Did the ancient Greeks get their ideas from the Africans?

Ancient Greece Image Gallery The roots of much of our modern civilization trace back to the classical Greeks. Our sitcoms, for example, are founded upon Greek comedies. See more pictures of ancient Greece.
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The sitcoms you watch on TV have their roots in classical Greek comedy. The algorithms that fuel the Internet infrastructure you use are based on Greek mathematics. The doctors that save lives every day first take an oath based on a treatise written by the Greek physician Hippocrates. Even the scientific method dates back to ancient Greece.

We here in the modern world owe much to the advancements of the classical Greeks, that much is clear. But have you ever wondered where the Greeks got their ideas?


From 1900 to 1100 B.C., a great civilization reigned over what is now present-day Greece. The Mycenaens created works of art, established trade with other nations and lived in great cities. And then suddenly, mysteriously, the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Greece fell into darkness.

Nomadic tribes came from the North to where a bustling, urbane civilization once stood. Trade ceased, and Greece turned inward. For 500 years Greece stood silent, in what historians now call the Greek Dark Ages. And then, almost overnight in historical terms, a new dawn broke over Greece. Homer created his epic poems the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," emphasizing honor and virtue to his new countrymen. Trade resumed, once separate city-states united into a democratic republic. Classical Greece was born.

­Where did this meteoric rise to prominence come from? Scholars attribute much of Greece's development to its internalization. For 500 years it was peacefully allowed to redevelop itself, astoundingly without any outside threats. But the loftiest of the pursuits of the Greeks would not have been possible were it not for another nearby civilization, one that was established millennia before even Mycenae was founded. The culture was called Kemet. You know it as Egypt.

The civilization that built the Sphinx, raised the pyramids and built the world's first library also produced the world's first physician, created geometry and astronomy and were among the first to explore the nature of our existence. And they passed their knowledge along to the Greeks. Modern people, in turn, have benefited greatly from this early education.

So what exactly did the Greeks learn from the Kemites? Find out on the next page.

The Kemetic Mystery System

Tourists walk the university-temple at Karnak, called Ipet Isut by the Kemites and renamed by the conquering Persians. It was here that many of the Greek scholars learned about science and spirituality.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

It's well-documented that classical Greek thinkers traveled to what we now call Egypt to expand their knowledge. When the Greek scholars Thales, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and others traveled to Kemet, they studied at the temple-universities Waset and Ipet Isut. Here, the Greeks were inducted into a wide curriculum that encompassed both the esoteric as well as the practical.

Thales was the first to go to Kemet. He was introduced to the Kemetic Mystery System -- the knowledge that formed the basis of the Kemites' understanding of the world, which had been developed over the previous 4,500 years. After he returned, Thales made a name for himself by accurately predicting a solar eclipse and demonstrating how to measure the distance of a ship at sea. He encouraged others to make their way to Kemet to study [source: Texas A&M].


In Kemet, Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," learned of disease from the previous explorations of Imhotep, who established diagnostic medicine 2,500 years earlier. This early renaissance man -- priest, astronomer and physician -- was described as "the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly in the mists of antiquity" by the British medical trailblazer William Osler [source: Osler]. In Kemet, Pythagoras, the "father of mathematics," learned calculus and geometry from the Kemetic priests based on a millennia-old papyrus.

None of this is to say that the Greeks were without their own ideas. On the contrary, the Greeks appeared to have formed their own interpretations of what they learned in Kemet. Nor did the Greeks ever deny the credit due the Kemites for their education. "Egypt was the cradle of mathematics," Aristotle wrote [source: Van Sertima]. But one could make the case that the Greeks also felt that they were destined to build upon what they'd learned from the Kemites.

The Kemetic education was meant to last 40 years, although no Greek thinker is known to have made it through the entire process. Pythagoras is believed to have made it the furthest, having studied in Kemet for 23 years [source: Person-Lynn]. The Greeks seem to have put their own spin on what knowledge they'd learned.

Plato's education may have expressed it best: The Kemetic Mystery System was based upon a wide array of human knowledge. It encompassed math, writing, physical science, religion and the supernatural, requiring tutors to be both priests and scholars. Perhaps the aspect of the system that best represents this merger of religion and science is Ma'at.

Ma'at (/mi 'yat/) was a goddess who embodied the concept of the rational order to the universe. "This idea that the universe is rational … passed from the Egyptians to the Greeks," writes historian Richard Hooker [source: Hooker]. The Greeks' name for this concept was logos

In his "Republic," Plato describes a dichotomy between a higher and lower self. The higher self (reason) pursues knowledge, reason and discipline. The lower self -- the more prominent of the two -- is base, concerned with more crude aspects like sex, addiction and other self-serving pursuits. Reason must ultimately win over emotion for a life to be worthwhile. Thus the emphasis of reason over all else was born. And the concepts of spirituality and reason began to diverge.

It is the survival of the Greek interpretation of Ma'at over the Kemites' that may explain why schoolchildren learn that the Greeks provided the basis for our modern world.

Read about some other ideas about why the Kemites have been banished to antiquity on the next page.

Western History Without the Kemites

While we're still learning about the Kemites -- some recent dating places the Sphinx at 12,000 rather than 5,000 years old -- we do know that the Greeks learned from them. So why don't we learn this in school today?
Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

When we learn of the ancient Kemites in school, we learn of their earliest exploits -- the Sphinx, the pyramids and plant cultivation. The Kemites and their achievements are relegated to the remotest past, as if their civilization had ended long before before the rise of the Greeks. But Kemet, or Egypt, along with civilizations like China and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey), is one of the longest-lived cultures in the world. Having been established at least as far back as 5000 B.C., it continues to this day, despite conquests from the Persians, Greeks, and, more recently, the British.

We know much of this culture -- thanks to the myriad documents the Kemites left and our ability to translate them using the Rosetta Stone -- including that the great Greek scholars studied at the temple-universities there. For their part, the Greeks never attempted to hide where they'd learned about mathematics, astronomy and architecture. So why don't we learn about the contributions the Kemites made to the modern world in school today?


One explanation is that while the Greeks' view of the world was based on Kemetic teachings, their stress on reason ultimately led to the Age of Enlightenment, from which we draw our worldview today. To the Kemites, the physical and the spiritual were intertwined. The concept of Ma'at was as important as geometry. But after the Greeks formed their interpretation, reason eventually edged out spirituality and this view of existence was passed down. Plato, who was among the first to extol the advantages of reason over emotion in his Republic, inspired the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes' observations concerning reason inspired the modern scientific method, which has fueled a strictly rational inquiry of our existence [source: McSwine].

In other words, since the Greeks were the ones who framed our worldview of using reason to investigate our world, we may feel we have no need to credit the Kemites with bestowing upon the Greeks their original education. And since the Kemites' view of the universe included a mixture of science and religion, some people today may find this philosophical mixture hokey and primitive. This is ironic, since the Kemites originated the notion of rational thought.

Read some possible reasons why the Kemites have been overlooked on the next page. 

Ignoring Ancient Kemetic Science

Another explanation for editing out the Kemites' contribution to history is much more sinister. While Europe and the rest of the West readily credit ancient Greece as its foundation, this credit isn't extended to Africa. "During the 19th century, many European writers, limited by ethnocentrism and racism, decided that black Africa could have had nothing to do with Europe's rise to greatness," writes Gloria Dickenson, professor of African-American Studies at The College of New Jersey.

At a time when Western society was building itself on the labor of black African slaves, white Europeans were hardly in a position to credit their slaves' ancestors with providing the foundation of that very same society.


Despite proof of their sophistication, the Kemites' contributions to world culture are still perceived to be less than those of the Greeks. In an online biography of Thales, the Greek scholar's travel to Kemet to study is mentioned, although marginalized. "Thales had traveled to Egypt to study the science of geometry. Somehow he must have refined the Egyptian methods, because when he came back to Miletus [Greece] he surprised his contemporaries with his unusual mathematical abilities" [source: The Big View].

Since the Kemites have been all but excluded from history, one can't help but wonder if another culture has been kept even more in the dark. A tantalizing question emerges: Did the Kemites, like the Greeks, draw their knowledge from another source as well?

For more information on ancient Kemet and other related topics, visit the next pages.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Hooker, Richard. "Barbarians and Bureaucrats: Minoans, Myceneans and the Greek Dark Ages." Washington State University. 1996. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/MINOA/CONTENTS.HTM
  • Hooker, Richard. "Ma'at: Goddess of truth; truth and order." Washington State University. 1996.http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/EGYPT/MAAT.HTM
  • McSwine, Bartley L. "The role of philosophy in the breakdown of modern society contrasted with the African worldview and intelligence in ancient Kemet." Journal of Philosophy and History of Education. 1999. http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/jophe99/mcswine.htm
  • Osler, William. "The Evolution of Modern Medicine." Yale University. 1913. http://emotional-literacy-education.com/classic-books-online-b/teomm10.htm
  • Parrott, Annette M. "Science, science education and technology timeline." Georgia State University.http://scied.gsu.edu/Hassard/parrott_timeline.html
  • Person-Lynn, Kwaku PhD. "Afrikan origins of the university." Exodus Online. February 11, 2005.http://www.exodusnews.com/HISTORY/History019.htm
  • Van Sertima, Ian "Egypt Revisited." Transaction Publishers. 1989. http://books.google.com/books?id=IwEZ3-QtsDEC&pg=PA212&lpg=PA212&dq=kemet+greeks&source=web&ots=y2rYOKVv4v&sig=uTzXlYk0QGQLtKyRB1Cs-QjFnVE#PPA211,M1
  • "African Kemet." The College of New Jersey. http://dickinsg.intrasun.tcnj.edu/diaspora/kemet.html
  • "Formative and Classic Kemet: 31st to 16th c. B.C." University of Alabama-Birmingham.http://www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/um/umd.html
  • "Thales." The Big View.http://www.thebigview.com/greeks/thales.html