Prehistoric Egypt

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Artifacts of Egypt from the Prehistoric period, from 4400 to 3100 BC. First row from top left: a Badarian ivory figurine, a Naqada jar, a Bat figurine. Second row: a diorite vase, a flint knife, a cosmetic palette.

The prehistory of Egypt spans the period from the earliest human settlement to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period around 3100 BC, starting with the first Pharaoh, Narmer for some Egyptologists, Hor-Aha for others, with the name Menes also possibly used for one of these kings. This Predynastic era is traditionally equivalent to the final part of the Neolithic period beginning c. 6000 BC and ending in the Naqada III period c. 3000 BC.

The dates of the Predynastic period were first defined before widespread archaeological excavation of Egypt took place, and recent finds indicating very gradual Predynastic development have led to controversy over when exactly the Predynastic period ended. Thus, various terms such as "Protodynastic period", "Zero Dynasty" or "Dynasty 0"[1] are used to name the part of the period which might be characterized as Predynastic by some and Early Dynastic by others.

The Predynastic period is generally divided into cultural eras, each named after the place where a certain type of Egyptian settlement was first discovered. However, the same gradual development that characterizes the Protodynastic period is present throughout the entire Predynastic period, and individual "cultures" must not be interpreted as separate entities but as largely subjective divisions used to facilitate study of the entire period.

The vast majority of Predynastic archaeological finds have been in Upper Egypt, because the silt of the Nile River was more heavily deposited at the Delta region, completely burying most Delta sites long before modern times.[2]


Excavation of the Nile has exposed early stone tools from the last million or so years. The earliest of these lithic industries were located within a 30-metre (100 ft) terrace, and were primitive Acheulean, Abbevillian (Chellean) (c. 600,000 years ago), and an Egyptian form of the Clactonian (c. 400,000 years ago). Within the 15-metre (50 ft) terrace was developed Acheulean. Originally reported as early Mousterian (c. 160,000 years ago) but since changed to Levalloisean, other implements were located in the 10-metre (30 ft) terrace. The 4.5- and 3-metre (15–10 ft) terraces saw a more developed version of the Levalloisean, also initially reported as an Egyptian version of Mousterian. An Egyptian version of the Aterian technology was also located.[3]

Wadi Halfa[edit]

Aterian point from Zaccar, Djelfa region, Algeria.

Some of the oldest known structures were discovered in Egypt by archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski along the southern border near Wadi Halfa, Sudan in Arkin 8 site. Chmielewski dated the structures to 100,000 BC.[4] The remains of the structures are oval depressions about 30 cm deep and 2 × 1 meters across. Many are lined with flat sandstone slabs. They are called tent rings, because the rocks supported a dome-like shelter of skins or brush. This type of dwelling provided a place to live, but if necessary, could be taken down easily and moved. They were mobile structures—easily disassembled, moved, and reassembled—providing hunter-gatherers with semi-permanent habitation.[4]

Aterian Industry[edit]

Aterian tool-making reached Egypt c. 40,000 BC.[4]

Khormusan Industry[edit]

The Khormusan industry in Egypt began between 42,000 and 32,000 BP.[4] Khormusans developed tools not only from stone but also from animal bones and hematite.[4] They also developed small arrow heads resembling those of Native Americans,[4] but no bows have been found.[4] The end of the Khormusan industry came around 16,000 B.C. with the appearance of other cultures in the region, including the Gemaian.[5]

Late Paleolithic[edit]

The Late Paleolithic in Egypt started around 30,000 BC.[4] The Nazlet Khater skeleton was found in 1980 and dated in 1982 from nine samples ranging between 35,100 and 30,360 years.[6] This specimen is the only complete modern human skeleton from the earliest Late Stone Age in Africa.[7]


Halfan and Kubbaniyan culture[edit]

The Halfan and Kubbaniyan, two closely related industries, flourished along the Upper Nile Valley. Halfan sites are found in the far north of Sudan, whereas Kubbaniyan sites are found in Upper Egypt. For the Halfan, only four radiocarbon dates have been produced. Schild and Wendorf (2014) discard the earliest and latest as erratic and conclude that the Halfan existed c. 22.5-22.0 ka cal BP.[8] People survived on a diet of large herd animals and the Khormusan tradition of fishing. Greater concentrations of artifacts indicate that they were not bound to seasonal wandering, but settled for longer periods.[citation needed] The Halfan culture was derived in turn from the Khormusan,[a][10][page needed] which depended on specialized hunting, fishing, and collecting techniques for survival. The primary material remains of this culture are stone tools, flakes, and a multitude of rock paintings.

Sebilian culture[edit]

In Egypt, analyses of pollen found at archaeological sites indicate that the Sebilian culture (also known as the Esna culture) were gathering wheat and barley. The Sebilian culture began around 13,000 B.C and vanished around 10,000 B.C[citation needed] Domesticated seeds were not found (modern wheat and barley originated in Asia Minor and Canaan[11]). It has been hypothesized that the sedentary lifestyle used by farmers led to increased warfare, which was detrimental to farming and brought this period to an end.[11]

Qadan culture[edit]

The Qadan culture (13,000–9,000 BC) was a Mesolithic industry that, archaeological evidence suggests, originated in Upper Egypt (present-day south Egypt) approximately 15,000 years ago.[12][13] The Qadan subsistence mode is estimated to have persisted for approximately 4,000 years. It was characterized by hunting, as well as a unique approach to food gathering that incorporated the preparation and consumption of wild grasses and grains.[12][13] Systematic efforts were made by the Qadan people to water, care for, and harvest local plant life, but grains were not planted in ordered rows.[14]

Around twenty archaeological sites in Upper Nubia give evidence for the existence of the Qadan culture's grain-grinding culture. Its makers also practiced wild grain harvesting along the Nile during the beginning of the Sahaba Daru Nile phase, when desiccation in the Sahara caused residents of the Libyan oases to retreat into the Nile valley.[11] Among the Qadan culture sites is the Jebel Sahaba cemetery, which has been dated to the Mesolithic.[15]

Qadan peoples were the first to develop sickles and they also developed grinding stones independently to aid in the collecting and processing of these plant foods prior to consumption.[4] However, there are no indications of the use of these tools after around 10,000 BC, when hunter-gatherers replaced them.[4]

Harifian culture[edit]

The Harifians are viewed as migrating out of the Fayyum[b] and the eastern deserts of Egypt during the late Mesolithic to merge with the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB)[b] culture, whose tool assemblage resembles that of the Harifian. This assimilation led to the Circum-Arabian Nomadic Pastoral Complex, a group of cultures that invented nomadic pastoralism, and may have been the original culture which spread Proto-Semitic languages throughout Mesopotamia.[18]


Lower Egypt[edit]

Faiyum A culture[edit]

Location of the Fayum oasis

Continued expansion of the desert forced the early ancestors of the Egyptians to settle around the Nile more permanently and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle during the Neolithic.

The period from 9000 to 6000 BC has left very little in the way of archaeological evidence. Around 6000 BC, Neolithic settlements appear all over Egypt.[19] Studies based on morphological,[20] genetic,[21][22][23][24][25] and archaeological data[16][26][27][28][29] have attributed these settlements to migrants from the Fertile Crescent in the Near East returning during the Egyptian and North African Neolithic, bringing agriculture to the region. Jared Diamond, in a non-scholarly work, proposes other regions in Africa independently developed agriculture at about the same time: the Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel, and West Africa.[30]

Arrowheads from Al Fayum.

Some morphological and post-cranial data has linked the earliest farming populations at Fayum, Merimde, and El-Badari, to Near Eastern populations.[31][32][33] However, the archaeological data also suggests that Near Eastern domesticates were incorporated into a pre-existing foraging strategy and only slowly developed into a full-blown lifestyle, contrary to what would be expected from settler colonists from the Near East.[c][35][36] Finally, the names for the Near Eastern domesticates imported into Egypt were not Sumerian or Proto-Semitic loan words,[37] which further diminishes the likelihood of a mass immigrant colonization of lower Egypt during the transition to agriculture.[38]

Weaving is evidenced for the first time during the Faiyum A Period. People of this period, unlike later Egyptians, buried their dead very close to, and sometimes inside, their settlements.[39]

Although archaeological sites reveal very little about this time, an examination of the many Egyptian words for "city" provide a hypothetical list of reasons why the Egyptians settled. In Upper Egypt, terminology indicates trade, protection of livestock, high ground for flood refuge, and sacred sites for deities.[40]

Merimde culture[edit]

From about 5000 to 4200 BC the Merimde culture, so far only known from a big settlement site at the edge of the Western Delta, flourished in Lower Egypt. The culture has strong connections to the Faiyum A culture as well as the Levant. People lived in small huts, produced a simple undecorated pottery and had stone tools. Cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were held. Wheat, sorghum and barley were planted. The Merimde people buried their dead within the settlement and produced clay figurines.[41] The first Egyptian lifesize head made of clay comes from Merimde.[42]

El Omari culture[edit]

The El Omari culture is known from a small settlement near modern Cairo. People seem to have lived in huts, but only postholes and pits survive. The pottery is undecorated. Stone tools include small flakes, axes and sickles. Metal was not yet known.[43] Their sites were occupied from 4000 BC to the Archaic Period.[44]

Maadi culture[edit]

The Maadi culture (also called Buto Maadi culture) is the most important Lower Egyptian prehistoric culture contemporary with Naqada I and II phases in Upper Egypt. The culture is best known from the site Maadi near Cairo, but is also attested in many other places in the Delta to the Faiyum region. This culture was marked by development in architecture and technology. It also followed its predecessor cultures when it comes to undecorated ceramics.[45]

Copper was known, and some copper adzes have been found. The pottery is simple and undecorated and shows, in some forms, strong connections to the southern Levant.[citation needed] People lived in small huts, partly dug into the ground. The dead were buried in cemeteries, but with few burial goods. The Maadi culture was replaced by the Naqada III culture; whether this happened by conquest or infiltration is still an open question.[46]

Upper Egypt[edit]

Tasian culture[edit]

The Tasian culture was the next in Upper Egypt. This culture group is named for the burials found at Der Tasa, on the east bank of the Nile between Asyut and Akhmim. The Tasian culture group is notable for producing the earliest blacktop-ware, a type of red and brown pottery that is painted black on the top and interior.[39] This pottery is vital to the dating of Predynastic Egypt. Because all dates for the Predynastic period are tenuous at best, WMF Petrie developed a system called sequence dating by which the relative date, if not the absolute date, of any given Predynastic site can be ascertained by examining its pottery.

As the Predynastic period progressed, the handles on pottery evolved from functional to ornamental. The degree to which any given archaeological site has functional or ornamental pottery can also be used to determine the relative date of the site. Since there is little difference between Tasian ceramics and Badarian pottery, the Tasian Culture overlaps the Badarian range significantly.[47] From the Tasian period onward, it appears that Upper Egypt was influenced strongly by the culture of Lower Egypt.[48]

Badarian culture[edit]

Ancient Badarian mortuary figurine of a woman, held at the Louvre

The Badarian culture, from about 4400 to 4000 BC,[49] is named for the Badari site near Der Tasa. It followed the Tasian culture, but was so similar that many consider them one continuous period. The Badarian Culture continued to produce the kind of pottery called blacktop-ware (albeit much improved in quality) and was assigned Sequence Dating numbers 21–29.[47] The primary difference that prevents scholars from merging the two periods is that Badarian sites use copper in addition to stone and are thus chalcolithic settlements, while the Neolithic Tasian sites are still considered Stone Age.[47]

Badarian flint tools continued to develop into sharper and more shapely blades, and the first faience was developed.[50] Distinctly Badarian sites have been located from Nekhen to a little north of Abydos.[51] It appears that the Fayum A culture and the Badarian and Tasian Periods overlapped significantly; however, the Fayum A culture was considerably less agricultural and was still Neolithic in nature.[50][52]

Naqada culture[edit]

The Naqada culture is an archaeological culture of Chalcolithic Predynastic Egypt (ca. 4400–3000 BC), named for the town of Naqada, Qena Governorate. It is divided in three sub-periods: Naqada I, II and III.

Amratian culture (Naqada I)[edit]
Ovoid Naqada I (Amratian) black-topped terracotta vase, (c. 3800-3500 BC).

The Amratian culture lasted from about 4000 to 3500 BC.[49] It is named after the site of El-Amra, about 120 km south of Badari. El-Amra is the first site where this culture group was found unmingled with the later Gerzean culture group, but this period is better attested at the Naqada site, so it also is referred to as the Naqada I culture.[50] Black-topped ware continues to appear, but white cross-line ware, a type of pottery which has been decorated with close parallel white lines being crossed by another set of close parallel white lines, is also found at this time. The Amratian period falls between S.D. 30 and 39 in Petrie's Sequence Dating system.[53]

Newly excavated objects attest to increased trade between Upper and Lower Egypt at this time. A stone vase from the north was found at el-Amra, and copper, which is not mined in Egypt, was imported from the Sinai, or possibly Nubia. Obsidian[54] and a small amount of gold[53] were both definitely imported from Nubia. Trade with the oases also was likely.[54]

New innovations appeared in Amratian settlements as precursors to later cultural periods. For example, the mud-brick buildings for which the Gerzean period is known were first seen in Amratian times, but only in small numbers.[55] Additionally, oval and theriomorphic cosmetic palettes appear in this period, but the workmanship is very rudimentary and the relief artwork for which they were later known is not yet present.[56][57]

Gerzean culture (Naqada II)[edit]
A typical Naqada II pot with ship theme

The Gerzean culture, from about 3500 to 3200 BC,[49] is named after the site of Gerzeh. It was the next stage in Egyptian cultural development, and it was during this time that the foundation of Dynastic Egypt was laid. Gerzean culture is largely an unbroken development out of Amratian Culture, starting in the delta and moving south through upper Egypt, but failing to dislodge Amratian culture in Nubia.[58] Gerzean pottery is assigned values from S.D. 40 through 62, and is distinctly different from Amratian white cross-lined wares or black-topped ware.[53] Gerzean pottery was painted mostly in dark red with pictures of animals, people, and ships, as well as geometric symbols that appear derived from animals.[58] Also, "wavy" handles, rare before this period (though occasionally found as early as S.D. 35) became more common and more elaborate until they were almost completely ornamental.[53]

Gerzean culture coincided with a significant decline in rainfall,[59] and farming along the Nile now produced the vast majority of food,[58] though contemporary paintings indicate that hunting was not entirely forgone. With increased food supplies, Egyptians adopted a much more sedentary lifestyle and cities grew as large as 5,000.[58]

It was in this time that Egyptian city dwellers stopped building with reeds and began mass-producing mud bricks, first found in the Amratian Period, to build their cities.[58]

Egyptian stone tools, while still in use, moved from bifacial construction to ripple-flaked construction. Copper was used for all kinds of tools,[58] and the first copper weaponry appears here.[51] Silver, gold, lapis, and faience were used ornamentally,[58] and the grinding palettes used for eye-paint since the Badarian period began to be adorned with relief carvings.[51]

Gebel el-Arak knife (3300-3200 BC)
Egyptian prehistoric Gebel el-Arak Knife ivory handle (back), Abydos, Egypt. Louvre Museum.[60]
Mesopotamian king as Master of Animals on the Gebel el-Arak Knife. This work of art both shows the influence of Mesopotamia on Egypt at an early date, during a period of Egypt-Mesopotamia relations, and the state of Mesopotamian royal iconography during the Uruk period.[60][61]

The first tombs in classic Egyptian style were also built, modeled after ordinary houses and sometimes composed of multiple rooms.[54] Although further excavations in the Delta are needed, this style is generally believed to originate there and not in Upper Egypt.[54]

Although the Gerzean Culture is now clearly identified as being the continuation of the Amratian period, significant amounts of Mesopotamian influences worked their way into Egypt during the Gerzean which were interpreted in previous years as evidence of a Mesopotamian ruling class, the so-called Dynastic Race, coming to power over Upper Egypt. This idea no longer attracts academic support.

Distinctly foreign objects and art forms entered Egypt during this period, indicating contacts with several parts of Asia. Objects such as the Gebel el-Arak knife handle, which has patently Mesopotamian relief carvings on it, have been found in Egypt,[62] and the silver which appears in this period can only have been obtained from Asia Minor.[58]

Female figure, c. 3500–3400 B.C.E. Terracotta, painted, 11 12 in × 5 12 in × 2 14 in (29.2 cm × 14.0 cm × 5.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum

In addition, Egyptian objects are created which clearly mimic Mesopotamian forms, although not slavishly.[63] Cylinder seals appear in Egypt, as well as recessed paneling architecture, the Egyptian reliefs on cosmetic palettes are clearly made in the same style as the contemporary Mesopotamian Uruk culture, and the ceremonial mace heads which turn up from the late Gerzean and early Semainean are crafted in the Mesopotamian "pear-shaped" style, instead of the Egyptian native style.[59]

The route of this trade is difficult to determine, but contact with Canaan does not predate the early dynastic, so it is usually assumed to have been by water.[64] During the time when the Dynastic Race Theory was still popular, it was theorized that Uruk sailors circumnavigated Arabia, but a Mediterranean route, probably by middlemen through Byblos, is more likely, as evidenced by the presence of Byblian objects in Egypt.[64]

The fact that so many Gerzean sites are at the mouths of wadis which lead to the Red Sea may indicate some amount of trade via the Red Sea (though Byblian trade potentially could have crossed the Sinai and then taken to the Red Sea).[65] Also, it is considered unlikely that something as complicated as recessed panel architecture could have worked its way into Egypt by proxy, and at least a small contingent of migrants is often suspected.[64]

Despite this evidence of foreign influence, Egyptologists generally agree that the Gerzean Culture is still predominantly indigenous to Egypt.

Protodynastic Period (Naqada III)[edit]
Bull palette, Naqada III.

The Naqada III period, from about 3200 to 3000 BC,[49] is generally taken to be identical with the Protodynastic period, during which Egypt was unified.

Naqada III is notable for being the first era with hieroglyphs (though this is disputed by some), the first regular use of serekhs, the first irrigation, and the first appearance of royal cemeteries.[66]

The relatively affluent Maadi suburb of Cairo is built over the original Naqada stronghold.[67]


(All dates are approximate)

Relative chronology[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Khormusan is defined as a Middle Palaeolithic industry while the Halfan is defined as an Epipalaeolithic industry. According to scholarly opinion the Khormusan and the Halfan are viewed as separate and distinct cultures.[9]
  2. ^ a b According to scholarly opinion the Harifian culture is derived from the Natufian culture in which the only characteristic that distinguishes it from the Natufian is the Harif point. It is viewed as an adaptation of Natufian hunter gatherers to the Negev and Sinai.[16] The Harifian are thought to have lasted only about three hundred years, then vanishing, followed by a thousand year hiatus during which the Negev and Sinai regions were uninhabitable.[16] Since the Harifian culture ended c. 12,000 BP[17] there could be no possible connection with the PPNB which began c. 10,500 BP.
  3. ^ Settler colonists from the Near East would most likely have merged with the indigenous cultures resulting in a mixed economy with the agricultural aspect of the economy increasing in frequency through time, which is what the archaeological record more precisely indicates. Both pottery, lithics, and economy with Near Eastern characteristics, and lithics with African characteristics are present in the Fayum A culture.[34]


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