Taking a knee has become a widespread global gesture against racism, but scholars now say its origins date back to the Mesopotamian era.
Researchers are studying the history of this gesture following protests for racial equality since the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Dr Nick Evans from the University of Hull said kneeling thousands of years ago was “a sign of deference”.
Their findings were exhibited at the Streetlife Museum in Hull.
Dr Evans, a lecturer in diaspora history, said antiquities from the British Museum showed how the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and India all adopted the gesture for different reasons ranging from power and respect for political protest.
Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, this movement was symbolic in showing support and solidarity with the British slave trade abolitionist movement, launched in the 1770s and led by William Wilberforce.
“Many people are unaware that kneeling has real historical significance,” Dr. Evans said.
“Over time, people generally took a knee before 1787 as a sign of deference, deferring to a political elite, someone perceived to be more powerful – normally a political leader, a monarch, a knight , a noble.
“Since 1787, people have taken a knee to show solidarity against racial inequity at home and abroad. The campaign to abolish the British slave trade used an African slave kneeling as a tool to mobilize popular support for the anti-slavery campaign.”
Dr Evans said modern usage of the gesture varied from proposing to a partner and receiving an honor from the monarchy to raising awareness of racial injustice.
“Kneeling as a symbolic movement has a global resonance in all societies, in all cultures and that is why it has become even more perplexing to us that people are surprised today when people take a knee and oppose it.”
Since May, the academic has led a team of researchers from the Wilberforce Institute and the university’s Hull Museums, alongside volunteers from community groups, to explore “this forgotten story of how getting started Knees was a global protest movement with a very rich history.
Karen Okra, an activist who was among the researchers, said she had knelt during anti-racism protests and as a symbol of challenging societal injustices.
“For me, it’s personal and it’s emotional because I’m a person of color who isn’t always accepted within the broader community and within my own people, whether in terms of social class, gender or in different situations.
“If taking a knee saves lives and makes people feel like they are literally equal, that to me is a movement that I think could contribute the most.”
Stella Munthali, founder and director of The Black Heritage of Hull, said she also saw the gesture as a “symbol of community healing and the fight against racism”.
“Kneeling down is for me a very important symbol and act,” the 35-year-old said.
“I think knowing that there is such a rich history about this and knowing that people are still uncomfortable when others take a knee, I think it shows that we still have a major problem and that we still have a long way to go.”
Among the images on display in the exhibition is a photograph of protesters taking a knee alongside an active police officer.
Ms Munthali said: “The fight against racism is not a political agenda.
“Fighting racism is a human right and everyone deserves to be treated equally. It has nothing to do with politics and should not be used as a weapon.”
The Taking the Knee exhibition is on view at the Streetlife Museum in Hull until November 1st.