What we’re going to be talking about right now is what some people may consider being a controversial subject, but also one worthy of study. Do we really know, genetically speaking, where ancient Egyptians came from?
When we try to imagine what Ancient Egypt may have looked like, some of us immediately picture a civilization populated by citizens with dark skin and dark hair. But was that truly the case?
At the time when graves of mummies were discovered more than a hundred years ago, a general expectation was that the early Egyptians were of Negroid origin. But in our enlightened and technologically-advanced era, where we possess greatly-enhanced capabilities in forensic science, certain mind-blowing archaeological discoveries and evidence have emerged that are not exactly supportive of the seemingly universally known the fact that dynastic Egyptians were exclusive of black African origin.
All shades of hair were found around the time of Ancient Egypt’s civilization – from brown to blonde, and even auburn and red. Today, these hair colors are found among the people of North Europe and North America and are indicative of Caucasian origins. Does this mean there were fair-skinned, blonde or red-haired ancient Egyptians prior and during Egypt’s dynastic periods?
Theory That Some Ancient Egyptians Were of Caucasoid Origin
There is a theory suggesting that before 2000 BC, Egyptians were of Caucasoid-European ethnicity. This is supported by the physical anthropology of the oldest mummies that have been found, the busts and statues of several pharaohs and their wives, the colored wall paintings discovered, and the descriptions provided in historical accounts. As early as 5000 BC, the majority of the Caucasoid-European occupants of Egypt were believed to have begun abandoning the increasingly warm country and headed to the cooler climates of Europe. Then, after about 1500 BC, the population in the area became increasingly mixed with the Nubians from the South of Egypt, which explains the typical physical appearance and genetic makeup of modern-day Egyptians.
This theory strongly refutes the ideas of Afrocentrism with the presentation of several archaeological, anthropological and forensic evidence, three of which I am about to discuss with you now.
The “Ginger” from the Gebelein Pre-Dynastic Mummies
One of the most famous cases of mummies of Ancient Egypt that had red or blonde hair is one of the Gebelein pre-dynastic mummies which is housed in the British Museum. Commonly referred to by curators and the public as “Ginger,” this ancestor from ancient Egypt died more than five thousand years ago, in the Late Pre-dynastic period, around 3400 BC or earlier. His mummified body was found in a cemetery at Gebelein, Egypt, with his toe and finger nails perfectly preserved. He was given the nickname of “Ginger” because of his golden curly hair, which interestingly, looks similar to the curly locks often seen on Greek and Roman sculptures. And although his body is stained from being buried in the sand for more than 5,000 years, this Egyptian ancestor looked like he once had yellowish-white skin.
Red-Haired Mummies from the Fag el-Gamous Cemetry
Another example of uncovered red-haired mummies from Ancient Egypt are the ones found among thousands of other mummies by a group of archeologists in the Fag el-Gamous graveyard in the south of Cairo.
Archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah have been excavating the Fag el-Gamous cemetery for about 30 years, and they had established that many of the mummies they have found date back date back to 30 BC, which is around the time when the Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled Egypt. Researchers concluded that there were more than a million bodies within this cemetery, and it was also revealed that the Fag el-Gamous graveyard was not intended for royalty, but for the common people.
There were many interesting discoveries that were uncovered in the excavation of this ancient cemetery and the analysis of the mummies found buried in the area, and one of them is the observation that the mummies appear to be clustered together according to hair color. They found blonde-haired mummies in one area, while another area was filled with red-haired ones. This led to the overall impression that the clusters of mummies buried by hair color in the graveyard could be indicative that these people once belonged to the same family groups, and therefore, were related to each other. This also speaks volumes of the possibility that a small but significant part of ancient Egypt’s population was red-haired or blonde-haired individuals.
The Mummy of Ramesses II
The last case of red-haired Egyptian mummies we will be discussing is the preserved body of Ramesses II – who is arguably the most famous of all the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Ramesses II ruled as a Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty between 1279 to 1213 BC and is believed to be the one who reigned when the Children of Israel were liberated through the prophet Moses.
In 1975, the Egyptian government tasked French scientists to attempt the preservation of Ramesses’s mummy. This opened an opportunity for researchers to determine his age, body condition, health, diet, and even his racial affinities. There were those who were of the opinion that Ramesses II was black. However, according to the study conducted by Professor P.F. Ceccaldi and his research team, microscopic examinations of the pharaoh’s hair roots showed that his hair had natural red pigments, which meant that in his younger years, Ramesses II was a red head. Moreover, it was also determined that Ramesses had wavy hair, and a combination of these features meant that the pharaoh was fair-skinned.
While there has been enough evidence for some experts to conclude that some ancient Egyptians were blonde or red-haired – there are still many researchers who believe that there was no Ancient Egyptians whose natural hair wasn’t dark brown or black. Some of these skeptics argue that mummies found with light-colored strands of hair can be explained by the effects of the mummification process itself.
And so, to find a definitive answer to this intriguing question about the effects of the mummification process on human hair, Dr. Janet Davey from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Australia decided to conduct experiments on 16 hair samples from men and women aged between 4 and 92 years old. Most of the hair samples were dark-colored, but for comparison, one of the sample strands was gray, while another one was fair. There was also one strand with henna on it.
Davey and her colleague, retired industrial chemist Alan Elliot, also prepared some powder of synthetic natron for their experiment. Natron was a type of salt that was applied on the bodies during the process of mummification to dry them out. It has also been linked to the supposed change in the hair color of the human remains.
Davey and Elliot covered the hair samples in synthetic natron for 40 days – the same amount of time believed to be required back in ancient times to dry out human bodies. When the 40-day period had passed, the samples were removed from the salty powder, and after undergoing microscopic analysis, it was determined that there was no change in the color of the hair samples at all.
For Dr. Davey, the result of her experiment is convincing enough to say that fair-haired Egyptians did exist in Ancient Egypt; it’s just that finding fair-haired Egyptian mummies has so far been a very rare occurrence. Some ancient Egyptians could have been blue-eyed blondes or red heads, and while the country during those times was not as multi-cultural as several parts of the world are today, there were certainly a variety of racial mixes that made the existence of fair-skinned Egyptians possible.
Now, is this discovery particularly earth-shattering? Well, it depends on which vantage point you are analyzing the evidence from. It remains the fact that a majority of Egyptians today are dark-haired and dark-skinned. These archaeological, anthropological and forensic evidence merely attest to a not-so implausible reality that, at some point in its ancient history, there was a portion of the people in Egypt who were red or blonde-haired and fair-skinned. In our modern world, individuals of different race and ethnicities encounter and mingle with each other like a natural habit, if not an inescapable necessity. So, is it really that surprising that our ancestors did the same thing thousands of years ago?