ancient west africa


Pharaoh eyes Nile skin

Egypt-centrism and Diffusionism in west African historiography

Although Egyptian and African parallels had been noted for over two hundred years (De Brosses 176o; Bowdich 1821) it was only the present century that detected the hand of ancient Egypt behind every African ‘divine Kingship’, behind every African language with syllables superficially resembling ancient Egyptian ones, and behind every burial custom remotely paralleled in ancient Egypt. This obsession came from those diffusionists who were so impressed by what they saw of ancient Egyptian civilization that they felt it must be the fount and origin of all civilizations; the ancient Egyptians were envisaged as explorers, missionaries, traders, colonists and rulers, bringing the enlightenment of ancient Egypt to a dark world (Smith 1915, 1933; Perry 1923). It is no coincidence that this particular theory of diffusionism emerged during the ascendancy of the French and British Empires in Africa, when western Europeans saw themselves as undertaking a 'mission civilisatrice’ or what Kipling called 'the white man’s burden’, of spreading enlightenment to what he called the 'lesser breeds without the Law’ (Kipling 1940, 323, 329) rather as they pictured the ancient Egyptians having done; certain it is that this particular diffusionist theory greatly appealed to colonial administrators and others, who joined in the hunt for things Egyptian in the territories in which they worked (Delafosse 1900; Johnston 1913; Talbot 1926; Meek 1931; Seligman 1934; Palmer 1936; Wainwright 1949; Jeffreys 1949, 1950; Meyerowitz 1960). In defence of the proponents of the theory of diffusion from Egypt one must remember that, when they were writing, archaeological knowledge about the other ancient civilizations of the Old World and about surrounding areas was scantier; chronology was much less securely based and it was not appreciated that the civilization of Sumer was older than that of Egypt.

It is somewhat ironic that the advocacy of Egyptian diffusionism on the part of colonial administrators was accompanied and followed by its enthusiastic espousal by African writers (Johnson 1921; Lucas 1948, 1970; Diop 1955, 1960, 1962; Biobaku 1955; Egharevba 1968, ɪ). These diffusionist arguments, however, have been pretty convincingly refuted (Westcott n.d.; Hodgkin n.d.; Parrinder 1956; Mauny 1960; Garnot 1961; Goody 1971, 19; Okediji 1972; Armstrong 1974). There are indeed a few stray pieces of evidence which suggest that sub-Saharan Africa was not completely cut off from Egypt and it behoves archaeologists to be aware of them and to evaluate them. But the emotional attraction of this idea has sometimes outweighed critical judgement and it dies hard (Diop 1973; Obenga 1973); ancient Egypt, which is part of Africa, had a great and glorious civilization, and it gives added lustre to African pride to trace cultural or even physical ancestry to that source. What does not seem to have been noticed is that the desire to gain some reflected glory from the splendour that was ancient Egypt is almost a tacit admission that ancient Nigerian culture is lacking. But this is not the case; Nigeria has a great deal of ancient culture which arouses the interest and admiration of artists and scholars in all parts of the world. Nigeria possesses her own glories and needs no borrowed light from other cultures. Just as Britain no longer derives her cultural respectability and self-assurance from postulated connections with the Classical and Biblical worlds, so there is no need for Nigeria to try to do the same from supposed origins in ancient Egypt.

Thurstan Shaw (1978). Nigeria: Its Archaeology and Early History. Introduction. Thames and Hudson.


The commercial for the Broadway play Timbuktu!, starring Eartha Kitt and Melba Moore. It was a reworking of the musical Kismet and was set in 1361, in Timbuktu, in the Ancient Empire of Mali, West Africa.