We knew about the Olmec and Maya, but their sites were hard to spot and hard to study because of the jungle. Now, we keep learning more and more.
A train project on the Yucatan Peninsula is uncovering hundreds of Mayan settlements, proving that the area was more densely populated than once thought, as archaeologists have been beginning to suspect.
Meanwhile, Lidar technology is able to peer through the jungle and reveal not onlymore and more ceremonial sites stretching over the Olmec and Mayan culture areas, but also common layouts that seem to indicate a broad shared cultural (or at least, architectural) tradition dating back to 3,400 years ago.
It looks to me like what we have here is a Central American version of the Sumerian urban/bureaucratic/temple-based civilization, giving rise to a series of civilizations that followed the same model: Akkadian, then Babylonian, and so on. And, if we believe the 3,400 YA date, the same thing in Central America was happening at almost the same time. It’s almost as if people tend to set up hierarchical city-states with temples wherever they settle, almost as soon as they settle there, whenever circumstances permit. Almost as if they were dispersing, and remembering something.
This is my second post about non-stereotypical hair. See my first one here.
If I were to ask you to draw an Ancient Egyptian, you would probably draw someone with gold, reddish, or dark skin, long dark eyes, and black hair. Red hair would probably not appear in your drawing. However, there has been a red-haired strain in Egyptian genetics apparently from time immemorial.
Ramses II, 90 years old when he died, was tall, thin, and by the time of his death he was stooped and had a tooth abscess. He also had red-gold hair. “Specialists who examined the strands under a microscope found that it had been dyed with henna and in all likelihood had been auburn in Ramses’ youth” (Time-Life, p. 153). Tall, thin, red-haired and hook-nosed, Ramses II does not match my mental picture of a typical Egyptian.
But he is not the only one. A number of red-haired Egyptian mummies have been found. Archaeologists used to assume that the hair was once dark and had been bleached out by the embalming process. But a recent study treated hair samples with the natron salts similar to those the Egyptians used, and found that the process did not change the color of the hair. Apparently these were actually redheads.
When I was taught Egyptian mythology in school, I was told that Seth, the villain of the story of Isis and Osiris, was red-haired. He was also Osiris’ brother. I found this intriguing, and it reminded me of the Semitic story of Jacob and Esau, who were twins one of whom was a dark-haired (?), “smooth” man, and one of whom was “hairy” and “red.”
Now I find out that Seth, as his legend later developed, was a trickster god, usually portrayed as a composite of different animals, with red hair or fur. Also, red was a symbolic color that could represent vitality or anger (no surprise there). So it’s possible that Seth was an entirely invented character and that his unusual hair color was picked to match his personality and symbolism. But, since this is an ancient origin myth, I can’t shake the possibility that there once was actually a founding pair of brothers, one of whom was dark-haired and one of whom was red. (Also, shades of the original Thor, a quick-tempered, red-haired, trickster god!)
If Red Hair is Native to Egypt, Does This Mean that Ancient Egyptians were Indo-Europeans?
It just means that, as for most people groups worldwide, their genetics were more complex than the layperson would first imagine.
The ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians has been a hugely contested topic. Their civilization is so intriguing that everyone wants to claim them. Eurocentrists have tried to claim that the Egyptians were actually “Mediterranean” (specifically the Hellenistic, European-style Mediterranean), because this supports their dogma that Europeans have been the only source of civilization and there has never been a high civilization to come out of Africa. Afrocentrists have countered by claiming the ancient Egyptians were not only not white, but were truly black, the ancestors of the modern-day sub-Saharan Africans. The world’s first high civilizations were African, and everyone else has stolen their ideas!
Both groups are wrong about the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians. Genetic studies of mummies are difficult to do, and this is truer the older the mummies are, but so far, they have concluded that Egyptians have more or less always been … Egyptian. Uniquely themselves, more closely related to the peoples of the Levant than to any others, and genetically, more or less just like the Egyptians of today.
Also, Could We Stop the Tug-of-War?
And may I just add, this is stupid, human race? Could we please (and when I say we, I mean you, human race) stop all this “I started civilization” “No, I did”?
First of all, Egypt was not the world’s first civilization. Contemporary with them, we have the Sumerians, who though they did not live in Africa were probably also black, and the little-known Balkan civilization that gave us the Vinca signs. And there are good indications that many civilizations existed just as advanced as, and prior to, these. See all my posts about The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley.
The Afrocentrists are closer to being right than the Eurocentrists. Arthur C. Custance makes the case,
One does not think of Africa as particularly inventive. As a matter of fact, however, so many new things came from that great continent during Roman times that they had a proverb, “Ex Africa semper aliquid,” which freely translated means, “There is always something new coming out of Africa.”
It is true to say that whatever inventiveness [Indo-Europeans] have shown in the past three or four centuries has almost always resulted from stimulation from non-Indo-Europeans. Our chief glory has been the ability to improve upon and perfect the inventions of others, often to such an extent that they appear to be original developments … [I]t does not seem proper to call a people “inventive” who once in a while do invent something, but who 99% of the time merely adapt the inventions of others to new ends.
Custance, Noah’s Three Sons, pp. 199, 215
That said, the idea that any one nationality can claim to have founded civilization is … stupid, human race. Human beings are really smart and civilization springs up wherever they go. Lots of people have invented civilization, many times.
(Furthermore, even if your ancestors did build the Parthenon or the Pyramids or Notre Dame, you didn’t build them personally, did you? Do you really want to start taking credit for amazing stuff that people who share your genetics did 3,000 years ago? Are you also going to take credit for all the atrocities they committed? Human race, you are too smart for this stupid idea.)
Egyptian Red Hair Makes an Appearance in The Long Guest
Nimri, the anti-hero of my novel The Long Guest, is a Cushite, who per Genesis is related to “Egypt.” Mid-novel, after being separated from his own people and dragged off on a journey over the Asia steppes, he observes some red-haired Indo-Europeans.
When I first saw that redhaired fellow I was reminded of my relative Mizra. He had red –gold hair and bright burnished skin like my own – only even more ruddy, just a shade darker than his hair. He was tall and thin, with a long thin arrogant face. Between that and his unusual coloring, he was a very striking-looking man. He used to stalk around the architects’ complex like a very god … how we all admired him, and wanted to be like him! But no one could compare to Mizra.
The Long Guest, Chapter 13
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizraim, which is actually plural: “Egypts.” Rather than making Nimri’s relative’s name plural, I have simply called him Mizra.
Nimri never manages to tell anyone about Mizra, because he cannot yet communicate at this stage in the story. But I can tell you. In case you didn’t know, I’ll whisper it in your ear: Some Egyptians had red hair.
Custance, Arthur C. Noah’s Three Sons, The Doorway Papers series vol. 1, Zondervan, 1975. pp. 155 – 216 discuss “The [Technological] Inventiveness of the Hamitic Peoples.” Or you can read the chapter here.
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.
I was taught in school that the Sumerians were the world’s first civilization. What this actually meant was that they were the earliest civilization with writing that we knew of. I’m not sure this is true any more. It seems we keep finding earlier and earlier evidence of civilizations, and even of writing, from all over the world. Look here for example.
The Sumerians flourished in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. (Obviously, they must have started earlier than this, since this is the approximate date of the earliest records that we have found. They could have started much earlier.) Their language is not clearly related to any known language families that are around today. Indeed, we only know how to translate their language because the Akkadians later adapted the Sumerian writing system and continued to use Sumerian as a classical language long after it had died out as a living language.
It is a pretty language (my completely objective opinion). In The Long Guest, the names Nimri, Ninna, Ninshi, Shulgi, and Enmer are composed of syllables taken from the – usually much longer – Sumerian names. Some examples of Sumerian names: Shu-Sin, Shulgi, Inanna, Enlil, Ningal, Ninurta.
I drew on Sumerian because it is a very early language in approximately the same part of the world as the tower of Babel, with the same highly centralized urban/religious social structure that we see clearly in the story of Babel.
One last note about the Sumerians. There is a strong possibility that they were black. It is hard to tell what ancient peoples looked like, because they did not leave us color pictures, but apparently the Sumerians refer to themselves in their documents as “the black-headed ones.” For more information, see this article by Arthur C. Custance.