Home Masthead Cheikh Anta Diop: The African Origin of Civilization Myth and Reality

Cheikh Anta Diop: The African Origin of Civilization Myth and Reality


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Chapter 1: What were the Egyptians?

The Greeks and Jews saw the ancient Egyptians first-hand before they became mixed with Greek and Arab blood. They never thought of them as looking like the people in the Middle East or Europe. They saw them as cousins of the Ethiopians and used the word “black” when talking about them.

For example, when Herodotus argues that the people on the island of Colchis came from Egypt, he says:

The Egyptians said 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…

Amenhotep III grandfather of King Tut ruled Egypt from 1386 to 1349
Amenhotep III grandfather of King Tut ruled Egypt from 1386 to 1349
One of the reasons he gives for why the rising of the Nile is not caused by melting snow is that, “It is certain that the natives of the country are black with the heat…”

When talking about an oracle he uses the blackness of a dove to argue that it stands for an Egyptian woman.

Some say Herodotus was simply a teller of tales, yet he was careful to point out what he saw with his own eyes, what he heard and what made sense. Egypt is something he saw with his own eyes. Archaeology continues to back up his eyewitness accounts.

Herodotus said that Egypt was the cradle of civilization, that the Greeks got all the elements of their civilization from Egypt – even their gods. The Greeks Herodotus, Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo all believed that the Egyptians and Ethiopians were of the same race: that either the Egyptians came from the Ethiopians or the Ethiopians came from the Egyptians – depending on whether they saw the Nile as being settled upstream or downstream.

It was not just the Greeks. The Jews who wrote the Bible saw it pretty much the same way too. For example, they said that after the Flood Egypt and Ethiopia were both settled by the sons of Ham. 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 the Egyptians called their country Kemit, which means “black” in their language.

Queen Tiye wife of Amenhotep III
Queen Tiye wife of Amenhotep III
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.

Diop says that the Jews got most of the elements of their civilization from Egypt too: they came to Egypt as a small band of shepherds in the time of Joseph and lived there for 400 years. Their belief in one God, for example, goes back to that of Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt about a hundred years before Moses.

Chapter 2: Birth of the Negro Myth

The Negro Myth is the belief that black people are not as good as whites. And not just in this period of history in certain particular ways, like in weapons or wealth, but in most ways throughout all of history. Because, the myth says, blacks lack brains, morals, reason, civilization, working constitutional government and all the rest.

The myth is so firmly believed that when whites do admit that blacks can equal or pass them in something, like music or art, it is strangely twisted into proof that blacks are less than fully human, and that they have more of an animal-like nature.

The myth is so firmly believed that the idea of ancient Egypt being a black civilization seems highly improbable if not laughable. So much so that when archaeologists find the remains of blacks in Egypt or the Middle East they are assumed – without the trouble of a proof – to be slaves.

The myth is so firmly believed that whites saw it as their duty to civilize blacks for their own good – the white man’s burden.

The myth is so firmly believed that that even top black thinkers sometimes believe in it.

Léopold Sédar Senghor, for example, once said:
Emotion is Negro and reason Greek.

While Aimé Césaire pictured blacks as:
Those who invented neither gunpowder nor compass
Those who tamed neither steam nor electricity
Those who explored neither the sea nor the sky…

The birth of the myth:
When Egypt fell under foreign rule from about –500 onwards, most of Africa became cut off from the rest of the world for 2000 years. Since people there could make a comfortable living with just a hoe, they fell behind in terms of material progress, though they continued to progress in other ways. Constitutional government, for example, was common in West Africa before it was common in Europe.

When Europeans arrived in West Africa in the 1400s they had far better weapons and ships than anyone in that part of the world. They used this advantage to rob Africa of its riches and make its people into slaves.

Waldesmuller World Map 1508
Waldseemuller World Map 1508
Europeans assumed that their material advantage extended to morals, society, government and everything else. They also assumed this advantage extended to all of history.

This caused them to misread history in certain ways. So, for example, when the French scholar Count Constantin de Volney arrived in Egypt in the 1780s he was shocked to find that the people there appeared to be part black – even though he knew his Herodotus.

The myth started out as an understandable misunderstanding of Portuguese sailors of the 1400s. But it proved so useful an excuse for the slave trade and colonization that it got written about and in time flowered into revealed truth, part of the European mindset.



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