When great scientists are considered the name of naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin is often mentioned as among the best. But many in academia will argue that the great Cheikh Anta Diop lost nothing in comparison to Darwin and was perhaps the celebrated Englishman’s superior.
Diop was born on December 29, 1923, in the village of Caytou located in the region of Diourbel, Senegal (approximately 150 km South of Dakar). He was born to a Muslim Wolof family. Part of the peasant class, his family belonged to the African Mouride Islamic sect. Diop grew up in both Koranic and French colonial schools.
At the age of twenty-three, he journeyed to Paris, France to continue advanced studies in physics. Within a very short time, however, he was drawn deeper and deeper into studies relating to the African origins of humanity and civilization.
Once at the Sorbonne University, Diop became involved in the African students’ anticolonial movement, where young intellectuals worked for African independence. He helped organize the first Pan-African Student Congress in Paris in 1951 and in 1956 participated in the First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. These movements laid the groundwork for a growing African liberation sentiment, supported by the ideological arguments of Negritude, Marxism, and Pan-Africanism.
Committed to the richness of African history, Diop’s 1951 Ph.D. dissertation looked into ancient Egyptian history and the influence it had on European culture. At a time when European cultural superiority was the accepted notion, Diop proclaimed that African civilizations were the inspiration and origin of European accomplishments. The Sorbonne rejected his dissertation, yet his work nevertheless received worldwide attention. In 1955 his work was published as Nations negres et culture (Negro Nations and Culture), a publication that would make him one of the most widely known and controversial historians of his era. Partly due to the response to the book, in 1960 Diop was awarded his doctorate by the Sorbonne. That same year, Senegal gained its independence and Diop returned to his home country.
In Senegal, Diop was appointed a research fellow at Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) at Dakar University, where he set up a radiocarbon dating laboratory. In 1961 and 1963, he created political opposition parties: Bloc des Masses Sénégalaises and the Front National du Sénégal. These parties opposed the pro-French policies of President Leopold Senghor’s government. The Bloc des Masses was banned in 1963. In response to the dissolution of these parties, Diop founded the Rassemblement National Democratique (RND) in 1976. The RND published the Wolof-language journal, Siggi, of which Diop was the editor.
As a renowned scholar and political activist, Diop was appointed professor of ancient history at Dakar University in 1980. Over his career, Diop published a number of books including seven which were translated into English. His most famous works were The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974); The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (1978), and Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in African Culture and Development, 1946-1960 (1978). Diop received the highest award for scientific research from the Institut Cultural Africain in 1982. As a testament to his global effect, Diop was invited to Atlanta, Georgia in 1985, where Mayor Andrew Young proclaimed April 4th “Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop Day.” The many books Diop published in French were all dedicated to African self-empowerment and the reconstruction of a colonially-fragmented identity.
Diop demonstrated that Africa was the cradle of humanity; that everything started in Africa, and that Egypt and modern-day Africans descended from the same ancestors, in other words, were the same people. Before Cheikh Anta Diop, the world, and Africans, in particular, had been taught that Africa was nothing and that Egypt and Egyptians were not Africans… that the great Egyptian civilization which gave so much to the world, could not have come from the dark brown Africans.
Europeans refused to admit that although in Africa, Egyptians could be Africans i.e. Black, or rather believed that Blacks were so backwards that their ancestors could not have possibly made the great pyramids of Giza or the great sphinx. Diop proved them all wrong!
Diop was a PhD student of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the 1935 physics Nobel laureate, and Marie Curie‘s son-in-law (first woman to receive a Nobel in Physics, and first to have two Nobel prizes). So Diop’s pedigree, in physics terms, was quite impressive. Moreover, he had earned two PhDs: one in history and the other in nuclear physics. He was also the only African student of his generation to have received a training in Egyptology. He was well-versed in prehistoric archaeology, and linguistics.
It took him almost a decade to have his doctorate degree granted: he submitted his thesis in 1951 which was based on the premise that the Egypt of the great pharaohs and pyramids was an African civilization- it was rejected. He then published it in 1955, as Nations Nègres et Culture, and received worldwide acclaim. Two additional attempts at submitting it were rejected, until 1960 when he finally managed to convince a room full of physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, egyptologists, and historians.
In 1974, Diop managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Egyptians were Black people. He obtained pigment from Egyptian mummies and tested for their melanin content. He was able to determine their melanin content accurately and later published his technique and methodology for the melanin dosage test in scholarly journals. This technique is used today by Forensic investigators around the world, to determine the “racial identity” of badly burnt accident victims.
He was affectionately known as the Pharaoh of knowledge, and the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) of Dakar was re-named after him
On February 1, 1986, Cheikh Anta Diop died in Dakar at the age of 63. Diop had two sons with his wife, Louise Marie Diop Maes. (Adapted)