This 29 December marks the 100th birthday of one of the most influential African scholars of the 20th century: Cheikh Anta Diop, who pioneered a new understanding of the continent’s place in history and left an enduring legacy in his native Senegal and beyond.
A specialist in nuclear physics as well as a passionate linguist, anthropologist and historian, the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop laid the foundation for a rewriting of African history, beyond colonial prejudices.
As an Egyptologist, he studied the African roots of ancient Egypt, defending and proving Africa’s fundamental place in the history of humanity, and its contribution to other great civilisations.
“Egypt is to the rest of black Africa what Greece and Rome are to the western world,” he notably wrote.
A politician in later life, he was a fervent advocate of Pan-Africanism and a decided opponent of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president after independence and another influential cultural theorist.
Diop’s works have influenced generations, and continue to inspire the development of African-centred scholarship and the Pan-African movement.
A polymath pioneer
Born in 1923 in the village of Thieytou, about a hundred kilometres east of Dakar, Diop came from a Wolof family of aristocratic origin.
From 1946, Diop went to study in Paris. He first chose physics and chemistry before turning to philosophy and history.
He read the canon of European thinkers extensively, yet his thesis addressed “precolonial black Africa” and the “cultural unity of black Africa”.
From that point on he worked to unskew European-centric views and cultivate Afrocentrism.
He opened the first radiocarbon dating laboratory in Africa to study historical documents from Ancient Egypt, and gathered evidence that the Pharaonic civilisation was black African.
When Senegal became one of the first countries to declare independence from the French Empire in 1960, Diop returned home and dedicated the following decades to teaching, research and politics.
Politically, he became a nationalist and an advocate for African federalism.
African history reimagined
A prolific writer, Diop authored many works on the past – and future – of Africa, including his influential Negro Nations and Culture (published in 1954) and The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality (1974).
He notably worked on the writing of a “General History of Africa” for Unesco.
But if his work was well received right away in Africa, in Europe, some scholars accused his multidisciplinary approach of veering into chaos and political activism.
Later research has added weight to many of his theories, while academics continue to debate others.
Yet most agree that Diop played a foundational role in revolutionising the study of African civilisations and exposing cultural bias in much of the scholarship previously accepted as scientific truth.
After his death in Dakar in 1986, Senegal’s main university took his name.
The Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar is celebrating its namesake’s centenary from 21 to 30 December 2023, around the theme of “rebuilding bold thought for Africa”.
Speaking to RFI on the 30th anniversary of Diop’s passing in 2016, writer and historian Iba Der Thiam, a former minister of education and vice-president of Senegal’s lower house of parliament, remembered him as “one of the most illustrious Africans who has undoubtedly marked future generations and the intellectual elite as a fighter”.
Thanks to Diop’s work, he said, African elites and populations gained “the awareness of their identity”, and above all “the pride of belonging to a continent whose role, in the evolution of the world, has been irreplaceable”.