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Whitewashing history may be bad, but blackwashing it isn’t better - Garwulf's Corner: The LiveJournal
The musings of Robert B. Marks - author, editor, publisher, and researcher

Robert B. Marks
Date: 2015-08-08 15:01
Subject: Whitewashing history may be bad, but blackwashing it isn’t better
Security: Public
Location:In my chair
Tags:ancient history, history, racism
On July 17, 2015, Counterpunch Magazine published “Hollywood and the Whitewashing of History,” by Alan McCluskey.  While McCluskey’s article began with an entirely reasonable exploration of the degree to which ancient Egyptian history has been whitewashed to present it as anything but African (and Egypt was indeed a North African empire), and noted the erasure of an Ethiopian king from our modern vision of the Trojan War, he quickly veers off into a discussion of history that is inaccurate and even offensive.

He begins with this statement: “The fact that Troy was if not an African colony then at least part of a large alliance of kingdoms stretching thousands of miles from deep inside the African interior to the periphery of Europe (and long before the dawn of the Roman Empire), has been all but eliminated from Western cultural memory.”

None of this is factually correct.  Troy was a Mediterranean city state associated with the Hittite Empire.  We know this because it is mentioned in Hittite correspondences such as the Alaksandu Treaty (c. 1280 BC.) and the Milawata Letter (c. late 13th century BC), the latter of which involves the installation of a puppet king into Troy.  It was not an African colony in the slightest, and there is no evidence that it was founded or populated by anybody other than indigenous peoples.  Nor was there any “large alliance of kingdoms stretching thousands of miles from deep inside the African interior to the periphery of Europe” at the time of the late Bronze Age.  We actually know a great deal about who the major players were at this time - there was the Egyptian Empire, which stretched from Egypt into the Levant and which was in contact and sometimes conflict with the Kingdom of the Mitanni, the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaeans, the Minoans and the Assyrian Empire.  We know this in part because we have recovered a number of their diplomatic correspondences, such as the 14th century BC Amarna Letters, which shed a fascinating light on ancient international politics.

Further, we also know that this was an international system, with a large amount of trade and contact between these powers, not unlike international relations today.  In his book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric H. Cline discusses this system, pointing out among its other features that Egyptian rulers would hire Minoan artisans to decorate walls in locations such as the palace at Peru-nefer, and that there was frequent diplomatic correspondence and trade between the major powers.  However, this was no “large alliance of kingdoms.”  These empires did fight wars and battles against one another, particularly for control over the Levant, which was the major hub of international trade – he who controlled the Levant controlled overland commerce.

As well, Bronze Age rulers not only used intermarriage for diplomatic purposes, but also used familial titles to address one another and determine and dictate relative status.  To be referred to as “brother” was to be considered an equal, while to be referred to as “son” was to be declared lesser in status.  That Memnon comes to the aid of his “uncle,” King Priam, can suggest one of two things - that Priam is a family relation through a diplomatic intermarriage that occurred at some point in time, or that Memnon is of lower status than Priam in the “family” of rulers, or possibly both.

However, it is more likely to be little more than a literary fantasy – the Posthomerica upon which McClusky relies was written in the 4th century AD, well over 1,500 years after the events it is recalling, and as such we do not know who Memnon really was, if he was an actual historical figure (there is ancient speculation by the Egyptian priest Manetho in the 3rd century BC that Memnon was the Pharaoh Amenophis from the 18th Dynasty, co-opting him away from Ethiopia into Egypt), and what, if any relationship, he may have had to King Priam.  The Posthomerica may be great literature, but it should not be treated as an accurate account of history in any fashion.  Likewise, in his statements about the Trojan War and the Bronze Age Near East McCluskey does not cite or refer to a single Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, or Hittite primary source – his sources are all Classical Greek and Roman, written centuries and millennia after the fact, and which were discovered to be often wildly inaccurate regarding Egypt once Egyptian hieroglyphs were decoded and read – nor does he refer to any credible reference books written with the benefit of modern scholarship or archeology.

Unfortunately, McCluskey does not stop there, but instead shifts into a radical Afrocentrist view of history bordering on, if not crossing into, racism:

“The idea that agriculture somehow originated on the outer fringes of this region, in the far smaller and out of the way settlements of lighter skinned peoples – who mysteriously went through the ordeal of travelling thousands of miles down the Nile (northwards), crossing the Sinai Peninsula, before deciding to invent agriculture on other, smaller rivers – is very tenuous.”

This is a massive misrepresentation of the spread of humanity and the development of agriculture, along with a rebuttal to a theory that no reputable historian, archeologist, or paleontologist has ever put forward.  Homo Sapiens indeed evolved in Africa, but began its migrations out of it around 100,000 years ago, with tribes of hunter-gatherers settling and adapting to the environmental conditions in their new hunting grounds (among other things, resulting in the development of different skin colours).  Their reasons for migration are no mystery – like all hunter gatherers, they followed their food sources or sought new ones.  By 75,000 years ago, they had established a presence in the Fertile Crescent.  We know this because of the discovery and dating of human remains.

There is nothing “tenuous” about the current theory on the development of agriculture - it is based on the hard evidence discovered by archaeology, and it paints a picture of isolated societies around the world independently developing it within a 2,500 year window.  Both Ancient Egypt and China begin to show signs of systemic subsistence agriculture around 8000 BC, it appears in the Levant area of the Fertile Crescent around 9500 BC, with Mesopotamia systematizing it around by 7000 BC.  It appears in the Indian subcontinent by 9000 BC.  Certain Mediterranean islands show signs of agriculture between 9100-8600 BC.  In New Guinea it appears by 7000 BC.  In southeast Europe rudimentary signs of farming appear as early as 11000 BC.  In South America, the development of agriculture occurs between 8000-5000 BC.  We know this from archaeologists discovering, identifying, and carbon dating the remains of the seeds and plants involved.

This agriculture developed independently, and – in terms of the timeframe of early humanity – practically simultaneously, across the entire world.  The hunter gatherers in the Fertile Crescent not only had no meaningful contact whatsoever with those in Egypt, or southeastern Europe, or the Indian subcontinent, but they had been living there for tens of thousands of years.  To suggest that only those in Egypt would have been capable of developing agriculture is needlessly elitist, and even racist.  All humanity was capable of making the leap to agriculture on its own, and those with the resources did so – that it took longer depending on the place was the likely the result of faster or slower population growth, societal factors, geography, and the availability of plants and animals for domestication, not any lack of human ingenuity.

McCluskey continues: “These were settlements which, from the earliest beginnings, were overshadowed and dominated by the main superpower of the region (Egypt) and did not form empires of comparable size until thousands of years later. Nor did they construct anything as large as the Pyramids at Giza (2500 BC) or Karnak Temple, which lies further south at Thebes (3200 BC).”

Again, this is a misrepresentation of independent development and early ancient history.  Permanent settlements in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant begin to appear around 9500-7000 BC, but these are small farming villages, with limited contact and trade.  Cities and city-states don’t begin to appear in Mesopotamia until around 3500 BC.  In the Nile Valley, towns and chiefdoms begin to appear around 3300 BC, with Egypt achieving statehood around 3,000 BC.  While Egypt was unified through conquest, the first empires – political units of different states, kingdoms, or cultural groups having been conquered and controlled – appear in Mesopotamia around 2350 BC, stretching into the Levant.  It’s not until the Middle Kingdom, beginning around 2050 BC, that Egypt begins to vie with the Mesopotamian empires for control of the Levant.

We know these things from archaeology and historical sources.  These do not paint a picture of an Egyptian superpower pre-dating and overshadowing the rest of the known world – instead, there is a parallel development of statehood and empire between Mesopotamia and Egypt, with the imperial ambitions of the two finally meeting in the Levant during the Bronze Age.  McCluskey’s judgement of worthiness based on architectural size alone is also troubling, to say the least.  Besides the fact that Egypt enjoyed greater political stability than most, and survived the apocalypse of the 12th century BC (the only great ancient power to do so, allowing its architecture to remain standing instead of being razed to the ground as so many others were), it dismisses the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the palaces of the Mycenaeans and Minoans (along with Crete’s working indoor plumbing), the monumental cities of the Maya, and the many cultural wonders of the ancient world due to their lack of relative size.

McCluskey then proceeds to mistake correlation for causation: “Of course, the narrative that insists civilisation was not (or could not have been) born in Africa, which gained popularity around the same time as the eugenics movement, and often deployed the same pseudo-scientific terminology, is the one that prevails today – a narrative fit for a world that has cleansed black men from the story of Troy and insists the Pharaohs were white.

It is indeed true that the modern eugenics movement began in the early 20th century, around the same time that modern archaeology and palaeontology began to reveal the true scope of the ancient world.  It is also true that some racists, particularly in the United States, have attempted to insert 19th and 20th century racial and colonial biases onto the history of the ancient world, which has been the source of much historical revisionism in the past 50 years.  But correlation is not causation – most of the research of the palaeolithic migrations of humanity, as well as the discovery and translation of the civilizations and literature of the ancient Near East, has only happened in the last two centuries.  To claim that this research is based on eugenics has no more basis in reality than to claim that The Hobbit is based on Nazism because Hitler ruled Germany at the time it was published.  The “narrative,” as McCluskey calls it, is not born out of racism, but out of archaeology and carbon dating.  It cannot be dismissed just because the hard evidence doesn’t put Africa first.

It is indeed tragic and unconscionable that so much African history has been erased and whitewashed, and McCluskey is correct to call it out.  However, to respond by attempting to rewrite the history of entire civilizations, denying their achievements and reducing them to mere appendages to Africa, is equally racist and abhorrent.  It is not unlike attempting to retaliate for a mugging by robbing Fort Knox.  When it comes to the whitewashing of history, we should be rectifying injustices by setting the record straight, not creating new ones with racist propaganda.
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