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Colchians belong to the same race, thereby confirming what Herodotus had said about the Colchians.

The opinion of all the ancient writers on the Egyptian race is more or less summed up by Gaston Maspero (1846–1916): "By the almost unanimous testimony of ancient historians, they belonged to an African race [read: Negro] which first settled in Ethiopia, on the Middle Nile; following the course of the river, they gradually reached the sea.... Moreover, the Bible states that Mesraim, son of Ham, brother of Chus (Kush) the Ethiopian, and of Canaan, came from Mesopotamia to settle with his children on the banks of the Nile."

According to the Bible, Egypt was peopled by the offspring of Ham, ancestor of the Blacks: "The descendants of Ham are Chus, Mesraim, Phut and Canaan. The descendants of Chus are Saba, Hevila, Sabatha, Regma and Sabathacha. ... Chus was the father of Nemrod; he was the first to be conqueror on the earth. ... Mesraim became the father of Ludim, Anamim, Laabim, Nephthuhim, Phethrusim, Chasluhim. ... Canaan became the father of Sid, his first-born, and Heth...."

For the peoples of the Near East, Mesraim still designates Egypt; Canaan, the entire coast of Palestine and Phoenicia; Sennar, which was probably the site from which Nemrod left for Western Asia, still indicates the kingdom of Nubia.

What is the value of these statements? Coming from eyewitnesses, they could hardly be false. Herodotus may be mistaken when he reports the customs of a people, when he reasons more or less cleverly to explain a phenomenon incomprehensible in his day, but one must grant that he was at least capable of recognizing the skin color of the inhabitants of countries he has visited. Besides, Herodotus was not a credulous historian who recorded everything without checking; he knew how to weigh things. When he relates an opinion that he does not share, he always takes care to note his disagreement. Thus, referring to the mores of the Scythians and Neurians, he writes apropos the latter: "It seems that these people are conjurers; for both the Scythians and the Greeks who dwell in Scythia say that every Neurian once a year becomes a wolf for a few days, at the end of which time he is restored to his proper shape. Not that I believe this, but they constantly affirm it to be true, and are even ready to back up their assertion with an oath."

He always distinguishes carefully between what he has seen and what he has been told. After his visit to the Labyrinth, he writes:

There are two different sorts of chambers throughout — half under ground, half above ground, the latter built upon the former; the whole number of these chambers is three thousand, fifteen hundred of each kind. The upper chambers I myself passed through and saw, and what I say concerning them is from my own observation; of the underground chambers I can only speak from report, for the keepers of the building could not be got to show them, since they contained, as they said, the sepulchers of the kings who built the Labyrinth, and also those of the sacred crocodiles. Thus it is from hearsay only that I can speak of the lower chambers. The upper chambers, however, I saw with my own eyes and found them to excel all other human productions.

Was Herodotus a historian deprived of logic, unable to penetrate complex phenomena? On the contrary, his explanation of the inundations of the Nile reveals a rational mind seeking scientific reasons for natural phenomena:

Perhaps, after censuring all the opinions that have been put forward on this obscure subject, one ought to propose some theory of one's own. I will therefore proceed to explain what I think to be the reason of the Nile's swelling in the summertime. During the winter, the sun is driven out of his usual course by the storms, and removes to the upper parts of Libya. This is the whole secret in the fewest possible words; for it stands to reason that the country to which the Sun-god approaches the nearest, and which he passes most directly over, will be scantest of water, and that here streams which feed the rivers will shrink the most. To explain, however, more at length, the case is this. The sun, in his passage across the upper parts of Libya, affects them in the following way. As the air in these regions is constantly clear, and the country warm through the absence of cold winds, the sun in his passage across them acts upon them exactly as he is wont to act elsewhere in summer, when his path is in the middle of heaven — that is, he attracts the water. After attracting it, he again repels it into the upper regions, where the winds lay hold of it, scatter it, and reduce it into a vapor, whence it naturally enough comes to pass that the winds which blow from this quarter — the south and southwest — are of all winds the most rainy. And my own opinion is that the sun does not get rid of all the water which he draws year by year from the Nile, but retains some about him.

These three examples reveal that Herodotus was not a passive reporter of incredible tales and rubbish, "a liar." On the contrary, he was quite scrupulous, objective, scientific for his time. Why should one seek to discredit such a historian, to make him seem naive? Why "refabricate" history despite his explicit evidence?

Undoubtedly the basic reason for this is that Herodotus, after relating his eyewitness account informing us that the Egyptians were Blacks, then demonstrated, with rare honesty (for a Greek), that Greece borrowed from Egypt all the elements of her civilization, even the cult of the gods, and that Egypt was the cradle of civilization. Moreover, archeological discoveries continually justify Herodotus against his detractors. Thus, Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt writes about recent excavations in Tanis: "Herodotus had seen the outer buildings of these sepulchers and had described them. [This was the Labyrinth discussed above.] Pierre Montet has just proved once again that The Father of History did not lie.'" It could be objected that, in the fifth century B.C.when Herodotus visited Egypt, its civilization was already more than 10,000 years old and that the race which had created it was not necessarily the Negro race that Herodotus found there.

But the whole history of Egypt, as we shall see, shows that themixture of the early population with white nomadic elements, conquerors or merchants, became increasingly important as the end of Egyptian history approached. According to Cornelius de Pauw, in the low epoch Egypt was almost saturated with foreign white colonies: Arabs in Coptos, Libyans on the future site of Alexandria, Jews around the city of Hercules (Avaris?), Babylonians (or Persians) below Memphis, "fugitive Trojans" in the area of the great stone quarries east of the Nile, Carians and Ionians over by the Pelusiac branch. Psammetichus (end of seventh century) capped this peaceful invasion by entrusting the defense of Egypt to Greek mercenaries. "An enormous mistake of Pharaoh Psammetichus was to commit the defense of Egypt to foreign troops and to introduce various colonies made up of the dregs of the nations." Under the last Saite dynasty, the Greeks were officially established at Naucratis, the only port where foreigners were authorized to engage in trading.

After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, under the Ptolemies, crossbreeding between white Greeks and black Egyptians flourished, thanks to a policy of assimilation: "Nowhere was Dionysus more favored, nowhere was he worshiped more adoringly and more elaborately than by the Ptolemies, who recognized his cult as an especially effective means of promoting the assimilation of the conquering Greeks and their fusion with the native Egyptians."

These facts prove that if the Egyptian people had originally been white, it might well have remained so. If Herodotus found it still black after so much crossbreeding, it must have been basic black at the start.

Insofar as Biblical evidence is concerned, a few details are in order. To determine the worth of Biblical evidence, we must examine the genesis of the Jewish people. What, then, was the Jewish people? How was it born? How did it create the Bible, in which descendants of Ham, ancestors of Negroes and Egyptians, would thus be accursed; what might be the historical reason for that curse? Those who would become the Jews entered Egypt numbering 70 rough, fearful shepherds, chased from Palestine by famine and attracted by that earthly paradise, the Nile Valley.

Although the Egyptians had a peculiar horror of nomadic life and shepherds, these newcomers were first warmly welcomed, thanks to Joseph. According to the Bible, they settled in the land of Goshen and became shepherds of the Pharaoh's flocks. After the death of Joseph and the Pharaoh "Protector," and facing the proliferation of the Jews, the Egyptians grew hostile, in circumstances still ill-defined. The condition of the Jews became more and more difficult. If we are to believe the Bible, they were employed on construction work, serving as laborers in building the city of Ramses. The Egyptians took steps to limit the number of births and eliminate male babies, lest the ethnic minority develop into a national danger which, in time of war, might increase enemy ranks. So began the initial persecutions by which the Jewish people was to remain marked throughout its history. Henceforth the Jewish minority, withdrawn within itself, would become Messianic by suffering and humiliation. Such a moral terrain of wretchedness and hope favored the birth and development of religious sentiment. The circumstances were the more favorable because this race of shepherds, without industry or social organization (the only social cell was the patriarchal family), armed with nothing but sticks, could envisage no positive reaction to the technical superiority of the Egyptian people.

It was to meet this crisis that Moses appeared, the first of the Jewish prophets, who, after minutely working out the history of the Jewish people from its origins, presented it in retrospect under a religious perspective. Thus he caused Abraham to say many things that the latter could not possibly have foreseen: for example, the 400 years in Egypt. Moses lived at the time of Tell el Amarna, when Amenophis IV (Akhnaton, circa 1400) was trying to revive the early monotheism which had by then been discredited by sacerdotal ostentation and the corruptness of the priests. Akhnaton seems to have attempted to bolster political centralism in his recently conquered immense empire through religious centralism; the empire needed a universal religion.

Moses was probably influenced by this reform. From that time on, he championed monotheism among the Jews. Monotheism, with all its abstraction, already existed in Egypt, which had borrowed it from the Meroitic Sudan, the Ethiopia of the Ancients. "Although the Supreme Deity, viewed in the purest of monotheistic visions as the 'only generator in the sky and on earth who was not engendered ... the only living god in truth ...' Amon, whose name signifies mystery, adoration, one day finds himself rejected, overtaken by Ra, the Sun, or converted into Osiris or Horus."

Given the insecure atmosphere in which the Jewish people found itself in Egypt, a God promising sure tomorrows was an irreplaceable moral support. After some reticence at the outset, this people which apparently had not known monotheism previously — contrary to the opinion of those who would credit it as the inventor [of monotheism] — would nonetheless carry it to a rather remarkable degree of development. Aided by faith, Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. However, the Israelites quickly tired of this religion and only gradually returned to monotheism. (The Golden Calf of Aaron at the foot of Mount Sinai.)

Having entered Egypt as 70 shepherds grouped in 12 patriarchal families, nomads without industry or culture, the Jewish people left there 400 years later, 600,000 strong, after acquiring from it all the elements of its future tradition, including monotheism.

If the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites as the Bible says, and if the Egyptians were Negroes, sons of Ham, as the same Bible says, we can no longer ignore the historical causes of the curse upon Ham — despite the legend of Noah's drunkenness. The curse entered Jewish literature considerably later than the period of persecution. Accordingly, Moses, in the Book of Genesis, attributed the following words to the Eternal God, addressed to Abraham in a dream: "Know for certain that your posterity will be strangers in a land not their own; they shall be subjected to slavery and shall be oppressed tour hundred years."

Here we have reached the historical background of the curse upon Ham. It is not by chance that this curse on the father of Mesraim, Phut, Kush, and Canaan, fell only on Canaan, who dwelt in a land that the Jews have coveted throughout their history.

Whence came this name Ham (Cham, Kam)? Where could Moses have found it? Right in Egypt where Moses was born, grew up, and lived until the Exodus. In fact, we know that the Egyptians called their country Kemit, which means "black" in their language. The interpretation according to which Kemit designates the black soil of Egypt, rather than the black man and, by extension, the black race of the country of the Blacks, stems from a gratuitous distortion by minds aware of what an exact interpretation of this word would imply. Hence, it is natural to find Kam in Hebrew, meaning heat, black, burned.


Excerpted from The African Origin of Civilization by Cheikh Anta Diop, Mercer Cook. Copyright © 1974 Lawrence Hill & Co.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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