West Africa Magazine
July 8, 2001

Egyptology: Hanging in the Hair

by Anu M'bantu and Fari Supia

FOR YEARS, EGYPTOLOGY has been fighting a losing battle to hold onto an ancient Egypt that is Caucasian or, at worst, sun-tanned Caucasian.

At the 1974 UNESCO conference Egyptology was dealt a fatal blow. Two African scholars wiped the floor with 18 world-renowned Egyptologists. They proved in 11 different categories of evidence that the ancient Egyptians were Africans (Black). Following that beating, Egyptology has been on its knees praying to be saved by science. Their last glimmer of hope has been the hair on Egyptian mummies.

The mummies on display in the world's museums exhibit Caucasoid-looking hair, some of it brown and blonde. These mummies include Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao of the 17th dynasty and the 19th dynasty's Rameses II. As one scholar put it: "The most common hair colour, then as now, was a very dark brown, almost black colour although natural auburn and even rather surprisingly blonde hair are also to be found."

Many Black scholars try skillfully to avoid the hair problem. This is a mistake!

In 1914, a white doctor in Detroit initiated divorce proceeding against his wife whom he suspected of being a "closet Negro". At the trial, the Columbia University anthropologist, Professor Franz Boas (1858-1942), was called upon as a race expert. Boas declared: "If this woman has any of the characteristics of the Negro race it would be easy to find them . . . one characteristic that is regarded as reliable is the hair. You can tell by microscopic examination of a cross-section of hair to what race that person belongs."

With this revelation, trichology (the scientific analysis of hair) reached the American public. But what are these differences?

The cross-section of a hair shaft is measured with an instrument called a trichometer. From this you can get measurements for the minimum and maximum diameter of a hair The minimum measurement is then divided by the maximum and then multiplied by a hundred. This produces an index. A survey of the scientific literature produces the following breakdown:

  San, Southern African  55.00
  Zulu, Southern African  55.00
  Sub-Saharan Africa  60.00
  Tasmanian (Black)  64.70
  Australian (Black)  68.00
  Western European  71.20
  Asian Indian  73.00
  Navajo American  77.00
  Chinese  82.60

In the early 1970s, the Czech anthropologist Eugen Strouhal examined pre-dynastic Egyptian skulls at Cambridge University. He sent some samples of the hair to the Institute of Anthropology at Charles University, Prague, to be analyzed. The hair samples were described as varying in texture from "wavy" to "curly" and in colour from "light brown" to "black". Strouhal summarized the results of the analysis:

"The outline of the cross-sections of the hairs was flattened, with indices ranging from 35 to 65. These peculiarities also show the Negroid inference among the Badarians (pre-dynastic Egyptians)."

The term "Negroid influence" suggests intermixture, but as the table suggests this hair is more "Negroid" than the San and the Zulu samples, currently the most Negroid hair in existence!

In another study, hair samples from ten 18th-25th dynasty individuals produced an average index of 51! As far back as 1877, Dr. Pruner-Bey analyzed six ancient Egyptian hair samples. Their average index of 64.4 was similar to the Tasmanians who lie at the periphery of the African-haired populations(1).

A team of Italian anthropologists published their research in the Journal of Human Evolution in 1972 and 1980. They measured two samples consisting of 26 individuals from pre-dynastic, 12th dynasty and 18th dynasty mummies. They produced a mean index of 66.50.

The overall average of all four sets of ancient Egyptian hair samples was 60.02. Sounds familiar . . ., just check the table!

Since microscopic analysis shows ancient Egyptian hair to be completely African, why does the hair look Caucasoid? Research has given us the answers.

Hair is made of keratin protein. Keratin is composed of amino acid chains called polypeptides. In a hair, two such chains are called cross-chain polypeptides. These are held together by disulphide bonds. The bulk of the hair, the source of its strength and curl, is called the cortex. The hair shafts are made of a protective outer layer called the cuticle.

We are informed by Afro Hair - A Salon Book, that chemicals for bleaching, penning and straightening hair must reach the cortex to be effective. For hair to be permed or straightened the disulphide bonds in the cortex must be broken. The anthropologist Daniel Hardy writing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, tells us that keratin is stable owing to disulphide bonds. However, when hair is exposed to harsh conditions it can lead to oxidation of protein molecules in the cortex, which leads to the alteration of hair texture, such as straightening.

Two British anthropologists, Brothwell and Spearman, have found evidence of cortex keratin oxidation in ancient Egyptian hair. They held that the mummification process was responsible, because of the strong alkaline substance used. This resulted in the yellowing and browning of hair as well as the straightening effect.

This means that visual appearance of the hair on mummies cannot disguise their racial affinities. The presence of blonde and brown hair on ancient Egyptian mummies has nothing to do with their racial identity and everything to do with mummification and the passage of time. As the studies have shown, when you put the evidence under a microscope the truth comes out. At last, Egyptology's prayers have been answered. It has been put out of its misery.

Its tombstone reads Egyptology, R.I.P June 2001.


(1) It was in 1877 that Dr. Pruner-Bey wrote a paper in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 6 (1877), pp. 71-92 titled On the Human Hair as a Race Character, concluded that ". . . . we arrive at the conclusion that the color of the hair alone is insufficient to characterize a race."

NOTE: There are no red-haired races.

Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. American Anthropological Association Statement on "Race"

Archaeological Hair:

The common misconception that all hair turns red over archaeological timescales has found its way into archaeological folklore. Whilst certain environments such as those producing bog bodies are known to yield hair of a red-brown color, in part because of the breakdown of organic matter and presence of humic acids which impart a brown color to recovered remains, it has commonly been assumed that this happens to all archaeological hair. This concept has been perpetuated by popular nicknames such as "Ginger"--affectionately given to the Predynastic burial with red hair on display in the mummy rooms at the British Museum.
(read complete article here)

Analysis of Hair Samples of Mummies from Semna South, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, (1978) 49: 277-262.
Ancient Egyptian Wig
Royal Ontario Museum, Canada
Young Bishari's of North Africa, Egypt, 1890
Click photo to enlarge
Ancient Egyptian wig is made of human hair attached to a net.
18th Dynasty Egypt
Articulated inlaid gold head-dress, which covers the hair like a hood beyond shoulder level. From an oval plate hang gold cloisonne rosettes, graduated in size. They are strung in columns, which end in lunettes, and were originally inlaid with cornelian, turquoise, glass and glazed composition. A row of pendants once lay across the forehead.

From the burial of the wives of King Tuthmosis.
W. Thebes., 18th Dynasty (1465 BC)
Henna in Ancient Egypt:

Ahmose-Henttimehu 17th Dynasty (1574 BC): Henttimehu was probably a daughter of Seqnenre-Taa II and Ahmose-Inhapi. Smith reports that the mummy of Henttimehu own hair had been dyed a bright red at the sides, probably with henna.

Reference: G. Elliott Smith, The Royal Mummies, Duckworth Publishing; (September, 2000)
Hair Coloring in Africa:
The Samburu Warrior

The exact origin of the Samburu [map], who inhabit an area in Kenya's northern frontier, is unknown. What can be said is that the Samburu are one of several East African Nilotic peoples, who show traits of Hamitic acculturation. The men are tall and lean.

The warriors spend many hours braiding each other's hair into ever longer strands that fall evenly down their backs. They also smear red ochre mixed with animal fact over their hair. They wear beaded decorations across their foreheads, often entwined with their braided hair. All warriors wear ivory earplugs in the stretched holes in their earlobes.

Photos and text from the book African Warrior the Samburu, Thomasin Magor, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994.
Henna (English) is a perennial shrub called Lawsonia inermis (Lythraceae)
Other common names: Egyptian Privet, Jamaica Mignonette tree
Height: 8 to 15 feet

Native to Egypt, tropical Africa, India and Asia. The entire shrub is ornamental, with small oval leaves and clusters of fragrant flowers in white, rose or cinnabar-red. The leaves, flowers, and twigs are ground into a fine powder, then mixed with hot water, and applied to the body or hair to leave a impermanent reddish-orange tint.
Numbers 6:5

All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.
Nubian Wig
Queen Kiya: Mother of King Tutankhamun
1334-1325 BC (18th Dynasty, Egypt)

With one knee on the ground and the other up and forward in a kneeling position. Her arms are raised before her in prayer. She wears a Nubian wig often seen on Amarna's royal women.

Image and text from the book Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, by Zahi Hawass, National Geographic, 2005.

Click on photo for description
Ancient Egyptian Afro Wigs in Cairo Museum
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Archaeological excavations at Kerma (Sudan) 2008-2009 season.
Between 2500 and 2400 BC
Click to enlarge

Ginger (named after his ginger-coloured hair) is thought to be the oldest known mummy. He died more than 5,000 years ago.

Topic: The Beja: Closest relatives to the Ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egyptians used 'hair gel'
Mummy analysis finds that fat-based product held styles in place.
by Jo Marchant

Source: Nature News magazine published online 19 August 2011

The ancient Egyptians styled their hair using a fat-based 'gel', an analysis of mummies has found. The researchers behind the study say that the Egyptians used the product to ensure that their style stayed in place in both life and death.

Natalie McCreesh, an archaeological scientist from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, UK, and her colleagues studied hair samples taken from 18 mummies. The oldest is around 3,500 years old, but most were excavated from a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert, and date from Greco-Roman times, around 2,300 years ago.

Additional reference:

The results are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 38, Issue 12, December 2011, Pages 3432-3434.