Monday, October 31, 2011

How are the Media and Schools catching up with Scientific Progress?


The taking up of African historiography by Europeans has long been mired with disinformation, as scholars of European descent sought to accommodate imperialist designs of their governments around the African continent. This matter had been particularly brushed on briefly in an earlier entry discussing the significance of additional Timbuktu chronicles that were brought to light in recent times and the corresponding rush to preserve those relics, whereby we come across the systematic construction of the "Ghana Conquest Theory", at a time when European polities had their eye set on colonizing African territories and fuel their growth with African resources. The historiography of Ancient Ghana, and Western Sudan (otherwise now recognized as "West Africa") in general, was but just one element of this disinformation campaign; the policy had extended to other elements of African historiography, Ancient Egypt being the most popular and enduring example of this. Complexes from Kush, Abyssinia or Aksum to the Great Zimbabwe had all become casualties of European disinformation.
Africa's historiography had to be set up in such a way, that the general image of Africans is one of supposed innate lack of human ingenuity and progress, which would therefore leave the door open for Europeans to stalk up their own image, and uphold the doctrine of "white supremacy". The purpose of "white supremacy" dogma was therefore twofold: 1) To justify to ordinary Europeans, military adventures into other lands in the name of "civilizing" non-European peoples, and 2) to desensitize Europeans to inhuman destruction of other societies.

In the case of the Ancient Ghana conquest theory, one noticed some gradual modifications to the theory, as history progressed from rudimentary stages of European propaganda campaign to justify upcoming European imperialism, through to the colonial periods, and the sacking of Europeans from their colonies in Africa due to mass anti-colonial resistance movements; each modification reflecting the general mood or state of European imperialism.

The goal here, is to evaluate how far "western" scholarship has come, since the early days of European racism and imperialist designs, with particular attention to African historiography. In particular, the question to be addressed, is whether "western" schools and media have caught up with scientific progress, because certainly science has made some strides since the early days of modern European imperialism, notwithstanding racism that intermittently plagues science in the more recent times.


Notwithstanding that bias still creeps in research, fairly rapid advances have been made in biology and archaeology in recent times. However, one would be hard-pressed to notice this, if one solely relied on television; knowledge-base in history as related through 'western' television, and possibly schools, looks like it was frozen in time as it was in the 19th century. It's like these avenues live in a world of fantasy.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than the U.S.-based History channels, designated as History and [its affiliate] History 2 or H2, respectively. Several bio-history and African historiography documentaries made their premiere on these related History channel this year, notably for instance, the History of the World in 2 hours and Planet Egypt series. Other programs that aired recently, include reruns of Ape to Man, Clash of the Cavemen, and Modern Marvels: the Pyramids among others.

If one was eager to watch these programs in anticipation of being entertained with the most up-to-date information that science has to offer, then one would have been setting oneself up for disappointment. The "History" channels have proven themselves to be little more than Eurocentric propaganda churning mills. This is not to say nothing of value can be skimmed here and there in their programming, positive or negative, but that the contents are told with a Eurocentric bias.

Take for instance, the aforementioned "History of the World in 2 hours", that aired on October 1st, 2011: In that documentary, as the title suggests, the professed goal was to compress Earth's history in a short amount of time, while keeping it intuitive. Naturally with such an enormous history, earth's story cannot be told in a short amount of time without considerably compromising it. Sure enough, the said program had been inflicted with this, with segments of it leading to misinformation by way of omission.

To provide examples, the documentary takes the viewer up until the point where humans start cultivating complex societies ("civilizations") in different parts of the globe where humans spread and settled down. During that segment of the documentary, crucial information about the whereabouts of the origins of donkey domestication, as an animal of burden that was pivotal in the propping of complex urban centers in the Nile Valley and the so-called Mesopotamia, was left out in such a way that an uninformed audience could have very well assumed that it was a "Mesopotamian" innovation. The animal (donkey) was pivotal in the sense, that it was the earliest practical beast of burden for transporting goods and linking large settlements in different geographical localities through trade. More on this will be discussed in the closing segment (Pt. 5) of this blog entry. 

The other mentioned documentary, a series around ancient Egypt, titled "Planet Egypt: Birth of an Empire" and "Planet Egypt: Pharaohs at war", serves as a superb example of how dissemination lags behind scientific progress. A good amount of accumulation of scientific material has taken place over the years, which biologically links (unambiguously) proto-Dynastic and Dynastic Egyptians to territories south of Egypt and the Sahara; this though, did not seem to have phased the producers of this documentary.

One osteological study after another has revealed to readers, very close relationships between Southern Egyptian specimen and the Kerma and Ta-Seti series of the so-called "Nubians". This notwithstanding, the documentary contains reenactments which make no physical distinctions between the ancient Egyptians from the south and groups from the so-called ancient "Near East"; namely, the Meggidons and the Mittani, while seemingly making distinctions between the Egyptians and the "Nubians".

An often talked about proto-Dynastic Egyptian pharaoh from the south, namely Narmer, is portrayed in such a way in the reenactments, that one would be hard-pressed if he and the Mittani were not of the same people. Yet, Narmer (i.e. the actor in the reenactment) would look out of place within his "Nubian" regiment, which comprised of heavier pigmented actors than the one portraying Narmer himself. Are serious students of biological and cultural anthropology supposed to believe that Narmer would have really appeared more in place with the Mittani from the far north than with the so-called "Nubians" just adjacent to the Egyptians?

Aside from a "Black" teenage messenger who briefly makes an appearance, the reenactments had only one or two "Black" personalities, who were largely relegated to the background and menial tasks, while Narmer, who was supposed to be a "southerner" no less, comes out looking like a Kabyle Amazigh/"Berber" or someone from the coastal Maghreb.

Strangely enough, the famous ancient Egyptian female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, appeared to be portrayed by a personality who could easily pass for a "Black" person in color conscious societies, while Hatshepsut's brother, Tutmosis III, looked like he could have come from the Saudi Royal family. What's the deal here? Is the viewer to take it that Hatshepsut and his brother are the products of what racialists would call an "inter-racial"  monogamous heritage or else a polygamous union, whereby single (indigenous) parent is shared but the other parent(s) had otherwise come from different geographic regions? This anomalous rendering didn't not apparently phase the producers of the documentary. Were the producers to give a hoot about scientific precision, then attention to detail and making sure that the reenactments closely followed scientific progress, would have been a top priority.

This theme predictably extends to other airings of the series [Planet Egypt]: Temples of Power and Quest for Eternity, both of which premiered on October 16th, 2011. In former of the two, the storyline mainly focuses on Akhenaten and his break with tradition, while in the latter, attention is directed towards the personality of Ramses II.

In the Temples of Power, the viewer is told that Akhenaten turns tradition on its head, whereby Pharaohs used to be ascribed god-like qualities but not actually be god themselves, but with Akhenaten's new school of thought, it is himself that is god and should be treated as such. Research however, as discussed here before, has revealed that Akhenaten makes no such connection to himself; rather, from Akhenaten's perspective, he is a chosen messenger of the divine one, which is nominally given the attribute of the Sun Disc, called Aten.

The concept of the Aten does not entirely break with tradition, in the sense that it still embodied the most powerful projection of the supreme one that was/is visible to the human eye. Whereas, under preceding rulers, this role was personified by Ra, a supreme Sun deity. Under the Priests of Amun, where the dominance of Amun was not to be sacrificed in the rationalization and bringing together of local deities of pre-Dynastic cities, Amun and Ra were synchronized into a single personality, Amun-Ra.

This claim in the Temples of Power about Akhenaten passing himself as "God", unsurprising leads to the program contradicting itself as time progresses. The program's narration begins to recognize that Akhenaten himself could not have been treated as "God", as carelessly professed earlier, since there was Aten, and Akhenaten himself worshiped and paid his respect to this symbol. The program could not ignore the fact that Aten and Akhenaten were not one and same.

On the bio-anthropological end, as far as perception goes, it comes as no surprise to see that Akhenaten too would come across like someone from the northernmost areas of the Maghreb, at best, since Akhenaten's father, Tutmosis III, was portrayed by a personality, who could probably get lost in some coastal areas of the Maghreb, if not northern parts of the Arabian plate.

At worst, many of the actors in the reenactments appear to be people of European descent, who simply applied a bit of make up to slightly reduce and hide the obvious paleness of their skin, which would otherwise have stood out to the viewer like a sore thumb. Elements of these reenactment actors would look no different from an average Greek, yet as many students of Classical Greece and Ancient Egypt would recognize, the peoples of these two complexes generally made it a point to pysiological distinguish the two.

Classical Greek historians would often tell their reader about how "black" the ancient Egyptians seemed to them. Anyone familiar with Greeks, knows that Greeks themselves are on average, not the lightest of Europeans themselves; yet, even so, the Greeks were obviously not convinced that they were as dark as their ancient Egyptian counterparts. Watching Temples of Power though, one might as well take it that Ancient Egyptians, incredibly so—from southern Egypt, could very easily supplant actual Greeks without one being the wiser. *Take a cue from Greek historians like Achilles Tatius, for example:

"All were huge, black-skinned [not the pure black of the Indians, more as you would imagine a half-caste Ethiopian], bare-headed, light of foot but broad of body. They were all speaking a barbarian language." - Courtesy of Achilles Tatius: Leucippe and Clitophon, by  Helen Morales (Introduction), Tim Whitmarsh (Translator), Oxford University Press, May, 2002.

Of which, the authors/translators note:

Despite Achillies' being a native of Alexandria, he perpetuates the ethnocentric stereotypes of Egypt familiar from many centuries' construction of Greek self-definition against the 'Barbarian'.

The point to be taken from Tatius' remarks, is that it was in reference to northern Egyptians of the Delta area, dated to around late in the dynastic era—essentially its declining period, following one foreign invasion after another. It's revealing that coastal northern Egyptians should be referred to in that way, i.e. "black-skinned", and that late in the Dynastic epoch.

It is easy for Eurocentrists of today to dismiss these descriptions of classical Greek historians and observers alike, and spin it to mean anything than it does at face value, but one look at figurines like this [and there are plenty of them around], aside from tangible examinations of body build and epidermal melanin content, any rational observer can see why the Greeks saw the ancient Egyptians as "blacks" and rightfully described them as such:

Figurines of an Egyptian troops, each noticeably with individualized heights and faces. Dating back to around the early 12th Dynasty. Click on the image to get a greater resolution.
More of these lively-looking figurines can be seen here (click).

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and many of their handlers looked like they could just as well have been transported right from Europe and planted on the Nile Valley. The producers of the show apparently thought that a personality with a long face (click), was the least prudent thing to do, given the many stone renderings of Akhenaten personifying the ruler. However, they also seem to have made it a point that this person, with his obvious prominent "hooked" nose—something visibly lacking in Akhenaten's renditions—could just as well be mistaken for an average person from a society in the Levant, like say Palestinians or Lebanese.

In one interesting scene, the viewer is exposed to the Berlin Bust—whose authenticity has no less, been questioned in recent times—amidst reenactment scenes zeroing in on Nerfertiti's character. It has been revealed to world that the Berlin Bust of Nefertiti houses the actual/authentic Nerfertit Bust, hidden from direct view, which was not given pigmentation yet. Even so, the Berlin Bust which Hitler touts as a quintessential example of his "Aryan Race", actually looked more East African than the person portraying Nefertiti in the reenactment.

As with other segments of the series mentioned in preceding passages, the darkest of individuals in the reenactment were reduced to one or two extras, relegated to menial tasks. It might as well go without saying, that this theme proceeds onto the next installment of the series, the aforementioned Quest for Eternity. Ramses and his aids wander in the scorching desert with pale skins in white linen. One starts to wonder how the ancient Egyptians managed to have escaped chronic cancer, with such exposures of skin like that.

In a scene featuring a battle between the ancient Egyptians and the Hittites at Kadesh, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish between who is Egyptian and who Hittite, barring careful attention to their costumes. Serious students of ancient Egypt on the other hand, would readily recognize the great lengths that ancient Egyptian artists went through to distinguish Egyptians from northerners like the Hittites and certain groups of the Levant.

In staying true to how Ramses II's personality is often romanticized in 'western' scholarship, the reenactment actors who respectively portray young Ramses II and old Ramses II, feature prominent "hooked" noses on their faces, which interestingly enough, stood in contrast to that featured in the many scenes of stone renderings of the ruler. The producers of the show, of course, pay no mind to those visual dichotomies.

In revisiting the scene about the battle of Kadesh, between the Ramses' troops and the Hittites, the viewer is informed that Ramses did not finish through with defeating the Hittites; rather, he was essentially forced to make a retreat and return to the Nile Valley, whereby he would falsely claim victory. Yet, shortly after, the viewer is told about the document of treaty between ancient Egyptians and the Hittites, featuring agreement towards a peaceful settlement between two warring parties. One then wonders, why such a treaty would be necessary, supposedly brought by the leader of the Hittites no less, if the Egyptian military was forced to retreat.

Such a retreat would surely have been interpreted by the enemy as a sign of vulnerability or weakness. Not only does the reenactments show that the Hittite leader brings the peace treaty in person, but also offers his daughter as wife of Ramses II. The narration of the program justifies this turn of events, by intimating that the Hittites had their own problems and were vulnerable themselves, but would the Hittites have assumed that it was wise to let their Egyptian foe—who supposedly retreated right before their eyes—realize this? What if, upon realizing the implicit Hittite vulnerability thereof, Ramses II decided against the peace agreement? Or did the Hittites gamble on the Egyptian reaction, and figured that they couldn't refuse a peace agreement, as signaled by their supposed retreat in the earlier military engagement? Questions worth pondering.

Continue on in the next segment: Pt.2

Planet Egypt: Birth of an Empire, 2011.

Planet Egypt: Pharaohs at war, 2011.

Planet Egypt: Temples of Power, 2011.

Planet Egypt: Quest for Eternity, 2011.

Egypt: Engineering an Empire, 2006.

Robot Chicken, "Easter Basket" episode, 2005.

Futurama, "A Pharaoh to Remember", 2002.

Futurama, "That Darn Katz!", 2010.

The Prince of Egypt, 1998.

Princess of the Sun, 2005.

Achilles Tatius: Leucippe and Clitophon, by  Helen Morales (Introduction), Tim Whitmarsh (Translator), Oxford University Press, May, 2002.

Ape to Man, 2005.

Clash of the Cavemen, 2008.

The Link, 2009.

—Gonzalez-Perez et al., Population Relationships in the Mediterranean Revealed by Autosomal Genetic Data (Alu and Alu/STR Compound Systems), 2010

—M.A. Babiker et al., Genetic variation and population structure of Sudanese populations as indicated by 15 Identifiler sequence-tagged repeat loci, 2011.

*Personal notes, 2004 & 2011.

Appreciation to the San Diego Museum of Man.

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