A Scientific Population History of Ancient Egypt

From the tomb of Rekhmire the vizier, the highest ranking official under the pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II (New Kingdom). / Wikimedia Commons

Scholars have reviewed the available skulls and skeletal evidence on the ancient Egyptians to draw some conclusions.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Egypt has a long and involved demographic history. This is partly due to the territory’s geographical location at the crossroads of several major cultural areas: North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, Egypt has experienced several invasions during its long history, including by the Canaanites, the Ancient Libyans, the Assyrians, the Kushites (a Nubian civilization), the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs.

During the Paleolithic period, the Nile Valley was inhabited by various hunter-gatherer populations.

Around 8000 BCE, the Sahara had a wet phase, the Neolithic Subpluvial (Holocene 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]

Predynastic Egypt

Merimde clay head, Predynastic Period, Maadi Era, 4th millennium BCE. This is one of the earliest known representations of a human head in Egypt. / Photo by kairoinfo4u, Wikimedia Commons

Predynastic Egypt is conventionally said to begin about 6000 BCE. From around 4800 to 4300 BCE, the Merimde culture (Merimde Beni-Salame) flourished in Lower Egypt.[2] This culture, among others, has links to the Levant.[3] The pottery of the Buto Maadi culture, best known from the site at Maadi near Cairo, also shows connections with the southern Levant.[4] In Upper Egypt, the predynastic Badari culture was followed by the Naqada culture (Amratian).[5]

Around 3000 BCE, the wet phase of the Sahara came to an end. The Saharan populations retreated to the south towards the Sahel, and east in the direction of the Nile Valley. It was these populations, in addition to Neolithic farmers from the Near East, that likely played a role in the formation of the Egyptian state as they brought their food crops, sheep, goats and cattle to the Nile Valley.[1]

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 this on the increased novelty and seemingly rapid change in Predynastic pottery and noted trade contacts between ancient Egypt and the Middle East.[6] This is no longer the dominant view in Egyptology; however, the evidence on which it was based still suggests influence from these regions.[7] Fekri Hassan and Edwin et al. point to mutual influence from both inner Africa as well as the Levant.[8] This evidence suggests that ancient Egypt was populated by Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples from North Africa and the Near East.[9]

Maria Gatto has suggested that the makers of the predynastic Egyptian Naqada culture centered in Upper Egypt shared an almost identical culture with the A-Group peoples in Lower Nubia.[10] This is based in part on the similarities with the royal tombs at Qustul. Joseph Vogel, Cheikh Diop, Volney, and other scholars have even proposed an Egyptian origin in Nubia among the A-Group.[11][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] However, most scholars have rejected this hypothesis and cite the presence of royal tombs that are contemporaneous with those in Qustul and just as elaborate, together with problems with the dating techniques.[15]

Toby Wilkinson, in his book Genesis of the Pharaohs, proposes an origin for the Egyptians somewhere in the Eastern Desert.[16] In addition, there is evidence that sheep and goats were introduced into the Nabta Playa from Western Asia about 8,000 years ago.[17] There is some speculation that this culture is likely to have been the predecessor of the Egyptians, based on cultural similarities and social complexity which is thought to be reflective of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.[18][19]

DNA Studies

Mummy in the British Museum. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Contamination from handling and intrusion from microbes create obstacles to the recovery of ancient DNA.[20] 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]

Blood typing and DNA sampling on ancient Egyptian mummies is scant; however, a study published in 1982 found that blood typing of dynastic mummies found ABO frequencies to be most similar to modern Egyptians,[25] and some also to Northern Haratin populations. ABO blood group distribution shows that the Egyptians form a sister group to North African populations.[26]

A study published in 2017 described the extraction and analysis of DNA from 151 mummified ancient Egyptian individuals, whose remains were recovered from Abusir el-Meleq in Middle Egypt. The scientists said that obtaining well-preserved, uncontaminated DNA from mummies has been a problem for the field and that these samples provided “the first reliable data set obtained from ancient Egyptians using high-throughput DNA sequencing methods”. The specimens represented a period stretching from the late New Kingdom to the Roman era (1388 BCE–426 CE). Complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences were obtained for 90 of the mummies and were compared with each other and with several other ancient and modern datasets. The scientists found that the ancient Egyptian individuals in their own dataset possessed highly similar mitochondrial profiles throughout the examined period. Modern Egyptians generally shared this maternal haplogroup pattern, but also carried more African clades. However, analysis of the mummies’ mtDNA haplogroups found that they shared greater mitochondrial affinities with modern populations from the Near East and the Levant compared to modern Egyptians. Additionally, three of the ancient Egyptian individuals were analysed for Y-DNA, and were observed to bear paternal lineages that are common in both the Middle East and North Africa. The researchers cautioned that the affinities of the examined ancient Egyptian specimens may not be representative of those of all ancient Egyptians since they were from a single archaeological site.[27]

Professor Stephen Quirke, an Egyptologist at University College London, expressed caution about the researchers’ broader claims, saying that “There has been this very strong attempt throughout the history of Egyptology to disassociate ancient Egyptians from the modern population.” He added that he was “particularly suspicious of any statement that may have the unintended consequences of asserting – yet again from a northern European or North American perspective – that there’s a discontinuity there [between ancient and modern Egyptians]”.[28]

Anthropometric Indicators

Craniofacial Criteria

Wikimedia Commons

The use of craniofacial criteria as reliable indicators of population grouping or ethnicity has been a longstanding focus of biological anthropology. In 1912, Franz Boas argued that cranial shape was heavily influenced by environmental factors and could change within a few generations under differing conditions, thereby making the cephalic index an unreliable indicator of inherited influences such as ethnicity.[29] Gravlee, Bernard and Leonard (2003),[30][31] Beals, Smith, and Dodd (1984) and Williams and Armelagos (2005) similarly posited that “race” and cranial variation had low correlations, and proposed that cranial variation was instead strongly correlated with climate variables.[32][33]

Brace (1993) differentiated adaptive cranial traits from non-adaptive cranial traits, asserting that only the non-adaptive cranial traits served as reliable indicators of genetic relatedness between populations.[34] This was further corroborated in studies by von Cramon-Taubadel (2008, 2009a, 2011).[35][36][37] Clement and Ranson (1998) estimated that cranial analysis yields a 77%-95% rate of accuracy in determining the racial origins of human skeletal remains.[38] A craniofacial study by C. Loring Brace et al. (1993) concluded that the Predynastic Egyptians of Upper Egypt and the Late Dynastic Egyptians of Lower Egypt were most closely related to each other. They also showed general ties with other Afro-Asiatic-speaking populations in North Africa, Neolithic and modern Europeans, and Indian people, but not at all with populations of sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia, Oceania, or the Americas. “Adjacent people in the Nile valley show similarities in trivial traits in an unbroken series from the delta in the north southward through Nubia and all the way to Somalia at the equator. At the same time, the gradient in skin color and body proportions suggests long-term adaptive response to selective forces appropriate to the latitude where they occur.

An assessment of “race” is as useless as it is impossible. Neither clines nor clusters alone suffice to deal with the biological nature of a widely distributed population. Both must be used.” 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.”[34] Joseph Deniker and other early anthropologists similarly noted that the overall cranial form of Ethiopid, Near Eastern Semitic and Berber ethnic groups, all of whom speak Hamito-Semitic languages, are largely the same.[39][40]

Ancient and Modern Egyptians

An Ancient Egyptian skull, thought to be that of Akhenaten. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

Egyptologist Barry Kemp (2005) has reviewed the available skulls and skeletal evidence on the ancient Egyptians. He observes that skeletons from earlier periods, which would help elucidate the origin of the Predynastic Egyptians, are rare, with one of the few examples being bodies recovered from a Late Stone Age cemetery at Gebel Sahaba, in the northern Sudan. Kemp states that these people certainly would not have looked like Predynastic Egyptians or Nubians, but instead they shared features with a population of early Homo sapiens called Cro-Magnon, which are found spread across North Africa and Europe.[41]

Kemp states that it is dangerous to take one set of skeletons and use them to characterize the population of the whole of Egypt. He notes that there is no single ancient Egyptian population to study, but rather a diversity of local populations. He notes also that Predynastic skulls from Upper Egypt appear to be noticeably different in their measurements from an Old Kingdom group from tombs around the pyramids of Giza, and one investigator has consequently claimed that ‘the pyramid builders were a different race from the people whose descendants they had hitherto been supposed to be’.[41]

Kemp cautions that the features of individuals within a population can be expected to display a degree of variation which can be quite wide and which may overlap with that present in a different population, and that characteristics change over time. He states that the samples available for study are “microscopically small”, and “are only a tiny, sad and unrepresentative remnant” of the approximately 200,000,000 people who lived in Egypt over the 4,000 years of that civilization’s history. In particular he notes that these analyses are dominated by sampling bias, in that bones from the northern regions are rare, while bones are much better preserved in the dry deserts of the south (next to Nubia), and that these items thus make up a disproportionate proportion of the available samples.[41]

Kemp argues that the black/white argument, though politically understandable, is an oversimplification that hinders an appropriate evaluation of the scientific data on the ancient Egyptians since it does not take into consideration the difficulty in ascertaining complexion from skeletal remains. It also ignores the fact that Africa is inhabited by many other populations besides Bantu-related (“Negroid”) groups. He asserts that in reconstructions of life in ancient Egypt, modern Egyptians would therefore be the most logical and closest approximation to the ancient Egyptians.[41]

Anthropologist Nancy Lovell states the following:

There is now a sufficient body of evidence from modern studies of skeletal remains to indicate that the ancient Egyptians, especially southern Egyptians, exhibited physical characteristics that are within the range of variation for ancient and modern indigenous peoples of the Sahara and tropical Africa. The distribution of population characteristics seems to follow a clinal pattern from south to north, which may be explained by natural selection as well as gene flow between neighboring populations. In general, the inhabitants of Upper Egypt and Nubia had the greatest biological affinity to people of the Sahara and more southerly areas. […]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.[42]

This view was also shared by the late Egyptologist Frank Yurco.[43]

Ancient Badarian mortuary figurine of a woman, held at the British Museum. / Photo by Nic McPhee, Wikimedia Commons

A 2005 study by Keita of predynastic Egyptian Badarian crania found that the Badarian samples cluster more closely with Ethiopid samples than they do with Northern European (Berg and Norse) samples, though importantly no Asian and Southern Africa samples were included in the study.[44]

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.[45]

In 2008 Keita found that the early predynastic groups in Southern Egypt were similar craniometrically to Nile valley groups of Ethiopid extraction, and as a whole the dynastic Egyptians (includes both Upper and Lower Egyptians) show much closer affinities with these particular Northeast African populations. He also concluded that more material was needed to make a firm conclusion about the relationship between the early Holocene Nile valley populations and later ancient Egyptians.[46]

In 2013, Terrazas et al. conducted a comparative craniometric analysis of Dynastic Egyptian skulls with ancient and recent crania from other parts of Africa, and found that the ancient Egyptians were morphologically closest to modern Afroasiatic-speaking populations from the Horn of Africa. Both of these fossil series possessed Middle Eastern affinities and were distinct from the analyzed prehistoric crania of North Africa and the Horn region, including the Pleistocene Rabat skull, Herto Homo sapiens idaltu fossil and Early Holocene Kef Oum Touiza skeleton. The scientists suggest that this may indicate that the Afroasiatic-speaking groups settled in the area during a later epoch, having possibly arrived from the Middle East.[47]

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.[48] 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”.[49]

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”.[50] Gallagher et al. also points out that “body proportions are under strong climatic selection and evidence remarkable stability within regional lineages”.[51] 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”.[52]

Trikhanus (1981) found Egyptians to plot closest to tropical Africans and not Mediterranean Europeans residing in a roughly similar climatic area.[53] 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:[54]

Our results confirm that, although ancient Egyptians are closer in body proportion to modern American Blacks than they are to American Whites, proportions in Blacks and Egyptians are not identical.

Dental Morphology

Egyptian skull c. 1,500 BC. Courtesy of the Duckworth Collection, Cambridge University

Modern studies on ancient Egyptian dentition clusters the Ancient Egyptians with Caucasoids (Europeans and Western Eurasians) who have small teeth, as opposed to Negroids (Western Sub-Saharan Africans) who have megadont/large teeth.[55][56]

A 2006 bioarchaeological study on the dental morphology of ancient Egyptians in Upper Egypt by Joel Irish found that their dental traits were most similar to those of other Nile Valley populations, with more remote ties with Bronze Age to Christian period Nubians (e.g. A-Group, C-Group, Kerma) and other Afro-Asiatic speaking populations in Northeast Africa (Tigrean). However, the Egyptian groups were generally distinct from the sampled West and Central African populations.[57] 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 [of 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).[58]

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.[59]

Eric Crubezy’s team showed that Predynastic cemetery in Adaima in Upper Egypt showed “Khoisan” dental markers (formally referred to as “Bushmen canine”)[60][61]

Language Element


The Edwin Smith papyrus, the world’s oldest surviving surgical document. Written in Hieratic script in Ancient Egypt around 1600 B.C.E. / Photo by Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Egyptian language is classified into six major chronological divisions: Archaic Egyptian, Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian and Coptic. The last was used as a working language until the 18th century AD. It is still used as a liturgical language by Egyptian Copts.[62]


The Ancient Egyptian language has been classified as a member of the Afroasiatic language family. There is no agreement on when and where these languages originated, though the language is generally believed to have originated somewhere in or near the region stretching from the Levant in the Near East to northern Kenya, and from the Eastern Sahara in North Africa to the Red Sea, or Southern Arabia, Ethiopia and Sudan.[63][64][65][66][67] The language of the neighbouring Nubian people is one of the Nilo-Saharan languages, and is not one of the Afroasiatic languages.[68][69]


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Originally published by Wikipedia, 06.15.2009, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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