Thursday, December 08, 2005

King Tut: African or European?

Pacific News Service -- Debates over King Tut’s image and identity are not new. In 1922, Howard Carter, an English archeologist, “discovered” the tomb of this young king who had ruled Egypt about 3300 years ago, from 1336 to 1327 B.C. As soon as his reconstructed images began to appear, they sparked decades of debate over his identity. Most European and Euro-American scholars and others persuaded by their point of view claimed that King Tut was essentially a “caucasoid” ancestor of present day Europeans (referring to ”whites” generally).

Scholars of African origin and descent, along with those of their European colleagues and other scholars who disavow the Eurocentric worldview, argue that King Tut was an African, physically and culturally akin to the other dark-skinned people who populated the African continent at the time he lived.

The current controversy surrounding the exhibition coming soon to the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art is a continuation of earlier debates over King Tut’s identity. The mummy has been given a new face, created by “forensic reconstruction” that makes him look as European as possible, so that the average person could not possibly consider him to be an African. This “forensic reconstruction”, featured on the cover of the National Geographic, was displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum along with artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, as if this reconstructed bust was also “a genuine article.”

The King Tut Exhibition in Los Angeles has drawn a mountain of criticism, especially from African and African American scholars. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the internationally known authority on Black Studies and creator of Kwanzaa, was among the first to speak out against the “new” King Tut. Few people know that Dr. Karenga’s second Ph.D. is in the field of Egyptology, with a specialization in ancient Egyptian Ethics. Dr. Karenga has written a masterful critique of the exhibition, entitled: “DeAfricanizing King Tut: A Forensic Fantasy”, published in the Los Angeles Sentinel, on June 23, 2005. Dr. Karenga will speak on this theme when he comes to the African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) on Saturday evening, Dec. 3.

Professor Manu Ampim based in Oakland, Calif., has also disputed the exhibition’s claim to have reconstructed a historically accurate new face for King Tut. Dr. Ampim’s excellent overview of the King Tut controversy, with photographs showing various reconstructions of the king, was published in August 2005, under the title “The Vanishing Evidence of Classical African Civilizations, 2005 Update: Tutankhamen Fraud Alert." Some of Dr. Ampim’s earlier essays can be found in Ivan Van Sertima’s edited book entitled Egypt: A Child of Africa, published in 1994.

These two scholars, along with others, such as LeGrand Clegg II, the noted attorney who was one of the first scholars to write on the early migrations of African populations, sparked a wider protest and demonstration against the “deAfricanization or Europeanization” of King Tut.

It is important to note most Egyptians we see outside of Egypt today are Arabs whose ancestors invaded Egypt and other north African states from the seventh and eighth centuries, A.D. onward. One of the recent reconstructions of King Tut, done in France, is said to have assigned him a very light skin tone, “based on an average shade of modern Egyptians.” Assuming that anyone has an accurate measure of the “average” skin tone in modern Egypt, the question is, what does this have to do with the skin color of the people living in Egypt 3000 years ago?

In other words, the debate over King Tut’s identity is part of a larger debate over the “racial identity” of the ancient Egyptians. (Here, I will not go into the question of the scientific validity of the concept of “race”). Before the 20th century, various scholars, European as well as African, considered Egyptians to be “an African race.” Herodotus, whom we were taught is the “Father of History,” depicted the Egyptians as Blacks with woolly hair, based on his studies of Egyptian history, and his visits to the African continent in the Fifth Century B.C. Nearer to our own period, we see that prominent French, English and German Egyptologists of the 18th and 19th centuries did not find it necessary to deny Egypt her African biological ancestry or her African cultural roots.

In the decades following the discovery of King Tut, the question of race loomed as central to most discussions of ancient Egyptian history. The claims made about that history couldn’t be divorced from their political contexts. On the one hand, is the fact that most Europeans and their descendants, including Euro-Americans, have staked a claim to Egypt as the foundation of “Western Civilization,” which they see as “their” civilization. Most of these scholars and laymen cannot consider, much less concede, that ancestors of the Africans whom they have enslaved and exploited over the past 500 years, and whom they consider racially inferior, could possibly have been the founders and developers of “Western Civilization.”

On the other hand, Africans and their descendants point to the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations over the entire history of humankind. They insist that Europeans and their supporters should allow the evidence from ancient Egypt to speak for itself, rather than be manipulated to fit into a Eurocentric view of history. Why de-construct and re-construct the noses of ancient Egyptian statues and painted images so that they will appear to be thinner, and more European in shape? Why speculate that the nose of the Sphinx was destroyed from erosion? Or specifically, that it was worn down by erosion and fell off because it protruded out so far? Why not confront the evidence and likelihood that cannon fire or other weaponry purposefully destroyed it? How ironic that the destruction of the nose of the Sphinx makes its African profile appear even more prominent.

Some scholars thought, perhaps naively, that the debate over the identity of ancient Egyptians had been settled at the UNESCO Conference on the Peopling of Ancient Egypt, held in Cairo in 1974. After all, there Professor Cheikh Anta Diop, the great Egyptologist from Senegal, and his protégé and colleague, Dr. Theophile Obenga, from the Republic of Congo (and now a Professor at San Francisco State University), marshaled all the archeological and linguistic evidence to show that Egypt was peopled by indigenous African populations from the area then known as Ethiopia. They also argued conclusively that the key symbols in ancient Egyptian political and spiritual realms, as well as other cultural attributes, were unmistakably African.

From this short discussion, it should be clear that the debate over King Tut’s image and identity involve much more than the question of his color. At its core, the debate centers on his Africanity, which refers to his biological ancestry, his cultural origins, the origins of the populations in Egypt during the period in which he lived, and, a matter not discussed here, the source of the objects found in his tomb. In that regard, it should be noted that objects similar to some of those buried with King Tut have been found in early archeological sites in the modern day Sudan and Ethiopia.

Even though the political climate surrounding the scholarship on ancient Egypt is changing, the controversy continues. Scholars with Eurocentric perspectives on history seem determined to create for themselves “caucasoid” ancestors in ancient Egypt. African scholars are even more adamant that Egypt must be accorded her rightful place as the African state, which gave rise to what is now called “Western Civilization.” Stay tuned for more “out of Africa”!

Dr. Niara Sudarkasa is a former Professor of Anthropology and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she also served as an Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 1987, she became the first woman to serve as President of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

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