What did Ancient Nubians actually look like?


Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
Benin City, Nigeria
So I was reading up about the Kingdom of Kush, and it was really fascinating to me. I always assumed the ancient Nubians were dark or at least brown skinned, the way they were portrayed on Egyptian hieroglyphics; However I came across this study;

Which apparently shows that Nubian mummies were 60% Eurasian??
This is really confusing to me.
Now, I’m not science expert, so I’m asking you guys. Is this study accurate? What did the Nubians actually look like?

The man in the image below, a history professor from the U.S., has 50% European ancestry.

Jul 2019
I remember answering the same question here: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/98gtn3 I touch on genetics in that answer, so I guess it's not appropriate for this forum. Instead I'll provide some elaboration from the Kushite cultural, political and artistic perspective.

The Kingdom of Kush was a very long lasting kingdom, roughly divided into the following periods:
  • Kerma Period (c. 2500 BC - c. 1504 BC)
  • New Kingdom Egyptian Period (c. 1504 BC - c. 1077 BC) (first colonial occupation, then full integration of Kush into Egypt as far south as the 4th cataract)
  • Nubian Dark Ages (c. 1077 BC - c. 795 BC)
  • Napatan Period (c. 795 BC - c. 270 BC) (ruled all or part of Egypt during the 25th Dynasty from 747 BC to 656 BC)
  • Meroitic Period (c. 270 BC - c. 330 AD)
Likewise, it stretched across a vast territory. The core territories of the Kushites roughly lay between the 2nd and 6th cataracts (northern to central Sudan), and they often wrestled over lower Nubia with Egypt. During the height of the 25th Dynasty they stretched from the Mediterranean in the North to the "Island of Meroë", currently known as the Butana in the South. Even during the highpoints of the later Napatan and Meroitic Periods they effectively extended their rule from Lower Nubia (South Egypt) to the borders of Ethiopia, roughly 1500km spanning much of the length of modern day Sudan. The southernmost, easternmost and westernmost extent of Kushite rule is very poorly understood. During periods of weakness, they may have only controlled (portions of) the Nile river. During periods of strength, their authority would have stretched well into the Western and Eastern Deserts, over their semi-nomadic periphery, and to the southern edges of the Butana.

Kush was not an ethnic monolith. In fact, the formation of the state itself was the result of a fusion between 2 distinct groups, termed C-Group Culture and Pre-Kerma. C-Group were Afro-Asiatic speaking Semi-Nomadic pastoralists (some farming) and Pre Kerma were (proto?-)Nilo Saharan speaking sedentary farmers and cattle herders. They were undoubtedly ethnically distinct, originally, but became one people who established the first Kingdom of Kush. C-Group Culture in Lower Nubia was conquered by Egypt during the Middle Kingdom. Precipitating the chaos of the Second Intermediate Period, Kush expanded into Lower Nubia and raided Egypt. In turn, during the rise of the New Kingdom, Kush was conquered and incorporated by the pharaohs of Egypt up to the 4th cataract. The Egyptian Empire collapsed during the reign of Ramesses XI, the "transgression" of Pinehesy, viceroy of Kush may have had something to do with this. Nubia enters the so-called dark ages, when we know little of what is really going on politically, until the unification of Upper and Lower Nubia under King Alara and the establishment of the 25th Dynasty under Kashta. Even after the 25th Dynasty, as late as the Meroitic Period, the Kushite presence in Egypt remains tangible and the Egyptian influence in Kush, undeniable. No place exemplifies this better than Lower Nubia, which has been passed between Egypt and Kush many times over. Lower Nubians, as early as the Old Kingdom and even Pre-Dynastic times have always had a lot in common with Egypt. While Upper Nubians from the South were always more connected to their Nilo-Saharan speaking periphery.

Take note that when talking about Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speakers, we're talking about very broad terms that may not have meant much to the people in question. Kushite (elites at least) were bilingual, and spoke both Ancient Egyptian as well as Meroitic and its precursors for at least 1500 years from the New Kingdom conquest all the way up to the 1st century AD (see "Egyptian Inscriptions of Natakamani and Amanitore").

Every study I've seen so far suggests that Lower Nubians and (Upper?) Egyptians intermarried during the New Kingdom. This mixing of populations may have occurred as far south as the 4th cataract. Beyond the 4th cataract, the question is a lot less clear, but it seems obvious that the levels of mixing were not as high there. The Butana, the heartland of the Meroitic state lay beyond the 5th cataract, and Kushite royal inscriptions are found well beyond the 6th cataract. Meroë, the capital city and powerhouse of the Meroitic Period had been a royal city since the early Napatan period and has been suggested to have been a secular capital all along. It has always been beyond Egyptian control, and the people in this area would have been mostly Nilo-Saharan speakers. Of course, Egyptian influence reached Meroë, but that was through the Kushites themselves (monumental construction at Meroë began as early as the reign of Taharqa).

I'm just giving you this information to attempt to illustrate the complexity of the question at hand: "What did Ancient Nubians actually look like?". And then we haven't even discussed their periphery like the Noba in the South and West and the Blemmyes in the East, both of whom diffused into Kush. "Kushites" or "Ancient Nubians" are not one ethnicity, so there is not one answer. In general terms however, they can be described as an amalgamation of Nilo Saharan and Afro Asiatic speaking populations. Their skin-tones vary from reddish brown to nearly jet-black. They can have physical features closely resembling Ancient (and modern) Egyptians on the one hand, and can have physical features closely resembling South Sudanese on the other hand. More than anything, they would have looked like modern day Sudanese people in all their diversity, from the North to the South.

During antiquity, they were invariably referred to as Aethiops by the Greco-Roman writers (burnt faces, e.g. black people) and were described and depicted as having a black skin. They're also usually depicted in foreign art with features which would today be described as Sub-Saharan African, although Kushites themselves tended to depict a larger range of features in their art, from very Sub-Saharan looking (especially Upper Nubia), to more North-African looking, especially in Lower Nubia.

Ancient Egyptians were the earliest people outside of Kush to depict them in their art. Kerma Period Kushites (and possibly other tribes):
Kushites in Egyptian tiles.jpg

Kushite art can be pretty unambiguous about ethnicity. A royal lady from El Hassa, Meroitic:
Kingdom of Kush Kushite bronze bust of a royal lady queen or princes from the Amun temple at e...jpg

Assessing Kushite art for ethnic features can sometimes be a bit tricky though. Were they following convention or were they depicting realistic features? For example, Some Aethiops are described in the ancient literature as having practiced scarification, by marking a crescent on their forehead. This can actually be seen in Meroitic period Ba-statues from Lower Nubia. This same crescent is seen on Roman oil lamps in the form of African heads. The Roman oil lamps depict typical Sub-Saharan features, while the Ba-statues depict not so Sub-Saharan features. Which one is correct? Or are they both correct? Lower Nubia has always been populated by mixed peoples and some of the Lower Nubian Ba statues actually depict more Sub-Saharan features as well, so we can assume both phenotypes were present.
Roman oil lamps Kushite ba statue heads crescent shape scarification comparison.jpg

Some of the Ba-statues actually still carry traces of color. They would have been painted a dark to reddish brown color.

Kushite Kings as early as the 25th Dynasty are often depicted with Sub-Saharan features, such as Taharqa:
Taharqa in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.jpg

Many of the Napatan and Meroitic period royal statues were deliberately colored with a black patina, and sculpted with features that differentiate them from Egyptians.
Kingdom of Kush Kushite Napatan statues kings black pharaohs 25th Dynasty Doukki Gel pharaons ...jpg

Although Kushites didn't normally stereotype themselves in their own art, they still clearly distinguish themselves from their northern neighbours. Relief depicting the god Apedemak and King Arnekhamani from the Lion Temple at Musawwarat es Sufra, 3rd century BC.
Kingdom of Kush Kushite relief lion temple of apedemak musawwarat es sufra 230BC King Arnekham...jpg

Even originally Egyptian goddesses start looking decidedly more "southern" during the Meroitic PeriodEgyptian godesses in Kush.jpg

Kushite royal bronze statuettes:
Bronze statuettes Kushite pharaohs smiling.jpg

There is really very little reason to think that "Ancient Nubians" would have looked all that different from Sudanese people today. Colossal statue of King Natakamani, Meroitic, 1st century AD, from Tabo, with a modern Sudanese man standing at his feet, National Museum of Sudan.
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Jul 2019
From the 6th century BC onwards, Greeks start depicting black Africans with some regularity, and these people could have only really come from Kush or its immediate periphery. Their features are unmistakably "Nilotic".

Early 5th century BC Attic Aryballos:
Early 5th century BC Attic Aryballos African head.jpg

A popular subject in Greek art.
Attic art African heads.jpg

The red dyed color of their hair is a dead giveaway of their origin (Sudan).
Greek African heads pottery.jpg

Some of the Hellenistic Period bronze statues and busts of Africans are believed to have came from Alexandria, which had a noteworthy "Aethiopian" population. The features of the Aethiops (mostly Kushites) evidently don't differ noticeably from many modern day Sudanese.
Aethiops Hellenistic.jpg

Even the Roman period Palestrina Nile Mosaic clearly depicts the presence of the "Aethiops type" as far north as Thebes:

And Lower Nubia:
Praeneste_-_Nile_Mosaic_-_Section_2_-_Detail archers nubian.jpg

From left to right: bound captive from the Fayoum, Roman period bronze, and Alexandrian terracotta. The features of the Aethiops are unmistakable.
Africans in Hellenistic statues.jpg
Jul 2019
Allow me to add an interesting quote from an expert on the matter, Dr. Timothy Kendall. Dr. Kendall is "a fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and an expert in Nubian Studies, served as associate curator of the Department of Egyptian and Near Eastern Art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and developed the "Kush: Lost Kingdom of the Nile" exhibition for the Brockton Museum, vice president of the International Society of Nubian Studies" and director of archaeological excavations at Jebel Barkal, one of the most important archaeological sites in ancient Kush, between 1986 and present. In his piece,"Racism and the rediscovery of ancient Nubia", he basically covers the race controversy around Kushite history very well:
Racism and the rediscovery of Ancient Nubia
By Timothy Kendall

In the 1820s, the Western world was thrilled to hear news of the rediscovery of the monuments of ancient Nubia - or "Kush," as it was called in the Bible. The ruins, hundreds of miles south of Egypt in the Sudan, had been reported almost simultaneously by individual British, French, and American travellers, whose excited descriptions and glorious illustrations of temples and pyramid fields delighted scholars and reawakened interest in this mysterious African kingdom.

Greek traditions told of Memnon, a legendary Nubian king who had fought in the Trojan War; they spoke of Nubia's people, who were the "tallest and handsomest on earth," and whose piety was so great that the gods preferred their offerings to those of all other men. They also knew that historical Nubian kings had once conquered Egypt and ruled it for sixty years and that their dynasty was counted as Egypt's Twenty-fifth. The Greeks, however, did not call these people "Nubians" or "Kushites," as we do today; they called them Aithiopes ("Ethiopians"), which in Greek meant "Burnt-Faced Ones." They knew perfectly well that Nubians were black-skinned, as are the Sudanese of the same regions today.

During the 1840s, the great German egyptologist, Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-1884) led an expedition to record the monuments of Egypt and Sudan for the King of Prussia. On his return, he asserted confidently that the Greek term "Ethiopian," when referring to the ancient civilized people of Kush, did not apply to "negroes," but was used to describe reddish-skinned people closely related to the Egyptians, who "belonged to the Caucasian race." Again, in 1852, when the American diplomat Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) visited Sudan and gazed upon the temple carvings of sumptuously clad gods and rulers with clearly African features, he also found it inconceivable that they could have been created by black-skinned Africans. Rather, he asserted, echoing Lepsius, they must have been created by Egyptians or by immigrants from India or Arabia, or, in any case, "by an offshoot ... of the race to which we belong."

Lepsius and Taylor failed to acknowledge the fact that the Greeks themselves never confused "Ethiopians" with Egyptians, or that they always used the term "Ethiopian" to apply equally to the peoples of Kush and central Africa. Such racist opinions and "scientific" distortions among Western scholars of the 19th century, while not universal, did, unhappily, predominate and shaped the attitudes that for another full century would retard and confuse the discipline of Nubian Studies and African civilization in general.

So remote was the northern Sudan that scientific archaeology could not take place there until the British seized control of the country in 1898 and opened it up with the completion the Cairo-Khartoum railway. The first major excavations were undertaken by famed Egyptologist George A. Reisner (1867-1942), whose team, sponsored by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, would first excavate Kerma in 1913, the Gebel Barkal Temples from 1916-1920, and all the royal pyramids of Kush between 1917-1924. Almost single-handedly, Reisner laid the foundations of Nubian history, reconstructing it from the Bronze Age to the dawn of the Christian era. He also deciphered the names and approximate order and dates of all the Kushite monarchs through some seventy generations, from the 8th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. It was a towering achievement, almost unparalleled in the annals of archaeology.

While Reisner's deductions still strike us as astonishing for their brilliance and essential correctness, we are equally appalled to discover his inability to accept that the monuments he excavated were built by bona fide black men. Using entirely specious evidence, he formulated a theory that the founders of the 25th or "Ethiopian" Dynasty of Egypt were not black Sudanese but rather a branch of the "Egypto-Libyan" (by which he meant "fair skinned") ruling class of Dynasty 22, and that they were called "Ethiopians" by the Greeks simply because they dominated a darker-skinned native "negroid" population, which, as he stated, "had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention." Like Taylor and Lepsius, believing absolutely that skin pigmentation was a determinant of intellectual ability and enlightenment, Reisner attributed the apparent cultural decline of the Napatan phase of the Kushite culture (ca. 660-300 B.C.) to the "deadening effects" of racial intermarriage between his imagined light-skinned elite and darker-skinned hoi poloi. The Meroitic cultural renaissance (after ca. 300 B.C.) he explained as simply the result of new influxes of Egyptians. Nubian cultures, he reasoned, were not as developed as the Egyptian because the people were of mixed race, yet by virtue of their relationship to the superior Egyptian race, they were elevated far above the "the inert mass of the black races of Africa."

This was Reisner at his worst. Such unabashed racist interpretations, widely published in scholarly journals at the time and accepted as gospel by the popular press, today offend and embarrass all of us. Yet it is interesting to note how such pervasive racism then affected the discipline of Nubian Studies in America. Reisner, very much a product of his time, seems to have had an unconscious need to believe that his Kushite kings were "white" (or "white men" in darker skin, or dark men with "white souls") in order to make them and their culture more worthy of study to himself and more acceptable to the contemporary scholarly and museum-going public -- and perhaps even to his financial backers at the Museum of Fine Arts. Yet whether judged as "white" or "black," Nubian civilization could not have received much popular interest at the time. If it were merely an offshoot of a "white" Egypt in central Africa, as Reisner theorized, then it would inevitably be judged as late, decadent, and "peripheral" (i.e to the Egyptocentered and Eurocentered universe). If it were "black," then in the minds of his contemporaries it would be utterly irrelevant to history. In either case, it seemed to offer few attractions as an area of study for Egypologists of that generation, and almost none pursued it. Contemporary books on Egyptian history virtually ignored it.

Even as late as the 1940s and 50s, the racial identity of the Nubians remained problematic for "white" scholars. For example, when the bones of the Kushite royalty, recovered from Reisner's excavations, were sent for analysis to the specialists at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the latter identified them as belonging to the "basic white stock of Egypt". In this case, the osteologists, like Lepsius, Taylor and Reisner, evidently wished to claim them for their "own race." Yet when the respected University of Chicago Egyptologists Keith Seele and Georg Steindorff, who were not subscribers to Reisner's "Libyan theory," published their own history of Egypt in 1942, When Egypt Ruled the East, they left no doubt about their biases in the two sentences they used to dismiss the 25th Dynasty:

"In the place of a native Egyptian pharaoh or of the usurping Libyans, the throne of Egypt was occupied by a Negro king from Ethiopia! But his dominion was not for long."
Continued in next post...
Jul 2019
Dr. Kendall's quote continued:

Today, fifty-seven years after the publication of this book, the 25th Dynasty "Negro" kings are now recognized as having sponsored an important renaissance of Egyptian art and culture; they developed an almost scholarly interest in ancient Egyptian traditions and language and have been called "the first Egyptologists." The empire over which they presided was greater in extent than any ever achieved in antiquity along the Nile Valley. Their kings were said never to have condemned prisoners to death; they forgave their enemies and allowed them to retain their offices; they also actually gave public credit for achievement in their inscriptions to individuals other than themselves. Such characteristics among other ancient monarchs of Egypt or the Near East are unheard of, and we can only assume these were native Nubian qualities. Yet for Egyptologists of the first half of the 20th century, the fact that they were "negro" marked this period as the lowest level to which Egyptian civilization had sunk in all its history.

When the mass of material from Reisner's excavations in the Sudan was sent back to the Boston Museum in 1924, most of it went into storage and was all but forgotten. When in the late 1970s it was rediscovered by the Museum's curators, they joyously identified it as one of the Museum's most important and unique treasures, assigned it to several national and international touring exhibitions, and finally installed it in a special permanent gallery.

"White racism" in scholarly circles disappeared with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but it was replaced with a virulent new "black racism," which many African-Americans adopted as a belated response to the former, even before the rehabilitation of ancient Kush. This spawned the discipline called Afrocentrism, which interpreted ancient African history through the anger of the modern black experience, and which vaunted Egypt as a "black African" culture and even the fountainhead of European civilization. Ironically, like the racism of Reisner's day, this trend also diminished the significance of Kush, since the exponents minimized the ethnic and cultural differences between it and Egypt and still give primary emphasis to the achievements of Egypt.

In the 1990s, the future of Nubian Studies in America looks brighter than ever. The "blackness" of Kushite art and culture, which once generally negated its interest for Americans, is now precisely what makes it so interesting for them. It is to be hoped that in the new millennium all Americans will come to grasp -- what neither Reisner and his contemporaries, on the one hand, understood nor the modern Afrocentrists, on the other, understand -- that proper study of the past is not attainable unless we can identify and transcend our own biases. At some point we will all need to recognize that "the race to which we belong" -- to use Bayard Taylor's phrase -- is neither black nor white, but simply human, with all its extraordinary creative abilities and all its eternal failings.