Historiography: Learning to Read the Past

Timbuktu Manuscripts


There are few things in this world that capture the human imagination like history. The stories of people who shared our planet but not our world engage us with their tales of struggle, triumph, and discovery. History gives us a sense of identity, connecting us to the sacrifices that our ancestors made for us, their posterity. History gives us traditions, systems of social order, symbols and even religion to carry through the generations. History also gives us context for our modern day, giving meaning to the buildings that decorate our skyline, the names we give to our children and the places that we raise them.

 History can also be used as a weapon. I often refer to this quote by Chinua Achebe: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Over the many years of the human story, the powerful have sought to use history to glorify themselves and their accomplishments while demonizing or minimizing their opponents. Often in the ancient world, it was a common threat to not only sack a city, but also to destroy their texts as well, erasing their voices from history. One of the greatest examples of this weaponization of history comes from the end of the second Punic War. The destruction of Carthage, sometimes called Rome’s Holocaust, in which the entire city of Carthage was burned, the people sold into slavery, and all of their records burnt, erasing the voice of the Carthaginian people from history. The only voice with the authority to speak of Carthage was its mortal enemy, Rome. This left the people of Carthage at the mercy of Rome’s perceptions of them, allowing for a narrative that minimized their contributions to the history of the Mediterranean and simultaneously glorified Rome.

In more recent times, history has been engineered into narratives that serve as tools for upholding structures of social status and privilege. They glorify the actual accomplishments of one group, bereft of any consideration of the human cost, while simultaneously adjusting the focus of the historical lens, both minimizing and coopting the achievements of the less dominant groups.  Offering claims to the contrary of these biased constructs are often the source of heated conflict, as the contravening assertion represents an existential threat to claims of the righteousness of the current social paradigm. Sometimes new evidence can contradict false notions of superiority, and uncover the truth behind the myths that hold some groups inferior to another. This is the fallout of European imperialism.

No myth has been more promulgated than the idea civilization in Africa simply did not exist, and that Africans and their descendants wielded no significant influence on antiquity or the modern world. African is often treated as a continent that was bereft of innovation or industry, and that any great civilizations that did arise could not possibly have been attributed to the knuckle dragging savages that made their homes in primitive grass huts and ran naked between the ancient trees of their untamed jungles. Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge about the world prior to the 1500s can say that these claims are demonstrably false. With great civilizations like the Kanem Bornu, the Baganda Empire, the city-states of the Swahili coast, the Axumites, the fortresses of Great Zimbabwe, and many others, Africa was a hotbed of human development. Disregarding the influence or importance of these civilizations is central to the aforementioned myth, and in no debate has the argument been more vigorous than that over the origins of the people of Ancient Egypt.

Many casual Egyptologists will be familiar with the Hamitic Hypothesis espoused by Martin Seligman, a historian and not so casual racist. For the uninitiated, this is the idea that all of the great civilizations of Africa are the product of a Caucasian race of people that migrated into the continent from Europe. Nowhere has this theory been more aggressively argued than over Ancient Egypt. This brings me to what inspired me to write this article. A study was conducted by a group of scientists from various universities at the Max Planck Institute which examined the genetic composition of Egypt’s population during and after the Roman Period. Their finding were that according to the mummified remains of aristocrats and royals during that period, indicated that the people that occupied higher statuses in Egyptian society during that period had significant, if not overwhelming amounts of European DNA. At the outset, this supports the Segliman’s hypothesis and became the white supremacists’ wet dream and the Afrocentrist’s worst nightmare. The internet was ablaze with flame wars over the validity of the study, some using their interpretation of the findings as a proverbial cudgel to enforce their false notions of superiority, and others trying to discredit the data, calling it racist. However, the truth is that everyone is wrong, but not for the reasons that one might think.

This debate reminded me of the uproar many years ago regarding the controversy over King Tutankhamen’s genetic makeup, as the initial findings determined that he was mostly of Western European origin. White supremacists had a field day, while skeptics assumed that this was another racist attempt to undermine the achievements of Africans. However, no one considered examining the conditions of the study. What the combatants did not take into account, was the fact that his DNA was so badly degraded that any contamination, from a sneeze, droplet of sweat, skin flake, or even breathing too heavily over the corpse would have drowned it out almost entirely. Now consider the fact that contamination of this sort is nearly impossible to confirm when the base sample is so badly degraded. Now add that to the fact that the very concept of contaminating the DNA of this mummy did not even exist in the minds of scientists when the mummy was found, displayed, and examined in the decades before the test. Understanding this and being able to debate it intelligently requires two things: historical literacy, and the patience to think critically about a report.

When reading anything about ancient times it is essential to understand that everything happened within a specific context. In the case of the study regarding the DNA of Egyptian aristocrats, I left a clue as to the reason for the findings in that paragraph, which was also mentioned in the study. Specifically, that the period covered was during the (late) New Kingdom, as well as during the Greek and Roman periods in Egypt. During this 1,300 year period, Egypt was invaded and ruled by the Hyxos from Western Asia, the Persians, the Macedonian Greeks, and the Romans. Essentially, Egypt had been under the jackboot of foreign rulers for nearly the entire period covered in the study (consider that its history spans 3,500 years). This comes with a replacement of the ruling class by the aristocrats and royals of the conquering people, intermarriage between the new rulers and the aristocrats of the old order, and mass immigration later on. During and after the Roman period, this would also account for the influx of Sub-Saharan Africans due to trade, though they were always present to varying degrees due to Egypt’s close ties with Nubia.

This was not uncommon place in ancient times. Many kingdoms had foreign rulers due to laws of succession, marriages, conquests, and amalgamations of territory. DNA results from the aristocrats of India during the Mughal period would reveal high amounts of Persian and Mongolian DNA. A DNA examination of the Queen Elizabeth II of England would reveal that she is in fact of German ancestry, not English. Does this mean that people with foreign ancestry ruled these countries since their inception? No. What it tells us is the story of the exchange and transfer of power over time.

When reading a text and trying to draw conclusions from it, we have to be disciplined enough to see beyond our own confirmation bias and look at the information for what it is and not what we want it to be. If we consider that Ancient Egyptian culture persisted for over 3,500 years and was subject to multiple invasions, great influxes of immigrants, and an active economy of international trade, there is any number of factors that inform what we know about them. We also have to be mindful of impressing our modern sensibilities and perceptions onto the mindsets of ancient peoples. For example, consider that who we would identify as Black today would not receive the same classification in ancient Egypt. A person that was considered to be black would actually need to have skin that was black in colour. Their classifications of people were based on nation and culture, not colour. Essentially, in ancient times, our notions of race simply did not exist.  This is a prime example as to why it is important to consider the worldview of the people being studied. Without this context, a narrative can be created that does not serve the interests of accurate historical research. If we simply accept the biases of the writer at face value and without further investigation, we may end up with a story that is just not true.

Other necessary considerations are the scope and degree of limitation in a study. Limitations are not necessarily weaknesses. Identifying a scope and limitations focuses the research and identifies areas where a report may fall short, passes over research that has already been done, and offers direction for further investigation. Limitations are not weaknesses. This will mean that the report will focus on a specific time period, location, population, or event. Broadening the scope too widely will create a confusing, disjointed report that can’t adequately support its own arguments or properly examine the researcher’s hypothesis. In the paper in question, it discusses the fact that conflating factors in the demographic research like name choices as status symbols, outward representations of foreign culture, and contributing factors to degrading DNA like time, chemicals used in mummification, and possible contamination. The ability to comprehend the scope and limitations of a report as well as the factors that surround them are invaluable to getting the most out of the research. If one is studying the traits of housecats and the implication of having them as pets in the home, looking at dogs or ferrets is out of the scope of the study and can confuse the results.  In the case of this report, they chose to examine the latter 1,300 years of Egypt’s history, which was rife with foreign invasions, occupation, and changing dynasties.

The final piece you have to consider is your own biases and gaps in knowledge. Sometimes the things we read in the history books don’t always match our worldview. We have to be willing to accept the fact that the way we see the world or our perceptions of history can be inaccurate, especially if there is evidence to support a counterclaim. One personal example I can offer was the incorrect notion that I had of Cleopatra being a Black African. When I looked into the history and researched her family tree, I found that I was wrong, and based on the evidence, I accepted it. The information provided in context and with an understanding of Egyptian culture and other historical records contextualized the information enough for me to agree that this was the truth. Historians and archeologists change their views on history constantly as new information is provided. 40 years ago, no reputable scholar could have imagined that the ancient Polynesians would have traded with the Incas centuries before the first landfall of Europeans in South America. It was believed that their boats simply could not travel that far, despite their prowess as a sea-faring people. In recent years, there has been compelling evidence to the contrary and, now it has become a growing field of research. Findings like this one can shake the very foundations of a person’s worldview, and it is incumbent upon any researcher to be willing to have his or her notions challenged in order to better understand the world that we live in.

History is beautiful. Studying history is difficult. It takes time, thought, an inquisitive nature, and an open mind. We are learning about worlds that are not our own. We must open ourselves to the mental exercise of understanding the worldview of people that did not live in our time and do not share our culture. We have to be willing to look past our own egos and biases to open our minds to facts that may undermine our worldview and accept that we can be wrong. We need to think critically about the information that is being presented and search it for biases, lapses in understanding, or simply gaps in information. We need to be focused on the task at hand and seek to understand the information we are interpreting. History is the story of us, and we owe it to the people that set the foundations of the world we live in to tell their stories the right way, because it is exactly what we would want for ourselves when the dust has blown from our bones in a thousand years.

Until next time, be good to yourselves, and each other.

One Love,

Adam H.C. Myrie



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