Dr. Diop was born in Diourbel, Senegal on December 29th, 1923. He originally intended to study advanced mathematics at the University of Paris, but turned his attention to physics, anthropology and philosophy instead. His scientific achievements include investigating nuclear physics with Frederic Joliet-Curie and translating Einstein’s theory of relativity to the indigenous Senegalese language, Wolof. In 1951, he presented a doctoral thesis stating ancient Egyptian (Khemet) society to be populated by black or darkly pigmented persons (unlike Elizabeth Taylor in her portrayal as Cleopatra), which the University rejected. However, a number of anthropologists, historians and sociologists challenged and protested his denial and the University awarded his Docteur es Lettres as a kind of apology—if only they’d put their prejudices aside the first time. Aside from work in physics and anthropology, Dr. Diop involved himself in a number of political and educational engagements. During his time in Paris he was the General Secretary of the Rassemblement Democratique Africain, an anti-colonialist caucus within the French Socialist Party. He established the first Pan-African Student Congress of Black writers and Artists in Paris in 1956 and participated in a second congress, held in Rome in 1959. In attendance of the Paris Congress was the writer, James Baldwin, who was unimpressed with Diop’s work: “The evening session began with a film, which I missed, and was followed by a speech by Cheik Anta Diop, which, in sum claimed that the ancient Egyptian empire as part of the Negro past. I can only say that this question has never greatly exercised my mind, nor did M. Diop succeed in doing so—at least not in the direction he intended. He quite refused to remain within the twenty-minute limit and, while his claims of the deliberate dishonesty of all Egyptian scholars may be well founded for all I know, I cannot say that he convinced me”(James Baldwin, Princes and Powers, 162). Close to the end of his life, Dr. Diop was the director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the fundamental institute of Black Africa (IFAN) at the University of Dakar in Senegal. On February 7th 1986, he died in his sleep, aged 62 years.
This theory contradicted assertions made by pre-Darwinian racialists of the 18th and 19th centuries. They asserted that there existed several races of men. The only ‘data’ to confirm this claim was that men from Europe didn’t look like men from Africa, who in turn didn’t look like men from South America—i.e. phenotypical (and very unreliable) evidence. Existing cultural differences were also alleged arguments, however, this claim is in reality made to propagandize Western Europe cultural supremacy. As time passed, the polygenetic theory of origin was discredited as unscientific because its advocates rejected Darwin’s claim that high forms of life come from lower forms of life. They instead believed high forms of life lead to higher forms of life—a theory now known as Lamarckism. Lamarckism can be explained in this simple anecdote: a man and a woman have a child and after its’ birth remove its appendix, and set a standard for each successive generation to remove his offspring’s appendix. Several generations later, according to this theory, a class of descendants will be born organically without appendixes. It was laughable even in the 19th century. A few individuals who subscribed to these theories are Ernst Haeckel, Samuel George Morton, Louis Agassiz and Josiah Scott. Some of them claimed the book of Genesis validated their theories—which is strange because they must have forgotten that curious passage about the two nudists in the Eden’s Garden, whose eating a magic apple at the bequest of a mischievous anthropomorphic serpent, results in their expulsion—and from their sexual congress in the wilderness came all the peoples of the earth. Perhaps they didn’t read the whole story through.
Another existing theory was that the man’s origin was in Asia. I made no inquiries as to why this was, but I assume it could be related to the fact that in Asia, the imperial powers of the day were impressed with the traditional culture of the Indian/Chinese/Burmese/Japanese people, and categorized them as ‘noble savages’ or ‘honorary Aryans’, from whom we may have an origin point. According to Western thinkers on the other hand, the Africans had little history or any knowledge about them—and for that reason doubted man’s origin in that continent. One staunch intellectual advocate of the alleged savagery of Africa and her people was Wilhelm Fridrich Hegel, which is ironic given that the views of his students (such as Marx and Engels) inspired many movements against imperial domination and prejudice in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
There is a dimension to the polygenetic inquiries that can be somewhat excused due to the general lack of medical information of the time. One the previously mentioned natural scientists, Samuel George Morton, amassed a massive collection of roughly 20,000 skulls from human beings from all over the world and from all different walks of life. He discovered observable differences in the curvatures of various skulls. He concluded (incorrectly) that skull curvatures could result in larger and healthier brains of certain ethnic groups. It should be noted that there are no proofs for this conclusion and none have been discovered. However, it is worth noting that one can easily reject the existence of race and recognize that there are significant observable physical differences amongst human beings. After consulting with my father, a physician, I discovered that there are even certain diseases that can be associated with various ethnic groups—one such disease is sickle cell anemia, which is incredibly common in dark-skinned Sub-Saharan peoples. It is not due to race, but rather the fact that all the people born without this trait died of malaria long ago; and that geographic isolation resulted in a near monolith population of people with this condition. Dr. Diop himself recognized this fact, “Race does not exist! It is to say that nothing allows me to distinguish myself from a Swede, and that, a Zulu can prove to Botha (Prime Minister of the White minority government of South Africa) that they both are of the same genetic stock, and that even consequently, at the genotypical level, they are almost twins, even if accidentally their phenotypes, meaning their physical appearances, are different.”(Diop, 25). With this in mind, we may realize that the origins of the concept of race come from a faulty attempt to categorize humans on phenotypical distinctions as opposed to genotypical ones. The Empiricists also made this mistake in respect to other mammals, reptiles and amphibians in the late 18th century. To return to the question of the skulls, with the first question being answered that isolated populations acquire unique physical characteristics—there is a possibility that head shape can be determined by a lack of attention during infantile development. It is well known that during the first years of life; the skull is malleable and subject to change shape if not given proper medical supervision. Could this fact have not been known at the time? Has a great biological mystery been resolved? I suppose that is to be determined in an altogether separate inquiry.
Some of the information presented in the last paragraph may give the impression of an overuse of technical jargon, so here is a historical parallel to make the information pertinent. The constant invasion, enslavement, and domination of the West Africans and their displacement to these European colonies is a historical repetition of the development of that Western European Creole now referred to as the English language. The original English would be to a modern English speaker unintelligible, as it has been modified by cultural ‘discourse’. Thanks to constant contributions (rape, pillage, and exploitation) of the Germanic tribes (the Angles and Saxons), the French Royal Dynasties (the Normans and Britons), the Latin conquests (from Roman exploration), the Danish occupations (from the Norse invaders) as well as the Celtic Clans does English exist in its current form. This is why it is among the more confusing languages to learn, with frequent neutered pronouns and conjugation, as well as numerous exceptions regarding verb tense and endless homophones. In the United Kingdom, there are still some 10-12 languages that are not English, such as Cornish (the language of Cornwall), Manx (the language of the Isle of Man), Welsh (Wales obviously) and Irish (I would say Celtic, or Gaelic but my travels in Ireland taught me not to use those terms to describe it). In essence, the creativity of the West Africans in developing new languages out of several older languages is proof that they too are endowed with the genetic capacity for language, verifying our common origin and that the polygenetic theories of origin are rendered useless.
I have so far offered a number of explanations debunking polygenetic theory, but the final piece of information will be the ultimate proof. I have written this section in a much more creative style because I think it mother of our species deserves the finest.
Baldwin, James. “Princes and Powers.” Baldwin Collected Essays: Nobody Knows My Name. 6th ed. New York: Library of America, 1998. 143-70. Print.
Diop, Cheickh Anta., Harold J. Salemson, and Marjolijn De Jager. “Prehistory.” Civilization or Barbarism: Authentic Anthropology. Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence, Hill, 1991. 11-25. Print.
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André Thévet [Public domain], “Ardipithecus Hand” via Wikimedia Commons