Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop

Born in Thieytou, Diourbel Region, French Senegal, Diop was born to an aristocratic Muslim Wolof family in Senegal where he was educated in a traditional Islamic school.

Early life and career

Diop’s family was part of the Mouride brotherhood, the only independent Muslim group in Africa according to Diop. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Senegal before moving to Paris for graduate studies, where he ended his scholastic education.

Studies in Paris

In 1946, at the age of 23, Diop went to Paris to study. He initially enrolled to study higher mathematics, but then enrolled to study philosophy in the Faculty of Arts of the Sorbonne. He gained his first degree (licence) in philosophy in 1948, then enrolled in the Faculty of Sciences, receiving two diplomas in chemistry in 1950.

In 1949, Diop registered a proposed title for a Doctor of Letters thesis, “The Cultural Future of African thought,” under the direction of Professor Gaston Bachelard. In 1951 he registered a second thesis title “Who were the pre-dynastic Egyptians” under Professor Marcel Griaule. He completed his thesis on pre-dynastic Egypt in 1954 but could not find a jury of examiners for it: he later published many of his ideas as the book Nations nègres et culture. In 1956 he re-registered a new proposed thesis for Doctor of Letters with the title “The areas of matriarchy and patriarchy in ancient times.” From 1956, he taught physics and chemistry in two Paris lycees as an assistant master, before moving to the College de France. In 1957 he registered his new thesis title “Comparative study of political and social systems of Europe and Africa, from Antiquity to the formation of modern states.” The new topics did not relate to ancient Egypt but were concerned with the forms of organisation of African and European societies and how they evolved. He obtained his doctorate in 1960.

In 1953, he first met Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie’s son-in-law, and in 1957 Diop began specializing in nuclear physics at the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry of the College de France which Frederic Joliot-Curie ran until his in 1958, and the Institut Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. He ultimately translated parts of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into his native Wolof.

According to Diop’s own account, his education in Paris included History, Egyptology, Physics, Linguistics, Anthropology, Economics, and Sociology. In Paris, Diop studied under André Aymard, professor of History and later Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Paris and he said that he had “gained an understanding of the Greco-Latin world as a student of Gaston Bachelard, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, André Leroi-Gourhan, and others”. Diop said that he “acquired proficiency in such diverse disciplines as rationalism, dialectics, modern scientific techniques, prehistoric archeology and so on.” Diop also claimed to be “the only Black African of his generation to have received training as an Egyptologist” and “more importantly” he “applied this encyclopedic knowledge to his researches on African history.”

In 1948 Diop edited with Madeleine Rousseau, a professor of art history, a special edition of the journal Musée vivant, published by the Association populaire des amis des musées (APAM). APAM had been set up in 1936 by people on the political left wing to bring culture to wider audiences. The special edition of the journal was on the occasion of the centenary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies and aimed to present an overview of issues in contemporary African culture and society. Diop contributed an article to the journal: “Quand pourra-t-on parler d’une renaissance africaine” (When we will be able to speak of an African Renaissance?). He examined various fields of artistic creation, with a discussion of African languages, which, he said, would be the sources of regeneration in African culture. He proposed that African culture should be rebuilt on the basis of ancient Egypt, in the same way that European culture was built upon the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.

In his 1954 thesis, Diop argued that ancient Egypt had been populated by Black people. He specified that he used the terms “negro”, “black”, “white” and “race” as “immediate givens” in the Bergsonian sense, and went on to suggest operational definitions of these terms.  He said that the Egyptian language and culture had later been spread to West Africa. When he published many of his ideas as the book Nations nègres et culture (Negro Nations and Culture), it made him one of the most controversial historians of his time.

Political activity

Diop had since his early days in Paris been politically active in the Rassemblement Democratique Africaine (RDA), an African nationalist organisation led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny. He was general secretary of the RDA students in Paris from 1950 to 1953.  Under his leadership the first post-war pan-African student congress was held organized in 1951. Importantly it included not only francophone Africans, but English speaking ones as well. The RDA students continued to be highly active in politicizing the anti-colonial struggle and popularized the slogan “National independence from the Sahara to the Cape, and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.”  The movement identified as a key task restoring the African national consciousness, which they argued had been warped by slavery and colonialism. Diop, inspired by the efforts of Aimé Césaire toward these ends, but not being a literary man himself, took up the call to rebuild the African personality from a strictly scientific, socio-historical perspective. He was keenly aware of the difficulties that such a scientific effort would entail and warned that “It was particularly necessary to avoid the pitfall of facility. It could seem to tempting to delude the masses engaged in a struggle for national independence by taking liberties with scientific truth, by unveiling a mythical, embellished past. Those who have followed us in our efforts for more than 20 years know now that this was not the case and that this fear remained unfounded.”  Diop was highly critical of “the most brilliant pseudo-revolutionary eloquence that ignores the need” for rebuilding the African national consciousness “which must be met if our people are to be reborn culturally and politically.”

Diop believed that the political struggle for African independence would not succeed without acknowledging the civilizing role of the African, dating from ancient Egypt.  He singled out the contradiction of “the African historian who evades the problem of Egypt”.

In 1960, upon his return to Senegal, he continued what would be a lifelong political struggle. Diop would in the course of over 25 years found three political parties that formed the major opposition in Senegal. The first, “Le Bloc des Masses Senegalaises” (BMS), was formed in 1961. By 1962 Diop’s party working on the ideas enumerated in Black Africa: the economic and cultural basis for a federated state became a serious threat to the regime of then President Leopold Senghor. Diop was subsequently arrested and thrown in jail where he nearly died. The party was shortly thereafter banned for opposing Senghor’s efforts to consolidate power in his own hands.

Black Africa: the economic and cultural basis for a federated state is the book that best expresses Diop’s political aims and objectives. In it he argues that only a united and federated African state will be able to overcome underdevelopment. This critical work constitutes a rational study of not only Africa’s cultural, historic and geographic unity, but of Africa’s potential for energy development and industrialization. Diop argues for the need to build a capable continental army, able to defend the continent and its people and proposes a plan for the development of Africa’s raw materials and industrialization. All these factors combined, based on the formation of a federated and unified Africa, culturally and otherwise, are surmised to be the only way for Africa to become the power in the world that she should rightfully be.

After the B.M.S. was dissolved, Diop and other former members reconstituted themselves under a new party, the Front National Senegalais (FNS) in 1963. The party, though not officially recognized, continued strong political activity along the same lines as the BMS. Under significant political pressure president Senghor attempted to appease Diop by offering him and his supporters a certain numbers of government positions. Diop strongly refused to enter into any negotiations until two conditions were met. First, that all political prisoners be released, and, secondly, that discussions be opened on government ideas and programs, not on the distribution of government posts. In protest at the refusal of the Senghor administration to release political prisoners, Diop remained largely absent from the political scene from 1966 to 1975.

Research in Senegal

After 1960, Diop went back to Senegal and continued his research and political career. He established and was the director of the radiocarbon laboratory at the IFAN (Institut Fondamental de l’Afrique Noire). Diop dedicated a book about the IFAN radiocarbon laboratory “to the memory of my former professor Frédéric Joliot who welcomed me into his laboratory at the College de France.”  (After his death the university was named in his honor: Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar.) He had said, “In practice it is possible to determine directly the skin color and, hence, the ethnic affiliations of the ancient Egyptians by microscopic analysis in the laboratory; I doubt if the sagacity of the researchers who have studied the question has overlooked the possibility.”

Diop published his technique and methodology for a melanin dosage test in scholarly journals. Diop used this technique to determine the melanin content of the Egyptian mummies. Forensic investigators later adopted this technique to determine the “racial identity” of badly burnt accident victims.

Some critics have argued that Diop’s melanin dosage test technique lacks sufficient evidence. They contend the test is inappropriate to apply to ancient Egyptian mummies, due to the effects of embalming and deterioration over time.

In 1974, Diop was one of about 20 participants in a UNESCO symposium in Cairo, where he presented his theories to specialists in Egyptology. This symposium generated a lively debate about, but no consensus on, Diop’s theories.  His forceful assertions that the original population of the Nile Delta was black and that Egyptians remained black-skinned until Egypt lost its independence, “was criticized by many participants”.  Diop also wrote a chapter entitled “Origin of the ancient Egyptians”, in the UNESCO General History of Africa.  However, Diop’s contribution was subject to the editorial comment that “The arguments put forward in this chapter have not been accepted by all the experts interested in the problem”.

Diop’s first work translated into English, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, was published in 1974. It gained a much wider audience for his work. He asserted that archaeological and anthropological evidence supported his view that Pharaohs were of Negroid origin. Some scholars draw heavily from Diop’s groundbreaking work,  while others in the Western academic world do not accept his theories.  Diop’s work has posed important questions about the cultural bias inherent in scientific research.

Diop showed above all that European archaeologists before and after the decolonization had understated and continued to understate the extent and possibility of Black civilizations.

The Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet’s discoveries at the site of Kerma shed some light on the theories of Diop. They show close cultural links between Nubia and Ancient Egypt, though the relationship had been acknowledged for years.  This does not necessarily imply a genetic relationship, however. Mainstream Egyptologists such as F. Yurco note that among peoples outside Egypt, the Nubians were closest ethnically to the Egyptians, shared the same culture in the predynastic period, and used the same pharaonoic political structure.  He suggests that the peoples of the Nile Valley were one regionalized population, sharing a number of genetic and cultural traits.

Diop argued that there was a shared cultural continuity across African peoples that was more important than the varied development of different ethnic groups shown by differences among languages and cultures over time.


Importance of ancient civilizations

Diop supported his arguments with references to ancient authors such as Herodotus and Strabo. For example, when Herodotus wished to argue that the Colchian people were related to the Egyptians, he said that the Colchians were “black, with curly hair”  Diop used statements by these writers to illustrate his theory that the ancient Egyptians had the same physical traits as modern black Africans (skin colour, hair type). His interpretation of anthropological data (such as the role of matriarchy) and archeological data led him to conclude that Egyptian culture was a Black African culture. In linguistics, he believed in particular that the Wolof language of contemporary West Africa is related to ancient Egyptian.

Critique of previous scholarship on Africa

Diop’s early condemnation of European bias in his 1954 work Nations Negres et Culture,  and in Evolution of the Negro World has been supported by some later scholarship. Diop’s view that the scholarship of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was based on a racist view of Africans was regarded as controversial when he wrote in the 1950s through to the early 1970s, the field of African scholarship still being influenced by the scientific racism of Carleton S. Coon and others. Coon used racial rankings of inferiority and superiority, defined “true Blacks” as only those of cultures south of the Sahara, and grouped some Africans with advanced cultures with Caucasian clusters.  Based on Coon’s work, the Hamitic Hypothesis held that most advanced progress or cultural development in Africa was due to the invasions of mysterious Caucasoid Hamites. Similarly, the Dynastic Race Theory of Egypt asserted that a mass migration of Caucasoid peoples was needed to create the Egyptian kingships, as slower-witted Negro tribes were incapable. Genetic studies have disproved these notions.  A 2004 review of DNA research in African Archaeological Review supports some of Diop’s criticisms. It found that some European researchers had earlier tried to make Africans seem a special case, somehow different from the rest of the world’s population flow and mix. This seemed to apply in matters both of evolution and gene pool makeup. The reviewers found that some researchers seemed to have shifted their categories and methods to maintain this “special case” outlook.

Physical variability of the African people

Diop consistently held that Africans could not be pigeonholed into a rigid type that existed somewhere south of the Sahara, but they varied widely in skin color, facial shape, hair type, height, and a number of additional factors, just like other human populations. In his “Evolution of the Negro World” in Présence Africaine (1964), Diop castigated European scholars who posited a separate evolution of various types of humankind and denied the African origin of homo sapiens.

But it is only the most gratuitous theory that considers the Dinka, the Nouer and the Masai, among others, to be Caucasoids. What if an African ethnologist were to persist in recognizing as white-only the blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians, and systematically refused membership to the remaining Europeans, and Mediterraneans in particular—the French, Italians, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese? Just as the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries must be considered as two extreme poles of the same anthropological reality, so should the Negroes of East and West Africa be considered as the two extremes in the reality of the Negro world. To say that a Shillouk, a Dinka, or a Nouer is a Caucasoid is for an African as devoid of sense and scientific interest as would be, to a European, an attitude that maintained that a Greek or a Latin were not of the same race

Critics of Diop cite a 1993 study that found the ancient Egyptians to be more related to North African, Somalian, European, Nubian and, more remotely, Indian populations, than to Sub-Saharan Africans.  Diop always maintained that Somalians, Nubians, Ethiopians and Egyptians were all part of a related range of African peoples in the Nilotic zone that also included peoples of the Sudan and parts of the Sahara. He said that their cultural, genetic and material links could not be defined away or separated into a regrouped set of racial clusters.  Critics of this study in turn hold that it achieves its results by manipulation of data clusters and analysis categories, casting a wide net to achieve generic, general statistical similarities with populations such as Europeans and Indians. At the same time, the statistical net is cast much more narrowly in the case of ‘blacks’, carefully defining them as an extreme type south of the Sahara and excluding related populations like Somalians, Nubians and Ethiopians, as well as the ancient Badarians, a key indigenous group.

It is held by Keita et al. that when the data are looked at in toto, without the clustering manipulation and selective exclusions above, then a more accurate and realistic picture emerges of African diversity. For example, ancient Egyptian matches with Indians and Europeans are generic in nature (due to the broad categories used for matching purposes with these populations) and are not due to gene flow. Ancient Egyptians such as the Badarians show greater statistical affinities to tropical African types and are not identical to Europeans.  As regards the key Badarian group, a 2005 study by anthropologist S. O. Y. Keita of Badarian crania in predynastic upper Egypt found that the predynastic Badarian series clusters much closer with the tropical African series than European samples.

Diop’s theory on variability is also supported by a number of scholars mapping human genes using modern DNA analysis. This has shown that most of human genetic variation (some 85–90%) occurs within localized population groups, and that race only can account for 6–10% of the variation. Arbitrarily classifying Maasai, Ethiopians, Shillouk, Nubians, etc., as Caucasian is thus problematic, since all these peoples are northeast African populations and show normal variation well within the 85–90% specified by DNA analysis.  Modern physical anthropologists also question splitting of peoples into racial zones. They hold that such splitting is arbitrary insertion of data into pre-determined pigeonholes and the selective grouping of samples.

Reception of ideas

Egypt within the African context

Diop’s arguments to place Egypt in the cultural and genetic context of Africa met a wide range of condemnation and rejection. He did not publish his work in subject-specific journals with an independent editorial board that practiced the system of peer review. He declined to seek the opinion of other scholars and answer their criticism, although this is the normal procedure in academic debate. His research has become under-regarded because he did not accept this academic discipline.

Scholars such as Bruce Trigger condemned the often shaky scholarship on such northeast African peoples as the Egyptians. He declared that the peoples of the region were all Africans, and decried the “bizarre and dangerous myths” of previously biased scholarship, “marred by a confusion of race, language, and culture and by an accompanying racism.”  Trigger’s conclusions were supported by Egyptologist Frank Yurco, who viewed the Egyptians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Somalians, etc. as one localized Nile valley population. He did not believe that such a population needed to be arbitrarily split into tribal or racial clusters.

A series of books on ancient Egypt, published in 2004, found that there is little basis for positing a close connection between Dynastic Egypt and the African interior. Nevertheless, it awarded Diop and similar scholars credit for posing these problems.

The Egyptians as a Black population

One of Diop’s most controversial issues centers on the definition of who is a true Black person. Diop insisted on a broad interpretation similar to that used in classifying European populations as white.

He alleged his critics were using the narrowest possible definition of “Blacks” (still a racist outlook) in order to differentiate various African groups such as Nubians into a European or Caucasoid racial zone. Under the “true negro” approach, Diop contended that those peoples who did not meet the stereotypical classification were attributed to mixture with outside peoples, or were split off and assigned to Caucasoid clusters.

He also stated that opponents were hypocritical in stating that the race of Egyptians was not important to define, but they did not hesitate to introduce race under new guises. For instance, Diop suggested that the uses of terminology like “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern”, or statistically classifying all who did not meet the “true” Black stereotype as some other race, were all attempts to use race to differentiate among African peoples.

Diop’s presentation of his concepts at the Cairo UNESCO symposium on “The peopling of ancient Egypt and the deciphering of the Meroitic script”, in 1974, exposed the inconsistencies and contradictions in the way African data was handled. This exposure remains a hallmark of Diop’s contribution. As one scholar at the 1974 symposium put it:

While acknowledging that the ancient Egyptian population was mixed, a fact confirmed by all the anthropological analyses, writers nevertheless speak of an Egyptian race, linking it to a well-defined human type, the white, Hamitic branch, also called Caucasoid, Mediterranean, Europid or Eurafricanid. There is a contradiction here: all the anthropologists agree in stressing the sizable proportion of the Negroid element—almost a third and sometimes more—in the ethnic [i.e. biological] mixture of the ancient Egyptian population, but nobody has yet defined what is meant by the term ‘Negroid’, nor has any explanation been proffered as to how this Negroid element, by mingling with a Mediterranean component often present in smaller proportions, could be assimilated into a purely Caucasoid race.

A majority of academics disavow the term black for the Egyptians, but there is no consensus on substitute terminology.  Some modern studies use DNA to define racial classifications, while others condemn this practice as selective filling of pre-defined, stereotypical categories.

Diop’s concept was of a fundamentally Black population that incorporated new elements over time, rather than mixed-race populations crossing arbitrarily assigned racial zones. Many academics reject the term black, however, or use it exclusively in the sense of a sub-Saharan type. One approach that has bridged the gap between Diop and his critics is the non-racial bio-evolutionary approach. This approach is associated with scholars who question the validity of race as a biological concept. They consider the Egyptians as (a) simply another Nile valley population or (b) part of a continuum of population gradation or variation among humans that is based on indigenous development, rather than using racial clusters or the concept of admixtures.  Under this approach, racial categories such as “Blacks” or “Caucasoids” are discarded in favor of localized populations showing a range of physical variation. This way of viewing the data rejected Diop’s insistence on Blackness, but at the same time it acknowledged the inconsistency with which data on African peoples were manipulated and categorized.

The influence of Egypt

Before Diop, the general view, following Charles Seligman on the influence of Egypt on Black Africa was that elements of Egyptian religious thought, customs and technology diffused along four trade routes: up the White Nile; along the North African coast past Tunis to West Africa; up the Blue Nile and along the foothills of Abyssinia to the Great Lakes and through Darfur and along the southern edge of the Sahara. Seligman’s views on direct diffusion from Egypt are not generally supported to-day, but were current when Diop started to write and may explain his wish to show that Egyptian and Black Africa culture had a common source, rather than that Egyptian influence was one way.

Diop never asserted, as some claim, that all of Africa follows an Egyptian cultural model. Instead he claims Egypt as an influential part of a “southern cradle” of civilization, an indigeous development based on the Nile Valley. While Diop holds that the Greeks learned from a superior Egyptian civilization, he does not argue that Greek culture is simply a derivative of Egypt. Instead he views the Greeks as forming part of a “northern cradle”, distinctively growing out of certain climatic and cultural conditions.  His thought is thus not the “Stolen Legacy” argument of writers such as George James or the “Black Athena” notions of Martin Bernal. Diop focuses on Africa, not Greece.

Cultural unity of African peoples as part of a southern cradle

Diop attempted to demonstrate that the African peoples shared certain commonalities, including language roots and other cultural elements like regicide, circumcision, totems, etc. These, he held, formed part of a tapestry that laid the basis for African cultural unity, which could assist in throwing off colonialism. His cultural theory attempted to show that Egypt was part of the African environment as opposed to incorporating it into Mediterranean or Middle Eastern venues.

These concepts are laid out in Diop’s Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development, 1946-1960, and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and of Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity, These concepts can be summarized as follows:

Southern Cradle-Egyptian Model:

  1. Abundance of vital resources.
  2. Sedentary-agricultural.
  3. Gentle, idealistic, peaceful nature with a spirit of justice.
  4. Matriarchal family.
  5. Emancipation of women in domestic life.
  6. Territorial state.
  7. Xenophilia.
  8. Cosmopolitanism.
  9. Social collectivism.
  10. Material solidarity – alleviating moral or material misery
  11. Idea of peace, justice, goodness and optimism.
  12. Literature emphasizes novel tales, fables and comedy.

Northern Cradle-Greek Model:

  1. Bareness of resources.
  2. Nomadic-hunting (piracy)
  3. Ferocious, warlike nature with spirit of survival.
  4. Patriarchal family.
  5. Debasement/enslavement of women.
  6. City state (fort)
  7. Xenophobia.
  8. Parochialism.
  9. Individualism.
  10. Moral solitude.
  11. Disgust for existence, pessimism.
  12. Literature favors tragedy.

Zones of Confluence: Meeting or mingling area for the two cradles above

Most anthropologists see commonalities in African culture but only in a very broad, generic sense, intimately linked with economic systems, etc. There are common patterns such as circumcision, matriarchy etc., but whether these are part of a unique, gentler, more positive “Southern cradle” of peoples, versus a more grasping, patriarchal-flavored “Northern cradle” are considered problematic by many scholars, as is grouping the complexity of human cultures into two camps. Extremely warlike peoples, for example, the Zulu, appear frequently in the “Southern Cradle”. Many cultures the world over show similar developments and a mixture of traits.

Analyses of other scholars (Hiernaux 1975, Keita, 1990 et al.) eschew “southern” and “northern” camps and point to a narrower focus that demonstrates cultural, material and genetic connections between Egypt and other nearby African (Nubian, Saharan, and Sudanic) populations. These connections appear not only in linguistics, (see Languages demonstrating section below) but in cultural areas such as religion. As regards Egyptian religion for example, there appear to be more solid connections with the cultures of the Sudan and northeast Africa than Mesopotamia, according to mainstream research: “It is doubtful whether Osiris can be regarded as equal to Tammuz or Adonis, or whether Hathor is related to the “Great Mother.” There are closer relations with northeast African religions. The numerous animal cults (especially bovine cults and panther gods) and details of ritual dresses (animal tails, masks, grass aprons, etc) probably are of African origin. The kinship in particular shows some African elements, such as the king as the head ritualist (i.e., medicine man), the limitations and renewal of the reign (jubilees, regicide), and the position of the king’s mother (a matriarchal element). Some of them can be found among the Ethiopians in Napata and Meroe, others among the Prenilotic tribes (Shilluk).”

Languages and African cultural unity

Diop considered that it was politically important to demonstrate the cultural and linguistic unity of Africa, and to base this unity on the Egyptian past.  He rejected early 20th century theories that confused race and language, such as those advanced by the linguist Carl Meinhof and the anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligman. Seligman’s Hamitic hypothesis stated that: “… the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites, its history the record of these peoples and of their interaction with the two other African stocks, the Negro and the Bushman, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or…pastoralists …The incoming Hamites were pastoral ‘Europeans’-arriving wave after wave – better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes.”

The 1957 and 1966 editions of Seligman’s “Races of Africa” retained this statement, and many anthropologists accepted the Hamitic hypothesis into the 1960s. However, from the 1930s archaeologists and historians re-discovered such past African achievements as Great Zimbabwe, and from the 1940s linguists started to demonstrate the flaws in the hypothesis.  Joseph Greenberg rejected Meinhof’s and Seligman’s views on “Hamite” cultural history, and argued that the term “Hamite” should be completely abandoned, and replaced in linguistics by Afroasiatic languages for the family of five coordinate branches (Semitic, Berber, Ancient Egyptian, Cushitic and Chadic), all of which but the Chadic languages had long been recognised as one group.  Greenberg’s complete reclassification of the non-intrusive languages of Africa into four families and many sub-families placed Wolof in the West Atlantic sub-family of the Niger-Congo languages family, and he rejected earlier attempts to argue that the languages of negro Africa comprise a genetic unity and derived from dialects spoken around Egypt from 1000 B.C. or earlier.

Diop took an innovative approach in his linguistic researches published in 1977, outlining his hypothesis of the unity of indigenous African languages beginning with the Ancient Egyptian language. He claimed this put African historical linguistics on a secure basis for the first time.  He did not subdivide what he termed the langues négro-africaines into subgroups or suggest a family-tree for them, but implicitly rejected the language relations proposed by earlier linguists from Meinhof to Greenberg, who are not mentioned in his bibliography.  Diop devoted most of his study to the structural resemblances between one modern African language, Wolof, and Ancient Egyptian, adding some references to other modern languages. The same method was applied by four of Diop’s collaborators to Mbosi, Duala, Basa, Fula and a few other languages. Théophile Obenga used this method to distinguish Berber from other African members of Greenberg’s Afroasiatic family, particularly Egyptian and Coptic.  Obenga expressly rejected Greenberg’s division of most African languages into the Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic families, treating all African languages except the Khoisan languages and Berber as a single unit, négro-africain.  Ngom and Obenga both eliminated the Asian Semitic and African Berber members of Greenberg’s Afroasiatic family from the négro-africain family: Ngom added that the Bantu languages have more in common with Ancient Egyptian than do the Semitic ones. Diop has endorsed the work of Obenga.

The linguistic research of Diop and his school have been criticised by Henry Tourneax, a linguist specialising in the Fula language.  Tourneax notes that Diop accused previous linguists of being unscientific and obscuring the truth.  Tourneax’s main criticisms are that many words in the lists used to make comparisons may have been loaned from unrelated languages (including modern Arabic), many of the claimed resemblances are far-fetched and that, when Diop transliterated Wolof words on the principles applied to Ancient Egyptian writings, he distorted them.  Diop’s own Wolof studies were examined by Russell Schuh, a specialist in the Chadic languages, who found little resemblance or connection between many of the Wolof etymologies cited by Diop and Egyptian, of the type that are found when comparing Wolof to a know related language like Fula.  He concluded that Diop had assumed Egyptian and Wolof were related and then looked for ways to connect their features, disregarding evidence from other languages which might cast doubt on the resemblances claimed. Finally, Schur argued that, if the human species originated in Africa and it created human language, then all human languages have an African origin and are therefore related. Ancient Egyptian and the négro-africain languages such as Wolof are related, but any common origin may be very remote and their relation may not be close. Conversely, Ancient Egyptian may be more closely related to languages that cannot be classed as black and/or African than to many négro-africain languages.  In trying to remove Berber and Semitic languages from Greenberg’s Afroasiatic family and ignoring real differences between African language groups, Diop and his collaborators have created an artificial language group.

Modern linguistic analysis places the origin of the Afro-Asiatic languages in northeast Africa, and plausibly puts the origin of the Egyptian language in the Nile valley, between the apex of the Delta and the First of the Cataracts of the Nile.

Broad black worldwide phenotype

While acknowledging the common genetic inheritance of all humankind and common evolutionary threads, Diop identified a black phenotype, stretching from India, to Australia to Africa, with physical similarities in terms of dark skin and a number of other characteristics. In an interview in 1985, Diop argued that race was a relevant category and that phenotype or physical appearance is what matters in historic social relations.

If we speak only of genotype, I can find a black who, at the level of his chromosomes, is closer to a Swede than Peter Botha is. But what counts in reality is the phenotype. It is the physical appearance which counts. This black, even if on the level of his cells he is closer to a Swede than Peter Botha, when he is in South Africa he will still live in Soweto. Throughout history, it has been the phenotype which has been at issue, we mustn’t lose sight of this fact. The phenotype is a reality, physical appearance is a reality. And this appearance corresponds to something which makes us say that Europe is peopled by white people, Africa is peopled by black people, and Asia is people by yellow people. It is these relationships which have played a role in history.”

Diop as a racialist

Academic detractors charge Diop with racism, based particularly on his claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black. Defenders maintain that Diop’s critics routinely misrepresent his views, typically defining negroes as a ‘true’ type south of the Sahara to cast doubt on his work,  Questions such as “Were the ancient Egyptians black?” are typically misrepresented and framed in these stereotypical terms, it is claimed, so as to quickly dismiss his work and avoid engaging it point by point.  Diop by contrast in his African Origin of Civilization, argues against the European stereotypical conception. He holds that the range of peoples and phenotypes under the designation “negre” included those with a wide range of physical variability, from light brown skin and aquiline noses to jet black skin and frizzy hair, well within the diversity of peoples of the Nilotic region. Diop also acknowledged that the ancient Egyptians absorbed “foreign” genes at various times in their history (the Hyskos for example) but held that this admixture did not change their essential ethnicity.

Diop also appeared to express doubts about the concept of race. At a UNESCO colloquium in Athens in 1981, he asserted: “I don’t like to use the notion of race (which does not exist)… We must not attach an obsessional importance to it. It is a hazard of the evolution.”  This outlook was unlike many of the contemporary white writers he questioned. Indeed he eschewed racial chauvinism, arguing: “We apologise for returning to notions of race, cultural heritage, linguistic relationship, historical connections between peoples, and so on. I attach no more importance to these questions than they actually deserve in modern twentieth-century societies.”

Diop repudiated racism or supremacist theories, arguing for a more balanced view of African history than he felt it was getting during his era.  Since he struggled against how racial classifications were used by the European academy in relation to African peoples, much of his work has a strong ‘race-flavored’ tint. A number of individuals such as US college professor Leonard Jeffries have advanced a more chauvinist view, citing Diop’s work.

Diop’s thought and criticism of modern racial clustering

Diop and the arbitrary sorting of categories

Diop’s fundamental criticism of scholarship on the African peoples was that classification schemes pigeonholed them into categories defined as narrowly as possible, while expanding definitions of Caucasoid groupings as broadly as possible. He held that this was both hypocrisy and bad scholarship, that ignored the wide range of indigenous variability of African peoples.

Diop and criticism of the Saharan barrier thesis

Diop held that despite the Sahara, the genetic, physical and cultural elements of indigenous African peoples were both in place and always flowed in and out of Egypt, noting transmission routes via Nubia and the Sudan, and the earlier fertility of the Sahara. More contemporary critics assert that notions of the Sahara as a dominant barrier in isolating sub-Saharan populations are both flawed and simplistic in broad historical context, given the constant movement of people over time, the fluctuations of climate over time (the Sahara was once very fertile), and the substantial representation of “sub Saharan” traits in the Nile Valley among people like the Badari.

The entire region shows a basic unity based on both the Nile and Sahara, and cannot be arbitrarily diced up into pre-assigned racial zones. As Egyptologist Frank Yurco notes: “Climatic cycles acted as a pump, alternately attracting African peoples onto the Sahara, then expelling them as the aridity returned (Keita 1990). Specialists in predynastic archaeology have recently proposed that the last climate-driven expulsion impelled the Saharans…into the Nile Valley ca. 5000-4500 BCE, where they intermingled with indigenous hunter-fisher-gatherer people already there (Hassan 1989; Wetterstorm 1993). Such was the origin of the distinct Egyptian populace, with its mix of agriculture/pastoralism and hunting/fishing. The resulting Badarian people, who developed the earliest Predynastic Egyptian culture, already exhibited the mix of North African and Sub-Saharan physical traits that have typified Egyptians ever since (Hassan 1985, Yurco 1989; Trigger 1978; Keita 1990; Brace et al. 1993)… Language research suggests that this Saharan-Nilotic population became speakers of the Afro-Asiatic languages…. Semitic was evidently spoken by Saharans who crossed the Red Sea into Arabia and became ancestors of the Semitic speakers there, possibly around 7000 BC… In summary we may say that Egypt was a distinct North African culture rooted in the Nile Valley and on the Sahara.”

Diop and criticism of true Negro classification schemes

Diop held that scholarship in his era isolated extreme stereotypes as regards African populations, while ignoring or downplaying data on the ground showing the complex linkages between such populations.  Modern critics of the racial clustering approach coming after Diop echo this objection, using data from the oldest Nile Valley groupings as well as current peoples. This research has examined the ancient Badarian group, finding not only cultural and material linkages with those further south but physical correlations as well, including a southern modal cranial metric phentoype indicative of the Tropical African in the well-known Badarian group.

Such tropical elements were thus in place from the earliest beginnings of Egyptian civilization, not isolated somewhere South behind the Saharan barrier. This is considered to be an indigenous development based on microevolutionary principles (climate adaptation, drift and selection) and not the movement of large numbers of outside peoples into Egypt.

As regards living peoples, the pattern of complexity repeats itself, calling into question the merging and splitting methods of Jensen, et al. Research in this area challenges the groupings used as (a) not reflecting today’s genetic diversity in Africa, or (b) an inconsistent way to determine the racial characteristics of the Ancient Egyptians. Studies of some inhabitants of Gurna, a population with an ancient cultural history, in Upper Egypt, illustrate the point. In a 2004 study, 58 native inhabitants from upper Egypt were sampled for mtDNA.

The conclusion was that some of the oldest native populations in Egypt can trace part of their genetic ancestral heritage to East Africa. Selectively lumping such peoples into arbitrary Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Caucasoid categories because they do not meet the narrow definition of a “true” type, or selectively defining certain traits like aquiline features as Eurasian or Caucasoid, ignores the complexity of the DNA data on the ground. Critics note that similar narrow definitions are not attempted with groups often classified as Caucasoid.

Our results suggest that the Gurna population has conserved the trace of an ancestral genetic structure from an ancestral East African population, characterized by a high M1 haplogroup frequency. The current structure of the Egyptian population may be the result of further influence of neighbouring populations on this ancestral population

Diop and criticism of mixed-race theories

Diop disputed sweeping definitions of mixed races in relation to African populations, particularly when associated with the Nile Valley. He acknowledged the existence of “mixed” peoples over the course of Egyptian history but also argued for indigeous variants already in situ as opposed to massive insertions of Hamites, Mediterraneans, Semites or Cascasoids into ancient groupings. Mixed-race theories have also been challenged by contemporary scholars in relation to African genetic diversity. These researchers hold that they too often rely on a stereotypical conception of pure or distinct races that then go on to intermingle. However such conceptions are inconsistently applied when it comes to African peoples, where typically, a “true negro” is identified and defined as narrowly as possible, but no similar attempt is made to define a “true white”. These methods it is held, downplay normal geographic variation and genetic diversity found in many human populations and have distorted a true picture of African peoples.

Keita and Kittles (1999) argue that modern DNA analysis points to the need for more emphasis on clinal variation and gradations that are more than adequate to explain differences between peoples rather than pre-conceived racial clusters. Variation need not be the result of a “mix” from categories such as Negroid or Caucasoid, but may be simply a contiuum of peoples in that region from skin color, to facial features, to hair, to height. The present of aquiline features for example, may not be necessarily a result of race mixture with Caucasoids, but simply another local population variant in situ. On a bigger scale, the debate reflects the growing movement to minimize race as a biological construct in analyzing the origins of human populations.

Diop and the African context

In summary, modern anthropological and DNA scholarship repeats and confirms many of the criticisms made by Diop as regards to arbitrary classifications and splitting of African peoples, and confirms the genetic linkages of Nile Valley peoples with other African groups, including East Africa, the Sahara, and the Sudan. This modern research also confirms older analyses, (Arkell and Ucko 1956, Shaw 1976, Falkenburger 1947, Strouhal 1971, Blanc 1964, et al.). This same modern scholarship however in turn challenges aspects of Diop’s work, particularly his notions of a worldwide black phenotype.

Perhaps Diop’s most notable idea is his insistence in placing Nile Valley peoples in their local and African context, drawing a picture of a stable, ancient population deriving much of its genetic inheritance from that context, as opposed to attempts to split, cluster, subdivide, define and regroup them into other contexts. Such a vision of inherent unity and continuity, ironically, is also supported in part by modern mainstream Egyptologists such as Frank Yurco:

Certainly there was some foreign admixture [in Egypt], but basically a homogeneous African population had lived in the Nile Valley from ancient to modern times… [the] Badarian people, who developed the earliest Predynastic Egyptian culture, already exhibited the mix of North African and Sub-Saharan physical traits that have typified Egyptians ever since (Hassan 1985; Yurco 1989; Trigger 1978; Keita 1990.. et al.)… The peoples of Egypt, the Sudan, and much of East African Ethiopia and Somalia are now generally regarded as a Nilotic continuity, with widely ranging physical features (complexions light to dark, various hair and craniofacial types) but with powerful common cultural traits, including cattle pastoralist traditions (Trigger 1978; Bard, Snowden, this volume).

(F. Yurco “An Egyptological Review”, 1996)


  • Rousseau, Madeleine and Cheikh Anta Diop (1948), “1848 Abolition de l’esclavage – 1948 evidence de la culture nègre”, Le musée vivant, issue 36-37. Special issue of journal “consacré aux problèmes culturels de l’Afrique noire a été établi par Madeleine Rousseaux et Cheikh Anta Diop”. Paris: APAM, 1948.
  • (1954) Nations nègres et culture. Paris: Éditions Africaines. Second edition (1955), Nations nègres et culture: de l’antiquité nègre-égyptienne aux problèmes culturels de l’Afrique noire d’aujourd’hui, Paris: Éditions Africaines. Third edition (1973) Paris: Présence Africaine, ISBN 2-7087-0363-3, ISBN 2-7087-0362-5. Fourth edition (1979), ISBN 2-7087-0688-8.
  • (1959) L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire: domaines du patriarcat et du matriarcat dans l’antiquité classique, Paris: Présence Africaine. Second edition (c.1982) Paris: Présence Africaine, ISBN 2-7087-0406-0, ISBN 978-2-7087-0406-0. English edition (1959) The Cultural Unity of Negro Africa Paris. Subsequent English edition (c.1962), Paris: Présence Africaine. English edition (1978), The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: the domains of patriarchy and of matriarchy in classical antiquity, Chicago: Third World Press, ISBN 0-88378-049-6. Subsequent English edition (1989) London: Karnak House, ISBN 0-907015-44-1.
  • (1960) L’ Afrique noire pré-coloniale. Étude comparée des systèmes politiques et sociaux de l’Europe et de l’Afrique noire, de l’antiquité à la formation des états modernes. Paris: Présence africaine. Second edition (1987) ISBN 2-7087-0479-6. (1987) Precolonial Black Africa: a comparative study of the political and social systems of Europe and Black Africa, from antiquity to the formation of modern states. Translated by Harold J. Salemson. Westport, Conn.: L. Hill, ISBN 0-88208-187-X, ISBN 0-88208-188-8, ISBN 978-0-88208-187-8, ISBN 978-0-88208-188-5.
  • (1960) Les Fondements culturels, techniques et industriels d’un futur état fédéral d’Afrique noire. Paris. Second revised and corrected edition (1974), Les Fondements économiques et culturels d’un état fédéral d’Afrique noire, Paris: Présence Africaine.
  • (1967) Antériorité des civilisations nègres: mythe ou vérité historique? Series: Collection Préhistoire-antiquité négro-africaine. Paris: Présence Africaine. Second edition (c1993) ISBN 2-7087-0562-8, ISBN 978-2-7087-0562-3.
  • (1968) Le laboratoire de radiocarbone de l’IFAN. Series: Catalogues et documents, Institut Français d’Afrique Noire No. 21.
  • (1974) The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (translation of sections of Antériorité des civilisations négres and Nations nègres et culture). Translated from the French by Mercer Cook. New York: L. Hill, ISBN 0-88208-021-0, ISBN 0-88208-022-9
  • (1974) Physique nucléaire et chronologie absolue. Dakar: IFAN. Initiations et études Africaines no. 31.
  • (1977) Parenté génétique de l’égyptien pharaonique et des langues négro-africaines: processus de sémitisation, Ifan-Dakar: Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, ISBN 2-7236-0162-5.
  • (1978) Black Africa: the economic and cultural basis for a federated state. Translation by Harold Salemson of Fondements économiques et culturels d’un état fédéral d’Afrique noire. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Co, ISBN 0-88208-096-2, ISBN 1-55652-061-1. New expanded edition (1987) ISBN 0-86543-058-6 (Africa World Press), ISBN 0-88208-223-X.
  • UNESCO Symposium on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of Meroitic Script. Cheikh Anta Diop (ed.) (1978), The peopling of ancient Egypt and the deciphering of Meroitic script: proceedings of the symposium held in Cairo from 28 January to 3 February 1974, UNESCO. Subsequent edition (1997) London: Karnak House, ISBN 0-907015-99-9.
  • (c1981) Civilisation ou barbarie: anthropologie sans complaisance. Présence Africaine, ISBN 2-7087-0394-3, ISBN 978-2-7087-0394-0. English edition (c.1991), Civilization or Barbarism: an authentic anthropology Translated from the French by Yaa-Lengi Meema Ngemi, edited by Harold J. Salemson and Marjolijn de Jager. Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, c1991. ISBN 1-55652-048-4, ISBN 1-55652048-4, ISBN 1-55652-049-2.
  • (1989) Nouvelles recherches sur l’égyptien ancien et les langues négro-africaines modernes. Paris: Présence Africaine, ISBN 2-7087-0507-5.
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  • Joseph-Marie Essomba (ed.) (1996) Cheikh Anta Diop: son dernier message à l’Afrique et au monde. Series: Sciences et connaissance. Yaoundé, Cameroun: Editions AMA/COE.
  • (2006) Articles: publiés dans le bulletin de l’IFAN, Institut fondamental d’Afrique noire (1962–1977). Series: Nouvelles du sud; no 35-36. Yaoundé: Silex. ISBN 2-912717-15-9, ISBN 978-2-912717-15-3, ISBN 978-9956-444-12-0, ISBN 9956-444-12-X.

Asa G. Hilliard III

An African-American professor of educational psychology who worked on indigenous ancient African...

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