Afrocentrism vs. Eurocentrism in Ancient History

by Cliff Conner

 

The text below is by Cliff Conner, and is available in pamphlet form from Socialist Action Book for $2.50 by writing to 298 Valencia St.San Francisco CA 94103.

The use of the word “history” in the title of this talk may be a little misleading, because the place and period of time that I am going to focus on are almost outside the area historians deal with.  History, as a field of study, is based on written evidence—written documents—and a great deal of my subject tonight has to do with an argument over events involving preliterate people—events that either did or did not occur so long ago that no written documentation exists to corroborate them.

Furthermore, the idea of “race” figures very prominently in this discussion, but it is clear that for the people of the period I am going to be talking about, the whole idea of “race” had no meaning whatsoever.  The concept of race—that the human family is divided up into distinct groups with significantly different innate characteristics that are somehow correlated with skin color—is a relatively modern notion, no more than a few hundred years old at most. The people of the ancient world certainly had their share of prejudices and biases against foreigners and people who were different from themselves, but there is no evidence that their fears and hatreds were based on skin color, or that anything like the ideology of racism existed, until after the trans-Atlantic slave trade really got under way in the sixteenth century AD.

So insofar as I’ll be talking about race and history, it is important to stress that the two things are not directly connected in time.  The history  will have to do with people and events three to five thousand years ago, while the “race” part of it has to do with us, today.  And that suggests a reason why this discussion might be of interest to a gathering such as this one.  As socialists and political activists, our interest in history is not antiquarian; we study history as a means of finding a “usable past”—that is, as a means of throwing some light on current political problems as a first step, hopefully, toward being able to do something about them.

So it is present-day questions of race here in the United States that provide the motivation and the primary context of this discussion today, even though the subject matter is ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Phoenicians.

You may not have given much thought lately to the history of Bronze Age Greece, but if you think it is an arcane subject of interest only to ivory-tower scholars, you would have been surprised if you’d gone to a public forum on the subject held by radio station WBAI in New York a few months ago [March 29, 1996].  It attracted an overflow audience of several hundred people, at least 90% of whom were African-American, and most of whom were young, and it was clear that their interest in the topic was far from casual.  There is a passionate concern among young African-Americans with certain aspects of ancient history, and I’ve seen that reflected among my own students, which is the way I found out about it in the first place.

Malcolm X often charged that the American educational system had robbed Black people of their history—of their “usable past.”  Addressing a Black audience, he said:

“When we send our children to school in this country, they learn nothing about us other than that we used to be cotton pickers.  Every little child going to school thinks his grandfather was a cotton picker.  Why, your grandfather . . . was some of the greatest Black people who walked on this earth.  It was your grandfather’s hands who forged civilization and it was your grandmother’s hands who rocked the cradle of civilization . . . .

“Our history and our culture were completely destroyed when we were forcibly brought to America in chains.  And now it is important for us to know that our history did not begin with slavery.  We came from Africa, a great continent, wherein live a proud and varied people, a land which . . . was the cradle of civilization.  Our culture and our history are as old as man himself and yet we know almost nothing about it.”

The slaveowners’ society, Malcolm X said, created a racist ideology that included the proposition that Black Africans—the population of the African continent that lived south of the Sahara Desert—really had no history—at least, no history worth studying or discussing.  According to that point of view, sub-Saharan societies were so primitive, so backward, that they were virtually timeless, that they hadn’t changed in thousands of years, and to say that they hadn’t changed  is the same as saying that they have no history.

It also says that Black Africa did not participate in the major process that occurred in all other parts of the world called “civilization.”  If that were true, then the rise of civilized societies, which is to say the beginning of history, took place in the Middle East, in India, in China, in the Americas, and in the northeastern corner of the African continent, but not in sub-Saharan Africa.  And if that were the case, then Black Africans made no contributions to the development of human civilization; Black Africans were uncivilized until whites brought civilization to them from the outside.

I think it is pretty clear that Malcolm X had a valid complaint.  It may not be that American schools today explicitly teach that Africa has no history, and that Black Africans made no contributions to the origin of civilization, but the educational system certainly doesn’t go out of its way to correct these common misconceptions that have been passed down from generation to generation as a legacy of the slaveowners’ ideology.  European societies that carried out the slave trade had a double interest in promoting those ideas.  On the one hand, they wanted to justify what they were doing by pretending they were doing the Africans a favor by bringing them civilization and Christianity, so they’d be able to get into heaven.  Secondly, they wanted the Africans themselves to believe they had no worthwhile history, as a means of demoralizing them—the easier to keep them enslaved.  These ideas were like mental chains, designed to convince them of their “natural inferiority.”  To quote Malcolm X once again:

“It is no accident that such a high state of culture existed in Africa and you and I know nothing about it.  Why, the man knew that as long as you and I thought we were somebody, he could never treat us like we were nobody.  So he had to invent a system that would strip us of everything about us that we could use to prove we were somebody.  And once he had stripped us of . . . our history . . . he then began to treat us like an animal, selling us . . . from one owner to another, breeding us like you breed cattle.”

After the era of slavery ended, the era of European colonialism was in full flower, so these same ideological propositions continued to be valuable for Europeans in their imperial mission to dominate the continent of Africa

The images of African primitiveness have been drummed into all of us, Black and white, from our earliest childhood, and no matter how much evidence we’ve seen to the contrary, there is still that little nagging voice deep in our brains saying, “maybe it’s true.”  And as I said, the American educational system does very, very little to counteract that.

So it is no wonder that in recent years, as African-Americans have developed more and more political consciousness through the civil rights struggle and the Black nationalist movement, that they’ve begun to reexamine and rethink, and, finally, to challenge, the outrageously false idea that Africans made no worthwhile contribution to human history.

It should be noted that this rethinking hasn’t taken place only among African-Americans, but among Africans as well.  One result of the collapse of formal European colonialism in Africa after World War II was that the newly independent African nations were able for the first time to establish universities that weren’t under the direct control of European scholars and administrators.  The European scholars, whether through arrogance or paternalism, had simply been uninterested in studying the African past, but there was an immediate change when Africans themselves gained control of their curriculums and research programs.

It wasn’t enough, you see, to simply deny the old negative portrayal of African nonhistory; it was necessary to replace that old picture by doing historical research that could discover the reality of the African past.  And that is what the newly independent African scholars set out to do.

What that research has shown I will summarize in two general propositions: First—that the history of sub-Saharan Africa is, in its general long-term patterns, very, very similar to the history of the rest of the world.  Second—that Black Africans did indeed play a significant role in the earliest development of civilization on this planet.  These two propositions are so solidly founded on evidence as to be virtually unchallengable, and I’ll expand on them separately

First—on the long-term patterns of African history and their similarity to the patterns elsewhere: the most important exception to that rule is the undisputed fact that the human species originated in what is now sub-Saharan Africa. (There was no Sahara Desert at the time.)  First of all, the first hominids, the Australopithecines, arose in Africa several million years ago; then the genus homo arose in Africa several hundred thousand years ago; and finally, much later, the species homo sapiens arose in Africa several tens of thousands of years ago.  From its African origins, humankind dispersed throughout the rest of the world.  So when the Nation of Islam and other Black nationalists say that “the original man” was African, they’re absolutely right.

Once the human animal had spread out over the earth, almost all of its history—the first 99 percent—was a period characterized by hunting and gathering as a means of survival—or as a means of “making a living.”  That was true of Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas—all continents, everywhere.  Then, fairly recently in the overall scope of things, the most revolutionary advance in all of human history occurred, and that was the “neolithic revolution”—the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals.  That revolution occurred independently in several parts of the world—in southwest Asia, in Egypt, in India, in China, in the Americas . . . and in Black Africa as well.  It seems to have happened first in southwest Asia, but that is not the important point—the important point is that it occurred independently in several areas, including Black Africa.

The advent of agriculture led to other important developments.  The rise of the use of metals for tools was certainly one of the most important.  That, too, occurred independently in several areas, including Black Africa.

Settling down into permanent settlements and the population increase made possible by agriculture led to little population centers growing into big cities, which required the development of complex social arrangements, such as sophisticated social and legal structures.  All of these things occurred in Black Africa, just as they did in China, in India, in the Americas, and elsewhere.  And they all occurred before there was any extensive interchange between sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the civilized world.  But eventually that interchange began, and Black Africa became part of what has been called “the intercommunicating zone” that linked almost all parts of the civilized world by trade, excepting only the precolumbian Americas.

So that is what is meant by saying that in the broad patterns of global history, African history is not significantly different from the general course of human social development everywhere else.

We’ve all heard about the great cities of London and Paris all our lives, but many people have never heard of Kumbi Saleh.  Kumbi Saleh, more than 1,000 years ago, was a thriving commercial city in West Africa, in theKingdom of Ghana, that had a population of 15 to 20 thousand.  Neither London nor Paris were anywhere near that size until hundreds of years later.  The history of Kumbi Saleh, not to mention Gao, Jenne, Timbuktu, Great Zimbabwe, or any number of other African cities of the past, is enough to expose the falsity of the commonplace view of Africa as uniformly lacking in civilization.  If you’ve never heard of Kumbi Saleh before, that is not an indication of its lack of importance in world history, but a function of our Eurocentric educational background.  That is a rather stark example of how distorted our educational background has been with regard to African history in particular.

Speaking of Eurocentrism brings up another recent political issue in the United States.  There is a new generation of history teachers, many of whom were deeply influenced by the radicalization of the ’60s, who have been critical of the old Eurocentric curriculums in the universities and other schools, and they’ve been trying to change it—the buzzword that has come to be used to describe their alternative to Eurocentrism is “multiculturalism.”  In the history departments, it has taken the form of a campaign to replace the old “Western Civ” courses with “World Civ.”  This has been a major issue on many campuses, where students have passionately protested against being taught only about the words and deeds of what they call “DWEMs”— dead white European males.

Of course, there has been a conservative reaction to all of this, as you’d expect.  Many academics have invested their whole careers in traditional Eurocentric studies, and they don’t want to have to learn a lot of new things now, or face the possibility that what they’ve previously taught was false, so they defend the traditional curriculum.  And they get a lot of support from conservative political forces.

For example, in 1994 an officially appointed presidential panel of historians developed and released a new set of proposed curriculum guidelines for teaching history in American schools.  These new guidelines represented a significant move toward multiculturalism and away from the old Eurocentric model.  The rightwingers put up a huge hue and cry about the erosion of traditional values and patriotism and everything else.  What they were most upset about was that the new guidelines told the story of European expansionism not only from the European point of view, but also from the perspective of the victims of European expansion, beginning with native Americans’ perceptions of Columbus.  Rather than presenting Columbus as a great culture hero, it showed another face as well—the face of the oppressor.

The reactionary campaign against the guidelines led to a vote in the U.S.  Senate that condemned them by a vote of 99 to 1.  So, although historians themselves have, in the majority, moved beyond the old Eurocentrism, those who politically control the shaping of American education clearly have not.

The extension of Eurocentrism into ancient history would be laughable if it hadn’t had such a seriously damaging impact on the education of many generations of students.  The idea itself is simply ludicrous.  Europe wasn’t the center of anything until fairly recently.

Leaving aside the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a few minutes,Europe was among the least civilized, most backward parts of the world until just a few hundred years ago.  And the Greeks and Romans were relative latecomers themselves.  Major civilizations had existed in Egypt and inMesopotamia for at least a thousand years before the first glimmerings of civilization appeared in Greece.  Since the earliest civilizations developed in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia, it is an undeniable fact that the roots of civilization are Afro-Asiatic.  If that is the case, then how did the Eurocentric model of human history get around that obstacle?

There were at least two ways.  First of all, there was an attempt to show that the people of northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia who created the earliest civilizations were really, in a racial sense, Europeans—that is to say, white people.  For example, one of the great scholars of ancient Egypt, James H.  Breasted, put it this way in a book published in 1926: “The evolution of civilization has been the achievement of [the] Great White Race.”

The idea behind that claim is suggested by the use of the word “Caucasians” to refer to white people.  Linguistic evidence indicates that the white people who populated Europe in historic times originated from some tribes that lived in the Caucasus mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  These people, who spoke a language that linguists today call “proto-Indo-European,” spread out from the Caucasus in prehistoric times and today their language is recognized as the ancestor of many of the languages spoken in India, Iran, and Europe. Those ancestral people of the Caucasus are often called “Aryans,” and the whole mystique that was built up around them was the basis upon which the Nazi ideologues developed their notion of the “master race.”  But for more than a hundred years before Hitler did so much to discredit the idea, European academic circles took for granted the proposition that virtually everything worthwhile in the human past was a product of “Aryan” genius.

Any notion that the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians were Aryans was disproved when it became clear that their languages were not members of the Indo-European family.  Even before that, it had been clear from ancient artwork that their skins were darker than Europeans’ skins; that by modern standards they would be considered “people of color.”  Some scholars tried to explain that away by the proposition that these people were really white, but appeared dark because they were exposed to the sun a lot.

But the most important ploy that nineteenth-century scholars devised to avoid the undeniable fact that the roots of civilization are Afro-Asiatic was to minimize the importance of Egyptian and Sumerian and Semitic contributions and to focus instead almost entirely on the Greeks.  According to this idea, the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Semites established rather static and uninteresting cultures, while the really worthwhile developments in the rise of civilization were the work of the dynamic and sophisticated Greeks, who were considered to be of Aryan stock because their language is part of the Indo-European family.  Furthermore—and this is the crucial point—it is claimed that the Greeks, in developing their culture, did it all on their own, with virtually no contribution from the earlier Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations.  The idea that the classical Greeks suddenly burst on the scene out of nowhere in the sixth and fifth centuries bc is often referred to as the “Greek miracle.”

This, in fact, is still the dominant, orthodox position in the field of ancient historical studies today, and it is this proposition that has been the focus of controversy on the part of those who believe that African contributions to history have been undervalued, or ignored altogether.  This has become the main bone of contention in a bitter debate that has spilled far beyond the bounds of academia and, in fact, it was the central question in dispute at the public forum organized by WBAI that I mentioned earlier.

The school of thought that has raised this controversy goes by the name of “Afrocentrism,” a label obviously intended to pose a clearcut alternative to Eurocentrism.  The main proponents of Afrocentrism are Africans and African-Americans.  Some are scholars in universities, but many are not.   Their ideas are for the most part not treated seriously by the official academic historical profession, but you shouldn’t let that lead you to jump to the conclusion that what the Afrocentrists have to say is without value.  I think it has a great deal of value, and that is what I am going to try to demonstrate.

The depth of the controversy over Afrocentrism, and the breadth of support it has among African-American students, is indicative of an important truth about American society today—one that came to public attention most forcefully in the reaction to the verdict in the O.J.  Simpson trial—and that is the deep division between the way most Blacks and most whites in this country perceive the world.  Afrocentric history is a major ideological element in shaping African-American consciousness today.  It is my contention that the Afrocentrists’ essential claims are historically valid, but even if they weren’t, they would deserve to be evaluated and considered seriously.

The Afrocentrists’ main thrust, as I have said, is against the proposition that the real history of civilization only begins with the Greeks—that the Greeks were the creators of philosophy, of science, of politics, of mathematics, of medicine, of theology, of art, of everything of intellectual value—and that they owed no debt whatsoever to earlier civilizations—especially not to the Egyptians.

A challenge to this notion was put forward in a small book in 1954—after World War II and about the time of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, it should be noted—by an African-American professor of Greek named G.G.M. James.  His book was entitled The Stolen Legacy, and it turned the orthodox position on its head by claiming that the Greeks did nothing original at all; all of their accomplishments, he maintained, were simply stolen from the ancient Egyptians.  The voluminous works of Aristotle, which form the underpinning of the European intellectual tradition, were all, according to Professor James, plagiarized from Egyptian sources.  And furthermore, he said, the Egyptians were Black Africans.

Also in 1954, a scholar in Africa named Cheikh Anta Diop was publishing some similar claims.  Diop was a prominent physicist from Senegal who also devoted himself to an extensive study of ancient Egypt.

The work of James, Diop, and later Afrocentrists whom they inspired tended to be aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly audience, and the official academic experts on ancient Greece and Egypt for the most part ignored them, or dismissed their ideas out of hand.

Oddly enough—or maybe it isn’t odd at all, given the power of institutionalized racism—it took a book by a scholar who was not an African-American to shake up the academic establishment and make it take notice.  That was Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, the first volume of which was published in 1987.  Black Athena was a bombshell in the ivory tower.  One of its critics complained that “Black Athena must be the most discussed book on the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Bible.”

It was a powerful argument in support of the central Afrocentrist thesis that the Greeks and Romans owed a huge debt to their African and Asian predecessors.  The title of the book indicates that: If the Greeks got their gods and goddesses, among other things, from Egyptian sources, and if the Egyptians were Black, then Athena was indeed Black.

Unable to ignore Black Athena or to dismiss it out of hand, orthodox classical scholars have circled the wagons and have subjected it to intense scrutiny and criticism.  One scholar in particular, Mary Lefkowitz, has devoted a great deal of energy to this effort.  She edited a large collection of critical articles entitled Black Athena Revisited and wrote a book of her own, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. (Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz, by the way, were the featured debaters at the WBAI forum mentioned earlier.)

One charge that Mary Lefkowitz and her cothinkers have leveled against the Afrocentrists is that their ideas are all motivated by “politics” and “ideology,” whereas she is only motivated by the disinterested search for truth.  But you should know that Mary Lefkowitz first got involved in this debate when the editors of the New Republic, a conservative magazine, asked her to review Black Athena.  Furthermore, the cover of her book shows a bust of Socrates wearing a Malcolm X cap—highly politicized imagery.  So it is more than a little disingenuous of her to claim that she and other critics of Afrocentrism have no political agenda.  And, as we’ll see, there is a very substantial ideological component in what they’re saying as well.

There is another important aspect of this debate that you should know about.  As I said, most Afrocentric literature has been frozen out of the official scholarly milieu, so it has been aimed primarily at a popular readership.  As a result, it has often tended to be undisciplined, and has exhibited a tendency toward making extreme claims that are often not supportable.  For example, some Afrocentric authors have claimed that Cleopatra and Socrates were Blacks, that Aristotle personally looted the library at Alexandria, and that Napoleon’s army dynamited the nose off the sphinx because it was an obviously African nose, and Napoleon wanted to destroy the evidence of its African origins.  Also, there is the notion I mentioned earlier—that the Greeks simply stole everything they knew from the Egyptians.

While these extreme claims are not really defensible, we can think of them as cases of bending the stick too far in the opposite direction.  After being written out of history for so long, it is not surprising that there would be a tendency for the victims to overcompensate.  But these extreme claims have given the defenders of the orthodox views an easy target to shoot down.  For example, they show that Aristotle couldn’t possibly have looted the library at Alexandria because it didn’t exist in his lifetime.  But in the process of ridiculing the extreme claims, they deny the connections between Egypt and Greece altogether.

What Martin Bernal has done, in Black Athena, is to argue the basic case that Greek culture didn’t arise out of a vacuum, that it had significant Egyptian and Phoenician roots, but without making the extreme claims that can be easily refuted.  In spite of that, the strategy of Mary Lefkowitz’s book Not Out of Africa is to continue to focus on the extreme claims as a means of discrediting Afrocentrism in general and, by association, Martin Bernal’s thesis.

If you don’t know much about this debate but just look at the surface, it looks like the Afrocentrist argument doesn’t have much going for it.  Most of its defenders are Black, so they might be suspected of being motivated by an emotional sort of wishful thinking rather than a genuine concern for historical truth.  On the other side, it seems, are all the experts—the people with the “real knowledge” about ancient Greece and Egypt—except for Martin Bernal, but the guardians of orthodoxy would like to dismiss him as just a maverick, a crank, or, worst of all, an “amateur.”

I confess that when I began looking into this issue I fully expected to find that the Afrocentrist case had no basis at all, but I found, much to my surprise, that they not only have a case, but a rather strong one—stronger, I believe, than that of the academic experts.  First of all, it is important to know that the Afrocentrists didn’t make up the idea of Egyptian influence on Greece out of whole cloth—that in fact that was a universally accepted conclusion until the nineteenth century, when the opposing notion of the “Greek miracle” began to be promoted by a small but influential group of German scholars who were then successful in spreading their views to the academic world as a whole.

Furthermore, it isn’t the Afrocentrists who base their case on irrational appeals to racial solidarity—it was the nineteenth century German scholars!

This school of thought got its start at the University of Göttingen, and from there it spread rapidly throughout Germany, to England, to France, and to the United States.  The key to understanding their ideas about Greece andEgypt is their conception of “scientific history.”

They were completely convinced that the primary scientific principle of historical explanation was race, and they believed they had discovered the “scientific laws of race.”  According to their laws of racial science, only the white race, the descendants of the Aryans, had the natural ability to create advanced civilizations.  The Black race, they maintained, was at the very bottom of the racial scale, and had no aptitude for civilization whatsoever.

It is important to understand that these German scholars, for all of their nineteenth-century glorification of science, and their constant claim to be purely scientific in their investigation of history, didn’t think it necessary to present scientific proof that Blacks were an inferior race.  They simply treated Black inferiority as self-evident.

Any evidence that Black Africans were builders of civilizations, then, was automatically assumed to be false and had to be explained away, because it violated the fundamental axiom of Black racial inferiority.  For example, when German explorers first came upon the impressive ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1871, at first they believed they’d found King Solomon’s lost mines.  Then they attributed what they saw to other outsiders.  The most obvious explanation—that these sophisticated structures had been built by the ancestors of the native peoples—was ruled out as ridiculous by the Europeans because they were convinced that Black Africans were simply incapable of such achievements.

The scholars at the University of Göttingen saw the Greeks as the purest of Aryans and therefore as the direct ancestors of the Germanic peoples.  It is important to remember that this “racial science” was developed in the nineteenth century, in the age of triumphant European imperialism, and it served as a very useful ideology to explain the “natural right” of white Europeans to dominate the other, darker peoples of the world.

“Racial purity” was a very important concept in this ideological program.  The ancient Greeks were believed to be progressive and creative and dynamic and brilliant because their blood was pure Aryan.  The ancient Egyptians, by contrast, were perceived as a mongrel race with a significant admixture of Black blood.  From these premises flowed the “scientific” conclusion that the Egyptians could not have contributed anything of value to Greek civilization.  Again, any evidence to the contrary was summarily dismissed as impossible because it contradicted the inviolable axiom of “racial science.”

Another aspect of the thought of those nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European scholars, closely linked to their racism, was the rabid antisemitism that characterized the period.  The Phoenicians, like the Jews, were a Semitic people; Hebrew and Phoenician are practically two dialects of the same language.  And the prevailing ideology of the racial purity of the ancient Greeks ruled out Phoenician influence as strictly as it did Egyptian influence.  It took a great deal of ingenuity to explain away the undeniable fact that the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet.

You may wonder whether I am exaggerating this, but I assure you I am not, and Martin Bernal has documented it fully in Black Athena.  These ideas were not some fringe notions—they were stated nakedly and openly, over and over and over again, by the leading scientists and scholars of the nineteenth century.

I’ll illustrate this with a few examples.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the center of European science was Paris and its primary institution was the Parisian Academy of Sciences.  Its leading spokesman was Georges Cuvier, the founder of comparative anatomy and the most prestigious scientist of his day.  He considered Black Africans to be “the most degraded of human races.”  This reflects the common conception of the pre-Darwinian era that the original human race created by God was pure Caucasian, and that other races represent degenerate forms.  So Cuvier saw Blacks as the most degenerate of all, and said that their “form approaches that of the beast and [that their] intelligence is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular government.”

In what he considered to be a thoroughly scientific description of “the Negro race,” Cuvier wrote:  “The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.”

Another big name in the history of nineteenth-century science was Charles Lyell, who is frequently credited with founding the modern discipline of geology.  Referring to an African people, Lyell wrote:  “The brain of the Bushman . . . leads towards the brain of the Simiadae [monkeys].  This implies a connection between want of intelligence and structural assimilation.  Each race of Man has its place, like the inferior animals.”

The most famous of all nineteenth-century scientists, of course, was Charles Darwin.  Although Darwin was a passionate opponent of slavery, he nonetheless adhered to a hierarchical conception of human races that placed Black Africans and Australian aborigines in a position intermediate between Caucasians and chimpanzees.  In his book The Descent of Man he identified the dimensions of the gap separating humans from apes as the distance “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”  Darwin’s best-known scientific colleague, T.H. Huxley, stated: “No rational man . . . believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.”

One of Cuvier’s disciples, Louis Agassiz, emigrated to the United States in the 1840s and became one of the most prominent and important American scientists of the day.  Agassiz first encountered people of African descent when he came to America, and he was horrified by the experience.  In 1846 he wrote to his mother back in Europeof his extreme discomfort in the presence of Black servants, whom he, too, perceived as members of a “degraded and degenerate race.”

“And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than dine with such service.  What unhappiness for the white race—to have tied their existence so closely with that of negroes in certain countries!  God preserve us from such a contact!”

His feelings of revulsion toward Blacks led him to the “scientific” conclusion that Blacks and Caucasians were not simply different races, but completely separate species.  And here is his scientific conclusion regarding Africans and civilization:

“This compact continent of Africa exhibits a population which has been in constant intercourse with the white race, which has enjoyed the benefit of the example of the Egyptian civilization, of the Phoenician civilization, of the Arab civilization . . . and nevertheless there has never been a regulated society of black men developed on that continent.  Does not this indicate in this race a peculiar apathy, a peculiar indifference to the advantages afforded by civilized society?”

One of Agassiz’s collaborators was Karl Vogt, a prominent German anatomist and geologist, who, by the way, was the same “Herr Vogt” who was the target of a famous polemic by Karl Marx.  Herr Vogt made this very scientific-sounding pronouncement in 1864:

“By its rounded apex and less developed posterior lobe the Negro brain resembles that of our children, and by the protuberance of the parietal lobe, that of our females. . . .  The grown-up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile white. . . . [W]e may boldly assert that the whole race has, neither in the past nor in the present, performed anything tending to the progress of humanity or worthy of preservation.”

Another of the most famous scientists of the nineteenth century was Paul Broca, a professor in the Parisian Faculty of Medicine.  He saw it as his mission to raise the comparison of human races to a higher scientific level by means of quantification.  If this were going to be a real science, he believed, it would have to be based on numbers.

Others before him had attempted to do this by measuring and comparing the cranial capacity of skulls of various races of people.  Broca followed the same program, but brought more sophisticated methods and a higher degree of precision to the measurements.  Anyway, like his predecessors he believed he had developed a purely objective way to demonstrate the superiority of the Caucasian race and the inferiority of Black Africans.  He concluded that “there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain.”  And he claimed that his research showed that “the brain is larger,” in general, “in men than in women” and “in superior races than in inferior races.”

More specifically, he said: “A prognathous face [one with a protruding jaw], more or less black color of the skin, wooly hair and intellectual and social inferiority are often associated, while more or less white skin, straight hair and an orthognathous face [one without a prominent jaw] are the ordinary equipment of the highest groups in the human series.”  And here is the bottom line, according to Broca:

“A group with black skin, wooly hair and a prognathous face has never been able to raise itself spontaneously to civilization.”

So you see, as far as nineteenth-century science was concerned, the very idea of African civilization was a pure oxymoron.  It was impossible.  It just couldn’t ever have happened.

A few of Broca’s contemporaries challenged his pronouncements on Black inferiority, and he responded by accusing them of allowing their political prejudices about human equality to get in the way of the objective scientific truth: “The intervention of political and social considerations has not been less injurious to anthropology than the religious element.”

If that sounds familiar, it should; it is very much the same charge that Mary Lefkowitz and her colleagues direct against the Afrocentrists.  In retrospect, of course, it is clear that it was Broca who was allowing his social prejudices to lead him to utterly worthless conclusions about brain size, race, and intelligence.  (All of this has been fully documented by Stephen Jay Gould in his very valuable book The Mismeasure of Man.)

The main point to be understood from all these quotations is that this is the context in which you have to evaluate the scientific methods claimed by nineteenth-century historians of antiquity.  This is what they meant by “science.”  The historians I am talking about are the scholars who created the modern academic discipline that Mary Lefkowitz now represents.  You can see why she and her colleagues feel so threatened by the exposure that Martin Bernal has given to the origins of their field.  According to Bernal:

 “[The University of] Göttingen, in the period from 1775 to 1800, not only established many of the institutional forms of later universities, but its professors established much of the institutional framework within which later research and publication within the new professional disciplines was carried out. . . .  [T]he center of the intellectual ferment was in Classical Philology, later to be given the more imposing and modern name . . . ‘Science of Antiquity.’”

This German “Science of Antiquity” was “later transposed to Britain and America as the new discipline of ‘Classics.’”  As for the content of this new scholarship, its “chief unifying principle . . . was ethnicity and racism.”

One University of Göttingen professor, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, was the first to produce a scholarly work on the subject of human racial classification [De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, 1775].  He coined the term “Caucasian” in 1795 to refer to the white race, which he considered to be naturally superior to all others in beauty and intelligence.  He, too, believed other races to be degenerate forms of the original Caucasian race of humans.

Another Göttingen professor, Christoph Meiners, played a major role in the development of the new, allegedly scientific methodology of history.  He insisted that historical studies should not focus on individuals, but on “peoples,” and he ranked various peoples on a hierarchical scale, with Germans and Celts at the top and Hottentots (a Black African people) and chimpanzees on the bottom.

The first major challenge to the idea that the Greeks owed a substantial cultural debt to Egypt came from a Göttingen scholar named Karl Otfried Müller, whom Bernal characterizes as “ahead of his time in the intensity of his racialism and anti-Semitism.”  These and other German scholars, including Barthold Niebuhr, Christian Gottlob Heyne, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich August Wolf, were the creators of the doctrine of the “Greek miracle,” which systematically sought to deny any creative role in the origins of civilization to the Egyptians and other Africans on the grounds that they simply didn’t have the necessary mental capacity.

This sort of crude racism is no longer fashionable in academia.  People who make obviously racist statements today, like Marge Schott, are laughed at as idiots.  Nonetheless, the classical scholars today, in arguing against the Afro-Asiatic roots of Greek civilization, are defending an orthodoxy that was created on the basis of thoroughly racist ideological principles.

Academic orthodoxies have a logic and a momentum of their own.  Scholars in the field of classical studies have a “turf” to defend.  They control the scholarly journals that define the official positions on the subject of the origins of Greek civilization.  If you were a young scholar in that field and you submitted an article arguing that Egypt had had a significant influence on Greece, your article would be rejected.  And if you can’t get your articles published, then you won’t be able to get a job in that field.  So your career depends  on toeing the orthodox line.  Only an outsider from another academic discipline, like Martin Bernal, could have written a book like Black Athena.

Although the defenders of the academic orthodoxy today don’t use the nineteenth-century racist arguments, there is another aspect of nineteenth-century ideology that they continue to utilize, and that is their positivistic claim that their conclusions are based only on solid facts and on scientific proof.  Those who disagree with them, they say, are “unscientific” types who deal only in “speculation.” While they continue to cloak themselves in the prestigious garb of “science” just as their nineteenth-century forebears did, we have to keep in mind what passed for science in this field in the nineteenth century.

As for today, to suggest that the dispute over the roots of ancient Greek civilization can be based entirely on “positive facts” or “scientific proof” is just pure moonshine.  The “positive facts” don’t exist.  Nobody on either side of this issue has a decisive body of factual data to prove their case.  So, as Martin Bernal has pointed out, the argument really doesn’t turn on who can prove their claims, because nobody can, but it is a question of competing plausibility—which position is more plausible?

First of all, you would think that the least plausible explanation for anything would be the one that depends on a belief in miracles.  But in spite of that, the scholars who defend the doctrine of the “Greek miracle” insist that the burden of proof is on the Afrocentrists.  They say there is no positive proof of Egyptian influence on Greece.  What they mean is that there is no absolutely unambiguous archeological data to prove it.

But that is not the same as saying there is no evidence to support the Afrocentrists’ claims.  It so happens that there is a great deal of evidence—an overwhelming amount of evidence—but the classicists refuse to accept it because it doesn’t qualify, according to their standards, as “positive proof.”  It is, they say, analogous to what might be called “hearsay evidence” or “circumstantial evidence” in a court of law.

Nonetheless, let us consider this evidence that they have ruled out of consideration.  Believe it or not, it is the virtually unanimous testimony of the ancient Greeks themselves!  The ancient Greek authors did not try to deny their debt to the ancient Egyptians; to the contrary, they wrote about it at great length.  Herodotos, the fifth-centurybc author who has been called “the father of history,” acknowledged it; Hippocrates, the so-called “father of medicine,” acknowledged it; Plato acknowledged it; Aristotle himself acknowledged it.  It was so commonplace a sentiment that it wasn’t even controversial among the Greeks and Romans.  They took it for granted that their civilization had been based on the wisdom and accomplishments of earlier civilizations, and especially that ofEgypt.  For thousands of years, this was assumed to be an accurate assessment—until the nineteenth century, when the classicists, with their racial science and positivist demands for absolute proof, decided that the ancient Greeks themselves didn’t know what they were talking about.  The traditions of Egyptian influence, they said, were simply “myths.”

I’ll be more specific.  First of all, on the origins of Greek religious thought, here is what Herodotos had to say:

“The names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt.  I know from the enquiries I have made that they came from abroad, and it seems most likely that they came from Egypt, for the names of all the gods have been known in Egypt from the beginning of time . . . These practices, then . . . were borrowed by the Greeks from Egypt.”

If Herodotos is right about that, then it is certainly reasonable to suggest that Athena was originally a Black deity—a goddess created by Black people in their own image.

On the origins of philosophy: According to the testimony of the ancient Greeks, the first of the famous Greek philosophers, Thales, spent a lot of time in Egypt studying the ancient learning of the Egyptian wise men.  The orator Isokrates, a rival of Plato’s, said that Pythagoras went to Egypt and on his return “was the first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy.”

Pythagoras, of course, is thought of first of all as a mathematician.  What about the origins of Greek mathematics?  Well, according to no less an authority than Aristotle, “Egypt was the cradle of mathematics.” Furthermore, Aristotle credited the Egyptians with the invention of geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy.

Plato, who was a mathematician as well as a philosopher, attributed to Egyptian wisdom not only the invention of “numbers and arithmetic and geometry,” but also the creation of writing, language, and all of the sciences.

And how about politics?  One of the best-known examples of Greek political thought is Plato’s Republic.  A Greek commentator of the late fourth century BC, Krantor, reported that “Plato’s contemporaries mocked him, saying that he was not the inventor of his republic, but that he had copied Egyptian institutions.”  (It is interesting to note that Karl Marx made the same point in Capital: “Plato’s Republic,” he wrote, “is merely an Athenian idealization of the Egyptian system of castes.”)

These quotations don’t prove that ancient Greece learned its theology, philosophy, mathematics, science, and politics from Egypt, but they certainly demonstrate that the Greeks themselves thought so.  So the Afrocentrists aren’t all alone in this argument after all—they have the ancient Greeks on their side!  How ironic—even Aristotle is among them!

In addition to the many accounts of Greek thinkers who studied in Egypt or Mesopotamia, there is also the possibility of an even more fundamental connection between the Greeks and earlier civilizations.  That is the possibility that during the Bronze Age some three to four thousand years ago, the already civilized Egyptians and Phoenicians conquered and settled in parts of Greece, and thereby transmitted elements of their cultures, which might well have served as the starting point and foundation of Greek civilization.

That is an interesting conjecture, but how plausible is it?  The orthodox scholars dismiss it out of hand: “No proof!” they say; “Pure speculation.”  But again, this speculation isn’t something the Afrocentrists made up; it, too, has a solid basis in the traditions of the ancient Greeks themselves, in Greek mythology.  There were numerous myths involving Egyptians or Phoenicians as colonizers and founders of Greek cities—such as Kadmos, the legendary colonizer of Thebes; Danaos, colonizer of Argos; and Kekros, founder of Athens.  Invasions of Greece by Egyptian conquerors in the distant past were themes of the great Greek dramatists Aischylos and Euripides.

According to the positivist method, all of this is worthless information because it hasn’t been proved—it is “only myth.”  But myths have often been shown to have a basis in fact.  At one time, the Trojan War and the city of Troy itself were considered to be mythological . . . until archaeologists discovered the ruins of Troy.  The pervasiveness of myths concerning the Bronze Age colonization of Greece by Egyptians and Phoenicians suggests that they, too, may well reflect actual historical events.

The Afrocentric position in support of such colonizations is at least as plausible as their opponents’ invocation of an unexplicable miracle.  There is archaeological and linguistic evidence supporting the Afrocentric view—Martin Bernal claims that it is strong and has devoted the whole of the second volume of Black Athena to presenting it. The orthodox scholars claim that Bernal’s evidence is not persuasive.  Frankly, I am not qualified to evaluate these counterclaims.

But in spite of these technical arguments, Martin Bernal has made some crucial aspects of this debate perfectly clear, and those are that the issue has never been, and can never be, separated from a social context of institutionalized racism; that it wasn’t the Afrocentrists who injected race into the issue; and that the orthodox scholars can no longer credibly claim that their position is based on a nonideological, nonpolitical, disinterested search for “truth.”

Another important aspect of this question remains to be considered.  Suppose the ancient Egyptians did fundamentally contribute to the birth of Greek civilization.  Why should Black Africans and African-Americans believe that has anything to do with their ancestry?  Were the Egyptians Black?

There are many opinions on that question.  On the one hand, the Afrocentrists use the terms “Egyptian,” “African,” and “Black” interchangeably.  On the other hand, the traditional perception of ancient Egyptians is that they may have been darker-skinned than the Europeans, but they aren’t usually thought of as Black Africans, who are to be found south of the Sahara Desert rather than in northern Africa.

In fact, there is a great deal of solid evidence to demonstrate that genuinely Black Africans (by anyone’s definition) did play an important role in ancient Egypt from the very earliest times.  Standard textbooks state that the prehistoric origins of Egyptian civilization came from far south along the Nile River, which is to say from Nubia and Ethiopia—from the heart of the African continent.  That is not to say that sub-Saharan-type Black Africans made up all of the Egyptian population in the age of the Pharoahs, but they did constitute a significant part of it, and they frequently rose to the top of political power in Egypt.  Statues, wall paintings, and documents make it clear that there were Black pharaohs, and that there were periods during which all of Egypt was ruled by the territories along the southern stretches of the Nile that were populated by Blacks.

Furthermore, when the Afrocentrists say that all Egyptians were Black, there is evidence to support that claim. Herodotos traveled extensively in Egypt in the fifth century BC and he described the Egyptian people as having black skins and wooly hair.  The classical scholars say that Herodotos’s reports about Egypt are untrustworthy because he couldn’t speak or read the Egyptian language, and was therefore unable to critically evaluate the information he was given there.  Even if that were a valid point, however, it wouldn’t apply in this case, because when Herodotos gave a physical description of the people in Egypt he was just reporting what he saw with his own eyes.

But there is still another way that identifying the Egyptians as Black is credible, and that is in the sense that all Egyptians could be considered “people of color.”  If you consider the Black population in the United States today, you see a wide range of skin colors, varying from very light to very dark.  The same could be said of the ancient Egyptian population.  In fact, Malcolm X made a similar point about the modern population of Egypt as he saw it during a visit there:

“More so than any other city on the African continent, the people of Cairo look like the American Negroes—in the sense that we have all complexions, we range in America from the darkest Black to the lightest light, and here in Cairo it is the same thing; throughout Egypt, it is the same thing.”

But returning to ancient Egypt, if you define “Black” as meaning only the very, very dark-skinned people of sub-Saharan Africa, then you would not agree that all Egyptians in the age of the Pharoahs were Black.  It is, however, undeniable that Black Africans played the leading role in the development of one of the first civilizations on earth. As Martin Bernal puts it: “Egyptian civilization is clearly based on the rich Pre-dynastic cultures of Upper Egypt and Nubia, whose African origin is uncontested.”  That alone is certainly sufficient to refute the “racial science” that claimed that Blacks made no contribution to the origins of civilization.

So in conclusion, I will say that I find myself in agreement with Martin Bernal, that the fundamental propositions of the Afrocentrists are completely plausible—much more plausible than the competing hypothesis of the “Greek miracle”—and I would expect that future archaeological and linguistic evidence will tend to confirm them and will eventually force the classical scholars to rethink and revise their orthodox positions.  Meanwhile, Africans and African-Americans will have to continue struggling to have their history accorded the respect it deserves, but they have already done a great deal to expose the great lie that they are “a people without history.”

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SOURCES OF QUOTATIONS:  All quotations from Martin Bernal are from the first volume of Black Athena (Rutgers U., 1987).  All quotations from ancient Greeks and from nineteenth-century classicists are also from the first volume of Black Athena.  All but one of the quotations from nineteenth-century scientists are from Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981); the one exception is a quotation from Cuvier that is from Black Athena.  All but one of the quotations from Malcolm X are from By Any Means Necessary (Pathfinder, 19__); the one exception is his description of modern Egyptians, which is from Malcolm X Speaks (Grove, 1966).  The quotation from James H.  Breasted is from The Conquest of Civilization (Harper & Brothers, 1926).  The quotation from a critic of Black Athena is from Black Athena Revisited (U. of North Carolina, 1996).

 

 

DEDICATION:

 

To Dashiell Porter, a student from whom I learned a great deal.