This is the second part of my review of Robert Bauval’s and Thomas Brophy’s 2011 book Black Genesis, about the “black” origins of Egyptian civilization.
Before I begin, though I have small announcement:
Many of you will remember Ryan Dawson, the brother of Scott Dawson, the man who challenged Scott Wolter’s claims about the Eleanor Dare Stones and ended up getting labeled “close-minded” on national television. Ryan Dawson is working on a new documentary about the history of the Israeli-American relationship, and he asked me to pass along this link to his IndieGoGo page raising money for the film. While I do not necessarily endorse Dawson’s thesis (nor have I seen the script of the film), I do support the ability of players outside the media mainstream to put forward their ideas—as well, of course, as our right to later critique those ideas. So, I’m passing this along for those of you who would like to take a look at Dawson’s donation request page. Again, please note: Posting this request is not an endorsement of Ryan Dawson’s political positions.
Now, back to the book…
As the book starts to get into its main argument, Bauval and Brophy discuss the history of European encounters with “Black” people in the Sahara, ostensibly to set up the notion that there was a sophisticated nomadic culture in what is now the Sahara long before the desert swallowed the ancient grasslands. They discuss the adventures of Harkhuf, an Egyptian who traveled to the land of “Yam,” an unknown land somewhere west of the Nile. Many scholars believe that this was the plain around what is now Khartoum. Despite the thousands of years that separate the pre-desertification rock art of the “Black” nomads and the time of Harkhuf, Bauval and Brophy want us to place Yam farther out into the desert, where the Neolithic nomads once lived.
The two authors are quite strange in their insistence on identifying various cultures as “Black,” presumably in contradistinction to the Egyptians. I continue to be uncomfortable with this insistence that the people of “Yam” (or wherever) held some special trait simply by virtue of skin color that they did not have by being from below the Sahara, from a pastoral society, or from developing a rich and unique culture. I further fail to see at this point how a trade relationship with this alleged place in rare voyages in the twenty-third century BCE (which Harkhuf heavily implies were extremely few and far between) implies anything about steady influence millennia earlier.
The authors report on the discovery of “water mountains,” former oases where fourth dynasty material was found alongside much old rock art dating back to the time before desertification, when giraffes and elephants walked the land. Despite the obvious conclusion that these were some of the last wet spots in a drying land and therefore remained important as the area around them dried, the authors would like us to see these places as perpetual sacred astronomical sites where wisdom was passed down from the Black demigods to the Egyptians.
I don’t see the term “water-mountain” in any standard source, and the site the authors term “Djedfre’s Water Mountain” seems to appear primarily on alternative archaeology website, mostly repeating information in this book, which comes from Carlo Bergmann, so I am at something of a loss to say much about the place. According to John C. Darnell, “The image interpreted as a ‘water-mountain’ is probably not a deformed mountain sign, however, but a representation of a leather canteen, or pot holder.” So, in that sense, the interpretation the authors have put forward is probably overstated.
I am, though, still confused about the purpose of this discussion; contrary to the authors’ repeated assertions that hidebound Egyptologists steadfastly refused to consider evidence that the pharaohs operated in the Western desert, a quick survey of standard works on ancient Egypt finds ready discussion of the pharaohs’ exploration of and hegemony over the “Black” peoples of the desert. The old idea went out of fashion in the 1960s or earlier, and this looks like another case where alternative writers don’t quite understand that an idea once put in print is not permanent dogma, unlike alternative ideas.
So what is the purpose? How would the existence of a sub-Saharan culture in the third millennium BCE imply anything about a direct connection to Nabta Playa 2,000 years before? If the Egyptians were seeking out sub-Saharan cultures for trade, wouldn’t that imply that they were not always in direct and sustained contact? According to the authors, “much hinges—indeed, perhaps everything hinges—on his [astronomer Kim Malville’s] interpretation of the alignments of the megaliths that are found there.”
And so we begin a very long discussion of Nabta Playa’s alleged super-precise astronomical (or rather astrological) symbolism, the interpretation of which is reliant on the assumptions of Hamlet’s Mill, namely that the ancients recognized the precession of the equinoxes—the slow backward drift of the stars relative to a fixed point over thousands of years. There is no evidence of this whatsoever, and the earliest ancient attempts to understand precession were off by hundreds and even thousands of years. Estimates close to modern ones occur only in the Middle Ages, among Arab scholars.
Note how Bauval and Brophy twist the evidence for past African climate change to imply an astrological basis: “According to [Peter B.] deMenocal, the cause of these sudden climate fluctuations from humid to dry were linked to the cyclical changes of Earth’s motion with respect to the fixed stars.” This geocentric astrological amendment to actual climate data is a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand: De Menocal sees no influence of the “stars” on climate. Yes, he sees the African Humid Period, a time of warmer, wetter climate, as indeed related to axial precession—the same “wobble” in the earth’s axis that produces the apparent changes in the stars—but not for any stellar reason but instead because the planet used to have its closest approach to the sun during Northern hemisphere summer (it currently happens in winter), producing warmer, wetter weather.
Bauval and Brophy almost purposely ignore the fact that both climate change and the apparent motion of the stars are caused by the axial wobble and instead pull a trick where they introduce the zodiac and fix all attention on changes to where the sun rises on the spring equinox over time. The intentionally conflate “the precession of the equinox cycle” with axial precession (i.e. the apparent motion of the stars vs. the movement of the earth’s axis) and leave the distinct impression that they want readers to believe that the stars, in some geocentric way, are responsible for ice ages and climate change as they force the earth into various contortions. They don’t say that, of course, and their wording is carefully crafted to be technically correct while providing a somewhat confusing account that over-emphasizes the stars.
To put it more bluntly, Hipparchus did not discover precession; he rediscovered it. It is now a fact and not a theory that humid periods occurred every twenty thousand years or so during the past two hundred thousand years, which directly affected the movements and the culture of the people living in the Egyptian Sahara region. It is also a fact and not a theory that these humid periods were directly linked to precession and the apparent displacement of the stars during these twenty thousand years or so.
The authors want us to believe that the Nabta Playa people were tracking axial precession via the movements of the stars to predict climate change, based on hypothesized accuracy of reconstructed positions of the small stones used in the Nabta Playa calendar. Worse, they heavily imply that when the site was abandoned in 3500 BCE “the predynastic phase of the ancient Egyptian civilization is supposed to have begun.” The Protodynastic is usually identified as Naqada III phase, from c. 3200 BCE, but it was the latest in a long line of cultures stretching back to the late Paleolithic, all of which Bauval and Brophy want to throw overboard in favor of a sudden, dramatic influx of wisdom from Nabta Playa.
But imagine the conceit: They expect us to believe that these people were able to communicate an awareness of gradual climate change over a 20,000 year period multiple times in order to learn it was a cycle; that they correlated this to a drifting of the stars so slow that even the ancient Greeks just barely noticed it with written records to drawn on; and that they found any of this information important enough to transmit for the benefit of people living inconceivable lengths of time beyond their own lives. And all of this then gave rise to Egyptian myth, with its view of a timeless, unchanging cosmos and an eternal Egypt.
The longest continuity of tradition of which I am aware is that of Indo-European Sky God, who was born as Dyeus among the proto-Indo-Europeans, descended into Zeus in Greece, Dyaus in India, and Tyr in the northern European lands. This gives us between 5,000 and 6,500 years of tradition, depending on how you count, though with incredible changes over time and the aid of written records in recent times. But we are expected to believe that the Nabta Playa people did even better, preserving unchanged and accurate records of the sky for 20,000, 40,000, or more years?
To support their claims, Bauval and Brophy suggest (while acknowledging they cannot prove) that the Qur’an—written 4,000 years later on another continent—contains “faint echoes of ancient memories.” Would you like the hear that echo? Here it is in all its glory:
And [in] the alternation of night and day and [in] what Allah sends down from the sky of provision and gives life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and [in His] directing of the winds are signs for a people who reason. (25:5)
Do you see it? I don’t. They also cite the claim of the twentieth century mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, who alleged that he had found an ancient map of the world in an Asian monastery that showed a “lush and humid” Sahara. In his Meetings with Remarkable Men Gurdjieff only said that he has surreptitiously copied a map of “pre-sand Egypt,” but it is not at all clear what Gurdjieff meant by that, or how far his imaginary map (for he never did show it to anyone) would have extended the fertile part of the land. In his first book on Nabta Playa, The Origin Map, Brophy specifically claimed that this imaginary pre-sand map may have contained “tiny bits of information” from Nabta Playa that had “trickled down” from pre-dynastic Egypt through esoteric cult.
Those Asian monasteries have everything--The Book of Dzyan, the Naacal tablets, and maps of “pre-sand Egypt”—and no one ever gets to see any of it! It couldn’t be that “lost Asian wisdom” was a common esoteric trope and that Gurdjieff simply made it all up, could it?
Ah, well, later in the chapter the two authors admit the Nabta Playa contains only “approximate” solar alignments, varying by several degrees from true, at least so far as the sun goes. But even though the people of Nabta Playa apparently couldn’t quite get a handle on the sun, Bauval and Brophy are certain that they were able—with irregular rocks—to target Orion’s Belt and Sirius with absolutely precision, so perfect that the site can be perfectly dated using these hypothesized alignments. But that will have to be for next time, when perhaps our authors will explain to me why it is somehow a greater celebration of “Black” culture to suggest that it is important only insofar as it influenced Egypt rather than acknowledging the accomplishments of the people of Nabta Playa on their own merits as a fully-developed megalithic culture.
Oh, and where are the aliens? Brophy was all about aliens in his first book, and now they are gone!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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