American Egyptomania Search


On the Physical Characters of the Egyptians

Researches into the Physical History of Man (London: Arch, 1813), pp. 376-388

British ethnologist James Cowles Prichard’s was one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century race science. His Researches into the Physical History of Man, which was published in three editions over a course of some 34 years, was Prichard’s life’s work – an explanation of what he called “the nature and causes of the physical diversities which characterize different races of men” – and had been appearing in stages since 1813. Prichard is perhaps best known not only as a seminal figure in early ethnology from any country, but also as an early, and isolated, advocate for the theory that all humankind had in fact originated in Africa, or, as he put it, that “the primitive stock of men were Negroes.” Prichard’s career was, however, also marked by a series of compromises to pressures over this point, and by 1843, all traces of this claim had either been reversed or erased. Prichard was a monogenist – he believed in a single origin (or monogenesis) for the human species – and in the earliest, 1813, edition of the Researches, Prichard maintained that Africa was the origination point for the human family. Over the two succeeding editions, Prichard was persuaded to deemphasize this claim, opting eventually for its complete deletion.

As this excerpt from the 1813 edition of the Researches shows, in the nineteenth century, an interest in the origin of the races necessarily meant an interest in the ancient Egyptians. The reason was this: most intellectuals interested in ancient history inherited their ideas about the origin of humanity from the Bible, and, in the Bible, humanity is depicted as being descended from one original pair of humans, at a point in history which was calculated with relative certainty. When archaeologists began to decipher and date ancient Egyptian monuments in the early 1800s, however, belief in the certainty of the Biblical timeline began to be seriously challenged; Egyptian monuments suggested that humans had lived on earth for much longer than Biblical calculations would allow, and so ancient Egypt was seen as a crisis for Christian belief. At the same time, the nineteenth century saw an increase in racial tension, especially in America, resulting from race-based slavery; as a way of justifying slavery, many scientists during this time proposed that Africans and African Americans were, in fact, not human at all, but were actually a different species from whites, lower on the evolutionary ladder than Europeans, and could thus be treated like animals. If, however, this was the case, then this also meant that whites and blacks (and often, by extension, Asians and Native Americans and other “others” as well) were not descended from the same set of original pair of humans, but instead were descended from other originary pairs – separate species, separate origins – and, conceivably, whites and blacks could have existed as separate races since the dawn of time. This was a complicated intellectual situation – since this idea of multiple origins (or polygenesis) also presented a challenge to the Biblical account of a single human origin as well – but, for almost all participants, the site of most concern was ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egypt was seen to hold the answers to the following questions: how long had humans been on earth? If the Bible was wrong about a single human origin, then what could the earliest known civilization tell us about the earliest known humans? And if the differences between the races of the nineteenth century were in fact permanent differences – inherent differences between separate species with separate origins – then what could this earliest known civilization tell us about that, especially since it was a civilization with links to western civilization but clearly located on the continent of Africa?

Browse sources by time period:




On the Physical Characters of the Egyptians.

THE ancient connexion which subsisted between the Hindus and Egyptians is proved by the close resemblance of their political and civil institutions, and by the identity of all the leading features in the superstitions of both countries to have been of so intimate a nature, that there appears to be only one way in which it is possible satisfactorily to account for it. That is the supposition that there was a period in re-mote ages, when the two nations in question really formed one people. In order to prepare for some conclusion on this subject, we shall hasten to inquire what information we can obtain concerning the physical characters of the Indians and Egyptians.

lations by cycles were conducted on similar principles, and it is certain that they used in many instances the same astronomical formule. The veneration in which the Lotus was held among both nations is a remarkable circumstance.

The mystical words used at the ceremonies of religion among the Greeks and Egyptian are said to be Sanscrit, and to be still used by the Brahmans. (Sec Wilford on the names of the Cabirian deities, &e. Asiatic Researches, vol. 5.)

Page 1