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Born in Thieytou, Diourbel Region, French Senegal, Diop was born to an aristocratic Muslim Wolof family in Senegal where he was educated in a traditional Islamic school.Diop's family was part of the Mouride brotherhood, the only independent Muslim fraternity in Africa according to Diop.He obtained a bachelor's degree in Senegal before moving to Paris for graduate studies, where he ended his scholastic education.

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He completed his thesis on pre-dynastic Egypt in 1954 but could not find a jury of examiners for it: he later published many of his ideas as the book Nations nègres et culture.

In 1956 he re-registered a new proposed thesis for Doctor of Letters with the title "The areas of matriarchy and patriarchy in ancient times." From 1956, he taught physics and chemistry in two Paris lycees as an assistant master, before moving to the College de France.

In 1957 he registered his new thesis title "Comparative study of political and social systems of Europe and Africa, from Antiquity to the formation of modern states." The new topics did not relate to ancient Egypt but were concerned with the forms of organisation of African and European societies and how they evolved. In 1953, he first met Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie's son-in-law, and in 1957 Diop began specializing in nuclear physics at the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry of the College de France which Frederic Joliot-Curie ran until his death in 1958, and the Institut Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris.

He initially enrolled to study higher mathematics, but then enrolled to study philosophy in the Faculty of Arts of the Sorbonne.

He gained his first degree (licence) in philosophy in 1948, then enrolled in the Faculty of Sciences, receiving two diplomas in chemistry in 1950.

In 1949, Diop registered a proposed title for a Doctor of Letters thesis, "The Cultural Future of African thought," under the direction of Professor Gaston Bachelard.

In 1951 he registered a second thesis title "Who were the pre-dynastic Egyptians" under Professor Marcel Griaule.

Cheikh Anta Diop (29 December 1923 – 7 February 1986) was a historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician who studied the human race's origins and pre-colonial African culture.

Though Diop is sometimes referred to as an Afrocentrist, he predates the concept and thus was not himself an Afrocentric scholar.

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