Population history of Egypt

Population history of Egypt

The land currently known as Egypt has a long and involved population history. This is partly due to its geographical location at the crossroads of several major cultural areas: the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Sahara and East Africa. In addition Egypt has experienced several invasions during its long history, including by the Canaanites, the Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Kushites, the Persians, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Romans and the Arabs. The various conquests over time have made the relationship between Modern Egyptians and Ancient Egyptians a topic of investigation.



During the Paleolithic the Nile Valley was inhabited by various hunter gatherer populations. About 10,000 years ago the Sahara Desert had a wet phase. People from the surrounding areas moved into the Sahara, and evidence suggests that the populations of the Nile Valley reduced in size.[1] About 5,000 years ago the wet phase of the Sahara came to end. Saharan population retreated to the south towards the Sahel, and East towards the Nile Valley. It was these populations, in addition to Neolithic farmers from the Near East, that played a major role in the formation of the Egyptian state as they brought their food crops, sheep, goats and cattle to the Nile Valley.[1][2]

Predynastic Egypt

The Predynastic period dates to the end of the fourth millennium BC. From about 4800 to 4300BC the Merimde culture flourished in Lower Egypt.[3] This culture, among others, has links to the Levant.[4] The pottery of the Buto Maadi culture, best known from the site at Maadi near Cairo, also shows connections to the southern Levant.[5]

In Upper Egypt the predynastic Badarian culture was followed by the Naqada culture. The origins of these people is still not fully understood, but one study has described human remains from both the Naqada and Badarian cultures as clustering more with Nubians and East Africans than with northern Egyptian remains.[6]

Biogeographic origin based on cultural data

Located in the extreme north-east corner of Africa, Ancient Egyptian society was at a crossroads between the African and Near Eastern regions. Early proponents of the Dynastic Race Theory based their hypothesis on the increased novelty and seemingly rapid change in Predynastic pottery and noted trade contacts between ancient Egypt and the Middle East.[7] This is no longer the dominant view in Egyptology, however the evidence on which it was based still suggests influence from these regions.[8] Fekri Hassan and Edwin et al. point to mutual influence from both inner Africa as well as the Levant.[9] However according to one author this influence seems to have had minimal impact on the indigenous populations already present.[10]

One author has stated that the Naqada phase of Predynastic Egyptians in Upper Egypt shared an almost identical culture with A-group peoples of the Lower Sudan.[11] Based in part on the similarities at the royal tombs at Qustul, some scholars have even proposed an Egyptian origin in Nubia among the A-group.[12][13] In 1996 Lovell and Prowse reported the presence of individual rulers buried at Naqada in what they interpreted to be elite, high status tombs, showing them to be more closely related morphologically to populations in Northern Nubia than those in Southern Egypt.[14] Most scholars however, have rejected this hypothesis and cite the presence of royal tombs that are contemporaneous with that of Qustul and just as elaborate, together with problems with the dating techniques.[15]

The language of the Nubian people is one of the Nilo-Saharan languages, whereas the language of the Egyptian people was one of the Afro-Asiatic languages.

Toby Wilkinson, in his book "Genesis of the Pharaohs", proposes an origin for the Egyptians somewhere in the Eastern Desert.[16] He presents evidence that much of predynastic Egypt duplicated the traditional African cattle-culture typical of Southern Sudanese and East African pastoralists of today. Kendall agrees with Wilkinson's interpretation that ancient rock art in the region may depict the first examples of the royal crowns, while also pointing to Qustul in Nubia as a likely candidate for the origins of the white crown, being that the earliest known example of it was discovered in this area.

There is also evidence that sheep and goats were introduced into Nabta from Southwest Asia about 8,000 years ago.[2] There is some speculation that this culture is likely to be the predecessor of the Egyptians, based on cultural similarities and social complexity which is thought to be reflective of Egypt's Old Kingdom.[17][18]

DNA studies

Attempts to extract ancient DNA or aDNA from Ancient Egyptian remains have yielded mainly Eurasian DNA types from the Dakleh Oasis cemetery site (from Southern Egypt), and they show a considerable increase in the amount of sub Saharan mitchondrial DNA over the past 2,000 years, suggesting that within this timeframe there was more migration from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Nile Valley than from Eurasia to the latter.[19] One successful study was performed on ancient mummies of the 12th Dynasty, by Paabo and Di Rienzo, which identified multiple lines of descent, a minority of which originated in sub-Saharan Africa.[20] Contamination from handling and intrusion from microbes have also created obstacles to recovery of Ancient DNA.[19] Consequently most DNA studies have been carried out on modern Egyptian populations with the intent of learning about the influences of historical migrations on the population of Egypt.[21][22][23][24]

DNA studies on modern Egyptians

Egypt has experienced several invasions during its history. However, these do not seem to account for more than about 10% overall of current Egyptians ancestry when the DNA evidence of the ancient mitochondrial DNA and modern Y chromosomes is considered. While Afrocentrists such as Ivan van Sertima argue that the Egyptians were primarily Africoid before the many conquests of Egypt diluted the Africanity of the Egyptian people,[25] other scholars such as Frank Yurco believe that Modern Egyptians are representative of the ancient population.[26]

In general, various DNA studies have found that the gene frequencies of modern North African populations are intermediate between those of the Horn of Africa and Eurasia,[27] though possessing a greater genetic affinity with the populations of Eurasia than they do with the former.[28][28][29][30][31][32]

Luis, Rowold et al. found that the diverse NRY haplotypes observed in a population of mixed Arabs and Berbers found that the majority of haplogroups, about 59% were of Eurasian origin. They found that markers signaling the Neolithic expansion from the Middle East constitute the predominant component. The remaining 39.5% were clades that belonged to Haplogroup E1b1b, found exclusively amongst the populations of the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean basin. E1b1b and its derivatives are characteristic of Afro-Asiatic speakers and is believed to have originated in either North Africa, the Horn of Africa or nearby areas of the Near East.[33][34]

A study by Krings et al. from 1999 on mitochondrial DNA clines along the Nile Valley found that a Eurasian cline runs from Northern Egypt to Southern Sudan.[35] Similarly, an mtDNA study of modern Egyptians from the Gurna region near Thebes in Southern Egypt revealed that Eurasian haplogroups represented 61% of the population, with the remainder 39% being of Ethiopic origin. The oral tradition of the Gurna people indicates that they, like most modern day Egyptians, descend from the ancient Egyptians [36]

A 2009 study on modern Upper (Southern) Egyptians using comparisons based on frequency and molecular data found that :[37]

No differences were observed in comparison with a general Caucasian population from Cairo in any of the nine loci compared or with Egyptian Christians from Cairo…Multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) based on pair-wise FST genetic distances of Upper Egyptian and other diverse global populations. OCE, Oceanian; ME, Middle Eastern; NAF, North African; EAS, East Asian; SSA, sub-Saharan African; UEGY, Upper Egyptian; SAS, South Asian; EUR, European. The figure shows that Oceania and American populations are very distant from Upper Egyptians (marked by a grey triangle) and other populations. The Upper Egyptian population is closer to the Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian and European populations than others.

The results of these genetic studies is consistent with the historical record, which records significant bidirectional contact between Egypt, Nubia, and the Levant within the last few thousand years, but with general poulation continuity from the Early Dynastic period up to the modern day era.[35][38]

Anthropometric indicators

Craniofacial criteria

Ancient Egyptian skull, once thought to be that of Akhenaton

Craniofacial criteria are no longer universally accepted as reliable indicators of population grouping or ethnicity. In 1912 Franz Boas demonstrated that cranial shape is heavily influenced by environmental factors, and can change within a few generations if conditions change, and therefore cranial measurements cannot be a reliable indicator of inherited influences such as ethnicity.[39] This conclusion was supported in 2003 in a paper by Gravlee, Bernard and Leonard.[40][41] A study by Beals, Smith, and Dodd (1984) found that “race” and cranial variation had low correlations, and that cranial variation was instead strongly correlated with climate variables.[42] This view is also supported by Kemp.[43] Other studies have shown that the typical cranial shapes of some African (Sudanic and Ethiopic, but not Bantu), Arab and Berber ethnic groups are largely the same.[44][45]

A craniofacial study by C. Loring Brace et al. (1993) concluded that: "The Predynastic of Upper Egypt and the Late Dynastic of Lower Egypt are more closely related to each other than to any other population. As a whole, they show ties with the European Neolithic, North Africa, modern Europe, and, more remotely, India, but not at all with sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Asia, Oceania, or the New World."[46] He also commented,"We conclude that the Egyptians have been in place since back in the Pleistocene and have been largely unaffected by either invasions or migrations. As others have noted, Egyptians are Egyptians, and they were so in the past as well.".

A survey cited by Kemp (2005) of ancient Egyptian crania spanning all time periods found that the Egyptian population as a whole clusters more closely to modern Egyptians than to other groups, but that they also cluster more closely to the Asian and Mediterranean groups than they did to the earlier Sub-Saharan African groups. Kemp also noted that Egypt conquered and settled Nubia beginning in the 1st Dynasty.[47]

Anthropologist Nancy Lovell states the following:

[Data] "must be placed in the context of hypotheses informed by archaeological, linguistic, geographic and other data. In such contexts, the physical anthropological evidence indicates that early Nile Valley populations can be identified as part of an African lineage, but exhibiting local variation. This variation represents the short and long term effects of evolutionary forces, such as gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection, influenced by culture and geography." [48]

This view was also shared by the late Egyptologist, Frank Yurco.[26]

A 2005 study by Keita of predynastic Badarian (Southern Egyptian) crania found that the Badarian samples cluster more closely with East African (Ethiopic) samples than they do with Northern European (Berg and Norse) samples, though no Asian and Southern European samples were included in the study.[49] Keita has also said that the predyastic crania are different to the lower Egyptian samples, which display a mean part way between modern Europeans and Ethiopians.

Sonia Zakrzewski in 2007 noted that population continuity occurs over the Egyptian Predynastic into the Greco-Roman periods, and that a relatively high level of genetic differentiation was sustained over this time period. She concluded therefore that the process of state formation itself may have been mainly an indigenous process, but that it may have occurred in association with in-migration, particularly during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods.[50]

In 2008 Keita found that the early predynastic groups in Southern Egypt were similar craniometrically to Nile valley groups of Ethiopic extraction, but as a whole the dynastic Egyptians (includes both Upper and Lower Egyptians) show much closer affinities with the modern day population and Eurasians than they do to Sub-Saharan Africans. He also concluded that more material is needed to make a firm conclusion about the relationship between the early Holocene Nile valley populations and later ancient Egyptians.[51]

Limb ratios

Anthropologist C. Loring Brace points out that limb elongation is "clearly related to the dissipation of metabolically generated heat" in areas of higher ambient temperature. He also stated that "skin color intensification and distal limb elongation is apparent wherever people have been long-term residents of the tropics". He also points out that the term super negroid is inappropriate, as it is also applied to non negroid populations. These features have been observed among Egyptian samples.[52] According to Robins and Shute the average limb elongation ratios among ancient Egyptians is higher than that of modern West Africans who reside much closer to the equator. Robins and Shute therefore term the ancient Egyptians to be "super-negroid" but state that although the body plans of the ancient Egyptians were closer to those of modern negroes than for modern whites, “this does not mean that the ancient Egyptians were negroes".[53] Anthropologist S.O.Y. Keita criticized Robins and Shute, stating they do not interpret their results within an adaptive context, and stating that they imply “misleadingly” that early southern Egyptians were not a "part of the Saharo-tropical group, which included Negroes".[54] Gallagher et al. also points out that "body proportions are under strong climatic selection and evidence remarkable stability within regional lineages".[55] Zakrzewski (2003) studied skeletal samples from the Badarian period to the Middle Kingdom. She confirmed the results of Robins and Shute that Ancient Egyptians in general had "tropical body plans” but that their proportions were actually "super-negroid".[56]

Trikhanus (1981) found Egyptians to plot closest to tropical Africans and not Mediterranean Europeans residing in a roughly similar climatic area.[57] A more recent study compared ancient Egyptian osteology to that of African-Americans and White Americans, and found that the stature of the Ancient Egyptians was more similar to the stature of African-Americans, although it was not identical.[58]

Dental morphology

A 2006 bioarchaeological study on the dental morphology of ancient Egyptians by Prof. Joel Irish shows dental traits characteristic of current indigenous North Africans and to a lesser extent Southwest Asian and southern European populations, but not at all to sub Saharan populations. Among the samples included in the study is skeletal material from the Hawara tombs of Fayum, (from the Roman period) which clustered very closely with the Badarian series of the predynastic period. All the samples, particularly those of the Dynastic period, were significantly divergent from a neolithic West Saharan sample from Lower Nubia. Biological continuity was also found intact from the dynastic to the post-pharaonic periods. According to Irish:

[The Egyptian] samples [996 mummies] exhibit morphologically simple, mass-reduced dentitions that are similar to those in populations from greater North Africa (Irish, 1993, 1998a–c, 2000) and, to a lesser extent, western Asia and Europe (Turner, 1985a; Turner and Markowitz, 1990; Roler, 1992; Lipschultz, 1996; Irish, 1998a).[59]

Anthropologist Shomarka Keita takes issue with the suggestion of Irish that Egyptians and Nubians were not primary descendants of the African epipaleolithic and Neolithic populations. Keita also criticizes him for ignoring the possibility that the dentition of the ancient Egyptians could have been caused by "in situ microevolution" driven by dietary change, rather than by racial admixture.[60] However Keita himself has observed population continuity from the Pleistocene to the present in modern Egyptians.

The language element

The Edwin Smith papyrus, the world's oldest surviving surgical document. Written in Hieratic script in Ancient Egypt around 1600 B.C.

Ancient Egyptian languages are classified into six major chronological divisions; Archaic Egyptian, Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian, and Coptic.[61]


The Ancient Egyptian language has been classified as a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Afro-Asiatic language family is believed by most linguists to have originated in Northeast Africa with a minority postulating an origin in the Levant (ancient Canaan).[62][63][64] Afro-Asiatic also includes several ancient languages, such as Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian (the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians). Of the six subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, the Semitic languages form the only Afro-Asiatic subfamily that currently exists in both Africa and Asia. The other five of the six Afro-Asiatic subfamilies are restricted to the African continent. The majority of the diversity in the Afro-Asiatic language family is found in Ethiopia, where diverse languages exist in close geographic proximity.[65]

UCLA Professor of African history, Christopher Ehret, claims that the Ancient Egyptians are descended from speakers of Proto-Afroasiatic who migrated from further south to the Nile Valley. According to Ehret archeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the speakers of the earliest Afroasiatic languages occupied lands between Nubia and northern Somalia around 15,000-13,000 B.C. before the formation of the Ancient Egyptian state.[65] In Black Athena Professor Martin Bernal argues that the phylum may instead have emerged around the Great Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.[66]


Most surviving texts in the Egyptian language are primarily written in the Hieroglyphic script. However, the Hieratic script was used in parallel although mostly reserved for priests[67] but also for magical purposes and administrative and legal documents. This script used cursive and simplified forms of the Hieroglyphic writing to ease and speed writing. It was mostly written on papyrus, wood, leather and ostraca.[68] It lasted until the ninth century BCE when it was replaced by the "Abnormal Hieratic" in southern Egypt.[68] Another third script was the Demotic which was developed in Lower Egypt during the later part of the 25th Dynasty.


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