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Egyptians and Egyptians
Distinguishing Ethnicity from Nationalality

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Question:
I am a student interested in anthropology.  Thank you for providing such an in depth anthropological resource on the internet. Why does most Egyptian art depict people with a distinctly brown, or even dark brown pigmentation, more similar to African Americans than to the Arabs of today?

Answer:
I have not systematically researched all the ancient stone carvings in the writings of the Egyptians.  But among those I have seen, I notice some – perhaps a minority – depict dark-skinned individuals.

Stone
Most I have seen – perhaps a majority of the total? – depict no skin color, leaving the persons the color of the stone.  In some, additionally, they appear to be slightly cream colored.  In some there are definitely peoples of lighter and darker colors in the depictions.

Some seem to definitely depict the late Nubian period when both Upper and Lower Egypt were ruled by a conquering Nubian dynasty.  At times, Egyptian dynasties also conquered and ruled parts of Nubia.

Note that it is in recent history that Arabs have been resident in Egypt, having invaded Northern Africa in a rapid sweep a little before 700 CE.  There is a distinction today between Egyptians (Copts, from the old Greek word, Aigyptos, for Egypt) and Arabs.

Analyzing the Glyphs
I would just suggest that you peruse available sources and study the variety of depictions.  If you find this of stirring interest, you can note the character of various depictions, the topics and times in which authorities suggest the events depicted might have occurred.  You might come to some correlation with the periods of times, and possible ethnicities of peoples involved in the various societal roles depicted.

I would suggest that ancient Egypt was like most other human societies we know of from various ages, a crossroads and mix of various peoples (ethnicities) and political movements.  The question is affected by how far back you want to go into history for identifications.

You also have to investigate the story-event being depicted to discern the characters and their role in the picture-story.  Some of the stories tell about workers from other nations or prisoners of war.

Color
In art the color of the medium was usually of no import in any artistic depiction.  Keep in mind too that skin color is not the primary way of distinguishing various peoples of the world.

It seems to be no big matter through most of history, other than occasional descriptive value.  People always note the differences between peoples and individuals, but in most cultures and eras of history it is no import.

Socially or politically skin color was a concern for the early Aryan invaders in the Indian subcontinent, resulting in the abuses of the orignally feudal caste system, largely based on skin color, but also cultural factors.  Otherwise it became important for modern-era Europeans.

Nationality vs Ethnicity
Discussions I see often blur or ignore the distinction between Egypt as a geographical region and its inhabitants, and the "Egyptians" as one distinct ancient ethnicity.  Different texts and authors may thus actually be using the same or similar terms but speaking of different focuses and emphases.  I focus most on ethnicities.  There may be a difference between "ancient Egyptians" and "people who lived in ancient Egypt."

Also related
Appreciating Differences
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Hyksos and Hebrews
Our Genetic Journey
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity

Related on the Internet:
Africa's genetic secrets unlocked
Ancient African Empires
Nubian Empire of MeroŽ
Who Are the Nubians?

OBJ

First written as a reply to an email query 12 March 2010
Developed as an article and posted 4 October 2011
Last edited 3 July 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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