Prehistoric Egypt: First Humans, Rock Art, Tools, Burials and Migration to the Nile

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Tadrart Acacus, Libya
In the Paleolithic Egypt, the Sahara and the Nile River valleys were much different than they are today. The Sahara was not a desert but was a savannah grasslands with enough vegetation and food to support animals that we associate with the Serengeti . This period of ample vegetation and rainfall lasted until several millennia ago. Then the climate began to dry up and the savannah turned to desert and abundant food supplies disappeared. At that time people that lived in the Sahara began migrating to the Nile Valley, where water, animals and arable were plentiful. This period also coincided with a shift from hunting and gathering to early agriculture and is believed to have been much more temperate and rainy than the Nile Valley is today. [Source: Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey, Minnesota State University, Mankato,, 2002]

Extraordinary images of animals and people from a time when the Sahara was greener and more like a savannah have been left behind. Engravings of hippos and crocodiles are offered as evidence of a wetter climate. Most of the Saharan rock is found in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Niger and to a lesser extent Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and some of the Sahel countries. Particularly rich areas include the Air mountains in Niger, the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau in southeastern Algeria, and the Fezzan region of southwest Libya. Some of the art found in the Sahara region is strikingly similar to rock art found in southern Africa. Scholars debate whether it has links to European prehistoric cave art or is independent of that. [Source: David Coulson, National Geographic, June 1999; Henri Lhote, National Geographic, August 1987]

Among the animals depicted in ancient Saharan rock art are gazelles, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, wild Barbary sheep, antelope, giraffes, and prehistoric wild oxen ( Babalus antiquus ). Surprisingly there aren’t any lions. The earliest art appeared about 12,000 years ago. The art from 12,000 years ago to 9,000 years ago is called Babulus period art after the wild oxen. Most of images from this period are of large animals hunted by humans.

The earliest evidence of war comes from a grave in the Nile Valley in Sudan. Discovered in the mid-1960s and dated to be between 12,000 and 14,000 years old, the grave contains 58 skeletons, 24 of which were found near projectiles regarded as weapons. The victims died at a time the Nile was flooding, causing a severe ecological crisis. The site, known as Site 117, is located at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan. The victims included men, women and children who died violently. Some were found with spear points in near the head and chest that strongly suggest they were not offering but weapons used to kill the victims. There is also evidence of clubbing---crushed bones an the like. Since there were so many bodies, one archaeologist surmised, "It looks like organized, systematic warfare." [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

See Bronze Age, Early Man (Warfare, Sahara Paintings), Arab History

Book: Midant-Reynes, Béatrix, “The Prehistory of Egypt from the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs.” Oxford: Blackwell, 2000

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Paleolithic, Neolithic and Predynastic Egypt

Pre-dynastic burial

Pre-Dynastic Ages and Cultures of Ancient Egypt
Prehistoric Era
Lower Paleolithic Age (250,000-90,000 B.C.)
Middle Paleolithic Age (90,000-30,000 B.C.
Late Paleolithic Age (30,000-7000 B.C.)
Neolithic Age (7000-4800 B.C.)
Predynastic Period (4800-3050 B.C.)
Upper Egypt
Badarian Culture (4800-4200 B.C.)
Amratian Culture (4200-3700 B.C.)
Gerzean A Culture (3700-3250 B.C.)
Gerzean B Culture (3250-3050 B.C.)
Lower Egypt
Fayum A Culture (4800-4250 B.C.)
Merimde Culture (4500-3500 B.C.)
Archaic Period (3100-050-2705 B.C.)

The Predynastic Period (5464-3414 B.C.) Is the period when hunter-gatherers broke away from their Neolithic ways and began organizing into a farming society. This along with great technological, religious, funerary and social advances caused village groups to consolidate into fledgling city-state organization, and this in turn helped urban life, writing, trading with other cultures, ornamental pottery and a strong belief in the afterlife to develop. Food was plentiful. Animals such as dogs, goats, sheep, cattle, geese and pigs had been domesticated. As time went on the main component of Egyptian civilization began to take shape. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Prior to 3000 B.C., Egypt seemed to be divided into a large number of small priestly-governed states each with its own names for commonly accepted divinities. About 3000 B.C. Egypt was unified by a conquering family out of the southern city of Thebes. The new dynasty placed its capital in the city of Memphis which lay at the point where the narrow valley of the Nile broadened into the Delta. This was the boundary, the Balance of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt); also called the Two Ladies. Half the usable soil of Egypt lay upriver (south), the rest lay down-river (north). [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

The Archaic Period (3414-3100 B.C.) is characterized by the consolidation of the Egyptian state. It was ensured by the development of a centralized administration system and a court-centered Great Tradition based upon the united Egypt. After this, even in times of political crisis, Egypt was dominated by the Egyptian elite. The royal court set the cultural standards for the entire country, making the king the fountainhead not only of power and preferment, but also as a member of the elite way of life. +\

Green Sahara

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Tadrart Acacus, Libya
During the last 300,000 years there have been major periods of alternating wet and dry climates in the Sahara which in many cases were linked to the Ice Age eras when huge glaciers covered much of Europe and North America. Wet periods in the Sahara often occurred when the ice ages were waning. The last major rainy period in the Sahara lasted from about 12,000, when the last Ice Age began to wan in Europe, to 7,000 years ago. Temperatures and rainfall peaked around 9,000 years ago during the so-called Holocene Optimum.

Scientists believed the ice ages and the climate changes in the Sahara were produced by events triggered by changes in the Earth's orbits and rotations based on the fact the timing of the climate changes have correlated with the changes in the Earth’s tilt and rotation. Sometimes when the Earth approached close to the sun or the tilt of the Earth exposed the Northern Hemisphere to more sunlight the African monsoon shifted northward or the Mediterranean winds to shift south.

As the Ice Age in Europe ended more water evaporated from the Atlantic filling clouds and and more moisture was brought to North Africa as monsoon winds from Africa shifted north and Mediterranean westerly winds south because of the cooler temperatures in Europe. This caused the rains that nourished western Africa and the Mediterranean region to move into the Sahara in North Africa.

During wet periods in the Sahara oak and cedar trees grew in the highlands and the Sahara itself was a savannah grassland with acacia trees and hackberry trees and shallow lakes and braided rivers. Rock and cave paintings from that time depict abundant wildlife — including elephants and giraffes that lived in the savannahs and hippopotami and crocodiles that lived in the rivers and lakes — and people, who hunted with bows and arrows, herded animals, collected wild grains and fished.

Remnants from the wet periods discovered by scientists include ostrich egg shells, high water marks around lakes that are presently dried up, swamp sediments, pollen from trees and grass and bones of elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, lions, fish, rhinoceros, frogs and crocodiles. Prehistoric inhabitants of Egypt may have raised ostriches. Large numbers of ostrich egg shells have been at excavations at a 9,000-year-old site at Farafra Oasis.

Sahara Becomes a Desert

Beginning around 7,000 years the Sahara began changing from a savannah to a desert. The climates changes in the Sahara occurred in two episodes — the first 6,700 to 5,500 years ago and the second 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. These changed are may have occurred when the African monsoons and Mediterranean winds returned to their normal locations.

As the Sahara region dried out grasslands and lakes disappeared. Desiccation occurred relatively quickly, over a few hundred years. Desertification processes were accelerated as vegetation, which helped generate rain, was lost, causing even less rain, and the soil lost its ability to hold moisture when it did rain. Light-colored land without plants reflects rather than absorbs sunlight, producing less warm, moist cloud-forming updrafts, causing even less rain. When it did rain the water washed away or evaporated quickly. The result: desert.

20120206-Sahara rive SafsafOasis SAR.jpg
Buried ancient Sahara river near Safsaf Oasis

By 2000 B.C. the Sahara was as dry as it is now. The last lake dried up around 1000 B.C. The people that lived in the region were forced to leave and migrate south to find food and water. Some scientist believe some of these people settled on the Nile and became the ancient Egyptians.

Some scientists are currently studying whether global warming could cause the Sahara to bloom again. The current thinking seems to be that yes this is possible but greenhouse gas levels have to increase to a much higher rate than they are at today.

Climatic Shifts in Pre-Dynastic Egypt

Beatrix Midant-Reynes wrote: “Between 8500 and 5000 B.C. monsoon rains reached the northern Sahara, supporting the growth of savanna. As a consequence of annual precipitation of up to 100 mm, the area supported hunter-gatherer groups capable of covering vast distances. They brought with them ceramic technology and possibly domesticated cattle (for the question of the domestication of the Bos in Africa, see Marshall and Hildebrand 2002). Although we can only speculate on the relationships between the eastern Sahara and the Nile Valley during this time due to the lack of data from the Valley itself, it is clear that the region we currently identify as “desert” was not the large area of hyperaridity that exists today, nor was it a barrier between the Saharan nomadic populations and the inhabitants of the Valley. On the contrary, the two groups shared the hunter-gatherer way of life. [Source: Beatrix Midant-Reynes, Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, ]

“In the sixth millennium B.C. the landscape changed. The gradually increasing seasonality of rains and the increasing rate of evaporation during the hot seasons rendered pools and lakes temporary, necessitating that people be highly mobile on the one hand and agglomerate in permanent water areas (e.g., oases and the Nile Valley) on the other (Riemer 2007): thus they adopted a radical new way of life based on livestock breeding.”

“The large surveys conducted over the past thirty years by American and German expeditions in the eastern Sahara have provided an overview of the environmental and cultural changes that occurred during the Holocene in Egypt’s Western Desert and have revolutionized our knowledge of the emergence of Predynastic cultures in Middle and Upper Egypt. In the 1970s, Wendorf and his team concentrated on the Bir Sahara-Bir Tarfawi area. Over the next two decades, the BOS and ACACIA German expeditions surveyed more than 1500 sites, revealing several new sites that exhibited extended periods of occupation along with short-lived climatic oscillations. From 8500 to 1500 B.C. the climatic history of the Eastern Sahara was dominated by a gradual aridization that had increased dramatically by about 3500 B.C..

20120206-Sahara rive SafsafOasis_SAR_comparison.jpg
Buried ancient Sahara river near Safsaf Oasis

“The climatic and ecological variations determined the dynamics of the human population, who had necessarily to adapt to the changing conditions....In the fifth millennium the drastic shift toward aridity prompted far-reaching migrations to areas with permanent water sources and consequent restricted activity in waterless areas. As shown by specific types of vessel and by strong similarities in the lithic equipment, an original culture, the Tasian, which constitutes a branch of a Nubian tradition, flourished from the Gilf Kebir to the southern part of the Western and Eastern deserts (Gatto 2002, 2011). Although discovered by Brunton at Mostagedda in 1937, the chronological classification of the Tasian culture and its status as a cultural entity have been long debated (Friedman and Hobbs 2002; Gatto 2006; see also Kobusiewicz et al. 2010). Nevertheless, the Tasian is believed to have given birth to the Badarian—the first Egyptian Predynastic culture—in northern Upper Egypt.

“The development of Predynastic regional cultures at the end of the fifth millennium was thus determined largely by the regional adaptation to new living strategies in the unsteady context of climatic and ecological changes. While the adoption of food production was a response to the drastic environmental deterioration of the eastern Sahara, the choice of Asiatic species suggests a connection with the northern regions, and the marshy areas of the Delta, which first became available to agricultural settlers around 6500 – 5500 B.C. (Stanley and Warne 1993).

Earliest Humans in Egypt

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: “Evidence for anatomically modern humans exists for approximately 200,000 years, yet stone tools of a much older age have been found in Africa, Europe, and Asia. These stone tools were made by our ancestors, such as homo habilis or homo erectus. It is with the latter that we can associate the finds from the Lower Palaeolithic (700,000-175,000 B.C.) in Egypt, a time when the climate was semi-arid with savannahs and annual rainfalls of about 250- 500 mm. Yet, so far, none of the tools have actually been found in association with bones of homo erectus.” [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey wrote: “The earliest evidence for humans in Egypt dates from around 500,000-700,000 years ago. These hominid finds are those of Homo erectus. Early Paleolithic sites are most often found near now dried-up springs or lakes or in areas where materials to make stone tools are plentiful. One of these sites is Arkin 8, discovered by Polish archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski near Wadi Halfa. These are some of the oldest buildings in the world ever found. The remains of the structures are oval depressions about 30 centimeters deep and 2 x 1 meters across. Many are lined with flat sandstone slabs. They are called tent rings, because the rocks support a dome-like shelter of skins or brush. This type of dwelling provides a permanent place to live, but if necessary, can be taken down easily and moved. It is a type of structure favored by nomadic tribes making the transition from hunter-gatherer to semi-permanent settlement all over the world. [Source: Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey, Minnesota State University, Mankato,, 2002 +]

Khormusan tools

“By the Middle Paleolithic, Homo erectus had been replaced by Homo neanderthalensis. It was about this time that more efficient stone tools were being made by making several stone tools from one core, resulting in numerous thin, sharp flakes that required minimal reshaping to make what was desired. The standardization of stone toolmaking led to the development of several new tools. They developed the lancelet spear point, a better piercing point which easily fit into a wooden shaft. +\

“The next advancement in tool making came during the Aterian Industry which dates around 40,000 B.C. The Aterian Industry improved spear and projectile points by adding a notch on the bottom of the stone point, so it could be more securely fastened to the wooden shaft. The other breakthrough in this period is the invention of the spear-thrower, which allowed for more striking power and better accuracy. The spear-thrower consisted of a wooden shaft with a notch on one end where the spear rested. The development of the spear-thrower allowed for increased efficiency in hunting large animals. They hunted a wide variety of animals such as the white rhinoceros, camel, gazelles, warthogs, ostriches, and various types of antelopes. +\

“The Khormusan Industry, which overlapped the Aterian Industry, started some time between 40,000 and 30,000 B.C. The Khormusan Industry pushed advancement even farther by making tools from animal bones and ground hematite, but they also used a wide variety of stone tools. The main feature that marks the Khormusan Industry is their small arrow heads that resemble those of Native Americans. The use of bows by the Aterian and Khormusan industries is still questioned; to date there is no set proof that they used bow technology.” +\

Hikade wrote: “ In ancient Egypt, flint or chert was used for knapped stone tools from the Lower Palaeolithic down to the Pharaonic Period. The raw material was available in abundance on the desert surface, or it could be mined from the limestone formations along the Nile Valley. While the earliest lithic industries of Prehistoric Egypt resemble the stone tool assemblages from other parts of Africa, as well as Asia and Europe, the later Prehistoric stone industries in Egypt had very specific characteristics, producing some of the finest knapped stone tools ever manufactured in the ancient world. Throughout Egypt’s history, butchering tools, such as knives and scrapers, and harvesting tools in the form of sickle blades made of flint, underlined the importance of stone tools for the agrarian society of ancient Egypt.”

Lower Palaeolithic (700,000-175,000 B.C.) Egypt

Nubian tools

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: “The Lower Palaeolithic starts with the appearance of the Acheulean industry, named after the site Saint-Acheul in France, which is rarely found in datable contexts in Egypt. Finds of this period were discovered in Western Thebes in Upper Egypt in the 19th century, while finds from Lower Egypt come from Abbasiya, near Cairo. A first attempt to summarize the Old Stone Age in Egypt was made by Jacques de Morgan (1897), and surveys along the Nile Valley in Nubia and Egypt, as well as in the Fayum oasis, aimed to document and associate the geology of Egypt with its prehistory. In the early 1930s, excavations were undertaken in the Fayum oasis, whence Palaeolithic artifacts were already known. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“The Kharga Upper Acheulean industry was later described as having produced very well-made handaxes with some simple Clactonian choppers. Further south in the Western Desert, at sites such as Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara, late Acheulean lakes allowed humans to exploit aquatic resources . A recent study concentrating on the site of Nag Ahmed el-Khalifa, south of Abydos, which dates to 400,000-300,000 BP, found that the people there fully focused on handaxes as their main tool type, most being of cordiform shape. Handaxes were indeed the main tool type of the Lower Palaeolithic. Homo erectus removed flakes from a nodule on the ventral and the dorsal surface with a direct hammer stone technique, giving the tool an amygdaloid, subtriangular, lanceolate, or cordiform shape with converging edges. The multi-functional ax would have satisfied various needs, such as crushing bones, skinning mammals, scraping hides, etc. — in short, butchering found carcasses or hunted game and, when needed, it could be used as a weapon. It remains surprising that the handax was so long-lasting and dominated flint tools for several hundreds of thousands of years. One reason for this conservatism may have been the inability of early humans to fully integrate knapping skills and toolkits with knowledge of the environment.

Middle Palaeolithic (175,000-40,000 B.C.) Egypt

The Middle Palaeolithic (175,000-40,000 B.C.) saw the appearance of modern humans in Africa and some human remains have been found associated with Middle Palaeolithic material . This time period is essentially characterized by a higher stone tool variety in comparison with the Lower Palaeolithic, which also reflects cultural diversity. The lithic industries of the Middle Palaeolithic are also known as Mousterian, after the type site of Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne in southwestern France. The Mousterian is characterized by its special core reduction strategy (“Levallois technique”). Using a hard hammer technique, this technique provided control over the size and shape of the final flake. The method also allowed for the production of projectile points, the so-called “Levallois points”. A variant in Egypt and Sudan was the Nubian Levallois point. Levallois points could be attached to a wooden shaft as sharpened spear heads. The instrument could be used as a thrusting weapon, but also could be thrown at prey, thus reducing the risk of injury during the hunt and enabling the hunting of animals previously out of range. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Middle Paleolithic tools

“Middle Palaeolithic scrapers are particularly varied, whether due to different tool industries made by different people or to varying seasonal activities at different sites. It is also possible that the basic shape and size of scrapers was originally more or less the same, and that many scraper types in fact represent different stages in a changing reduction continuum from blank to discarded tool.

“Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries in Egypt share some features with the overall picture in North Africa, Europe, and Asia, especially the clear shift away from a bifacial core industry towards a flake/blade industry. Due to the lack of deeply stratified sites, the archaeological record of the Middle Palaeolithic still shows wide chronological gaps from site to site, which makes it difficult to paint a homogeneous picture of the period in Egypt. A few elements are specific to North Africa, like the tanged point for socket- hafting of the Aterian, a Levallois-based industry originally named after Bir el-Ater in Algeria and widespread across the Maghreb, the Sahara, and even south into Niger. A late Middle Palaeolithic industry of the southern Nile Valley is known from Khor Musa near the Second Cataract. It is a well-defined Levallois-based flake-industry in which denticulates and well-made burins played a major role, usually for specific work on bones or wood.

“Many of the Middle Palaeolithic sites so far investigated in the Nile Valley are related to the exploitation of chert in the form of cobbles. One such site is Nazlet Khater 4, c. 30 kilometers northwest of Sohag in Middle Egypt. Nazlet Khater is thus far the oldest subterranean mining site in the world, with many extraction ditches, shafts, and galleries. While finds of human remains and artifacts of the Palaeolithic are very rare, it is from the very late Middle Palaeolithic that we have the first burial of a modern human in Egypt. Near Dendara in Middle Egypt, and in an area of chert mining activity, a child was buried about 55,000 years ago. A long-used Middle Palaeolithic site with a fireplace with the burnt bones of buffalo and gazelle, as well as catfish and shell, is known from Sodmein Cave in the Eastern Desert.

Migration from the Sahara to the Nile Beginning 30,000 Years Ago

Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey wrote: ““During the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic around 30,000 B.C., the pluvial conditions ended and desertification overtook the Sahara region. People were forced to migrate closer to the Nile River valley. Near the Nile, new cultures and industries started to develop. These new industries had many new trends in their production of stone tools, especially that of the miniaturization and specialization. [Source: Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey, Minnesota State University, Mankato,, 2002 +]

“The Sebilian Industry that followed the Khotmusan Industry added little advancement to tool making, and some aspects even went backwards in tool making. The Sebilian Industry is known for their development of burins, small stubby points. They started by making tools from diorite, a hard igneous rock which was widely found in their environment. Later on they switched over to flint which was easier to work. +\

“The Sebilian Industry did coexist with another culture called the Silsillian Industry which did make significant advancements in tool technology. The Silsillians used such blades as truncated blades and microliths. The truncated blades are made for one specific task and are of irregular shape. The microliths are small blades used in such tools as arrows, sickles, and harpoons. The micro blade technology was most likely used because of the small supply of good toolmaking stone, such as diorite and flint. +\

“The Qadan Industry was the first to show major signs of intensive seed collection and other agriculturally similar techniques. They used such tools as sickles and grinding stones. These tools show that by this time people had developed the skills for plant-dependent activities. The use of these tools astonishingly vanished around 10,000 B.C. for a small period of time, perhaps as a result of climatic change. This resulted in hunting and gathering returning as the adaptive strategy. +\

“Beginning after 13,000 B.C., cemeteries and evidence of ritual burial are found. Skeletons were often decorated with necklaces, pendants, breast ornaments and headdresses of shell and bone. The Epipaleolithic Period dates between 10,000-5,500 B.C. and is the transition between the Paleolithic and the Predynastic periods in ancient Egypt. During this time, the hunter-gatherers began a transition to the village-dwelling farming cultures. +\

“The Nile Valley of the Paleolithic was much larger then it is today, its annual flooding made permanent habitation of its floodplain impossible. As the climate became drier and the extent of the flooding was reduced, people were able to settle on the Nile floodplain. After 7000 B.C., permanent settlements were located on the floodplain of the Nile. These began as seasonal camps but become more permanent as people began to develop true agriculture.” +\

Wadi Kubbaniya (17,000–15,000 B.C.): Earliest Evidence of Advanced People in Egypt?

Wadi Kubabyia skeleton

Diana Craig Patch and Laura Anne Tedesco of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Egypt, the earliest evidence of humans can be recognized only from tools found scattered over an ancient surface, sometimes with hearths nearby. In Wadi Kubbaniya, a dried-up streambed cutting through the Western Desert to the floodplain northwest of Aswan in Upper Egypt, some interesting sites of the kind described above have been recorded. A cluster of Late Paleolithic camps was located in two different topographic zones: on the tops of dunes and the floor of the wadi (streambed) where it enters the valley. [Source: Diana Craig Patch, Department of Egyptian Art and Laura Anne Tedesco Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

“Although no signs of houses were found, diverse and sophisticated stone implements for hunting, fishing, and collecting and processing plants were discovered around hearths. Most tools were bladelets made from a local stone called chert that is widely used in tool fabrication. The bones of wild cattle, hartebeest, many types of fish and birds, as well as the occasional hippopotamus have been identified in the occupation layers. Charred remains of plants that the inhabitants consumed, especially tubers, have also been found. \^/

“It appears from the zoological and botanical remains at the various sites in this wadi that the two environmental zones were exploited at different times. We know that the dune sites were occupied when the Nile River flooded the wadi because large numbers of fish and migratory bird bones were found at this location. When the water receded, people then moved down onto the silt left behind on the wadi floor and the floodplain, probably following large animals that looked for water there in the dry season. Paleolithic peoples lived at Wadi Kubbaniya for about 2,000 years, exploiting the different environments as the seasons changed. Other ancient camps have been discovered along the Nile from Sudan to the Mediterranean, yielding similar tools and food remains. These sites demonstrate that the early inhabitants of the Nile valley and its nearby deserts had learned how to exploit local environments, developing economic strategies that were maintained in later cultural traditions of pharaonic Egypt.” \^/

Late Palaeolithic (40,000-7000 B.C.) Stone Tools in Egypt

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: “Due to the lack of a lithic sequence from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic, the transition to and the development of the material culture of the Upper Palaeolithic (40,000-35,000 B.C.) in the Western Desert and the Nile Valley is still not well understood. Finds from the Dahkla oasis give evidence that the Western Desert was apparently not depopulated and no occupational hiatus existed during that time. One of the very few Upper Palaeolithic sites known from the Nile Valley is the already-mentioned mining site at Nazlet Khater 4 in Middle Egypt. Altogether, the material remains of the Upper Palaeolithic are very scarce in Egypt. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“With climate change in the Final Palaeolithic in Egypt (25,000-7000 B.C.), aquatic resources were increasingly exploited. Large mammals still complemented the diet, but fish, especially catfish (Clarias), clearly became one of the main staples, along with wetland tubers, particularly nut-grass tubers. Microlithic bladelet tools became common in most parts of Northern Africa . Backed bladelet tools are so standardized, non- varying, and consistent in their forms that it is assumed that they were made and used in face-to-face social contexts, playing a significant role in the social identity of the people who manipulated them. Small backed bladeletes, lunates, and triangulates were possibly used as part of composite pieces of equipment like harpoons or spears. With this new industry, a dramatic increase in the produced cutting edge of flint can be observed. For hundreds of thousands of years, the cutting edge gained from 1 kilogramof raw material remained under 10 m, but the amount of cutting edge now climbed to almost 100 m.

“The most important site for this period lies at Wadi Kubbaniya north of Aswan, with almost 30 locales of the Late Palaeolithic. The sites lie on sand dunes on the plains in front of the dunes, and on high areas near the mouth of the wadi. The chronological sequence between 25,000 and 11,000 BP shows a rather rapid change of material culture with different strategies of sustenance, all competing for the resources along the Nile Valley. This competition was due to high floods during the Holocene wet phase (12,000-8500 BP) in the valley, which were followed by a hyper-arid climate that also limited the living and exploitation space in the alluvial plain. This struggle for resources and the consequences of violent conflicts are well attested by the Wadi Kubbaniya skeleton of a man in his early twenties who was speared from behind, and by the dozens of people who were killed and buried at Jebel Sahaba.

Rock Art in Egypt

Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium wrote: “Rock art, basically being non-utilitarian, non-textual anthropic markings on natural rock surfaces, was an extremely widespread graphical practice in ancient Egypt. While the apogee of the tradition was definitely the Predynastic Period (mainly fourth millennium B.C.), examples date from the late Palaeolithic (c. 15,000 B.C.) until the Islamic era. Geographically speaking, “Egyptian” rock art is known from many hundreds of sites along the margins of the Upper Egyptian and Nubian Nile Valley and in the desert hinterlands to the east and west. Despite clear regional discrepancies, most of this rock art displays a great deal of shared subject matter, such as the profusion of boat figures, supposedly attesting to the existence of a more or less uniform “spiritual culture” throughout the above-defined area. Furthermore, its intimate iconographical relationship to the archaeologically known Egyptian cultures, both in a synchronic and a diachronic perspective, allows for some solid reasoning regarding the raison d’être of this graphic tradition. Without excluding other possible meanings and motivations, it seems that the greater part of the rock art closely reflects the religious and ideological concerns of its makers. [Source: Dirk Huyge, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“In this brief and necessarily selective overview of Egyptian rock art research, the “Bedouin-oriented” petroglyphs from the westernmost part of the Negev Desert and Sinai Peninsula will not be discussed. This art, characterized essentially by ibex-hunting and camel-riding scenes, belongs to the Egyptian rock art domain from a geopolitical viewpoint only. Similarly, the vast “pastoral” pictorial complexes of the Gilf Kebir and Gebel el-Uweinat (near or on the Egypt-Libya-Sudan border) will not be considered. This rock art, in fact, refers much more to the central Saharan artistic repertoire (Round Head and Bovidian schools/periods in particular) than to the Nilotic, and is also quite distinct from anything that has thus far been found in the oases of the Western Desert.

Libyan Cave Art

“Egyptian rock art, as considered here, is therefore limited to the southern Egyptian and northern Sudanese (Nubian) Nile Valley, the Eastern (Red Sea) Desert, and parts of the Western (Libyan) Desert, including most of the oases. Apart from the numerous technical and stylistic similarities, the rock art within this area displays a great deal of shared subject matter, perhaps the most striking of which is the profusion of boat representations. It may therefore be postulated that this rock art reflects a more or less uniform “spiritual culture”—a cognitive consensus or communal sphere of ideas in which communication through rock art (the collective use of certain intellectual concepts and structures) was possible and stimulated by society as a whole. This vast rock art repertoire can moreover be intimately linked with the local, archaeologically known cultures. These cultures, both prehistoric and historic, are characterized by an overwhelmingly rich iconography. That the latter have often been found in well-documented archaeological contexts holds great potential, not only with regard to dating and culture-historical attribution of the rock art, but also with regard to interpretation (meaning and motivation).

Roundhead Period of Saharan Rock Art

The first human figures in Saharan art were depicted around 9,000 ears ago. This marks the beginning of the Round Head period which overlaps with the late Babalus period and the early Pastoral period. Human figures from this period tend to have rounded heads and featureless faces. The figures range in size from a few centimeters to five meters in height.

Roundhead Period people are shown standing among cattle, hunting with bows, and dancing with masks on their heads. There are many images of running archers in which the strings of their bows and the leg muscles are visible. Pieces that seem to represent some kind of shamanistic experience depict round-headed people floating towards a figure that seems to be a shaman. There are also scenes of everyday life such as people washing the hair. Images of boats have been found in the Nile Valley and the Red Sea hills.

An 8,000-year-old rock paintings in the Tassil-n-Ajjer in Algeria depicts dancers and musicians. One of the instruments pictured is still played thousands of miles south in the Kalihari. Seven-thousand-year-old cave painting in the Sahara seem to depict bows being used as musical instrument. Bushmen today make haunting music with bow instruments that are placed in the mouth. Sound is produced by tapping a sinew string with a reed.

One painting from Tassili-n-Ajjer dubbed the elephant dance depicts a line of figures connected by a rope or cord. They men wear hip-high white leggings, reminiscent of grass costumes worn in West Africa, and appear to be engaged in some ritual or ceremony.

Pastoral Period of Saharan Rock Art

Around 7,000 years ago domesticated animals began appearing in Saharan rock art. This marked the beginning of the Pastoral Period. The works from this period have a more naturalistic style and depict scenes from everyday life. They are presumed to have been made by herders. The works have more details and appear to express concerns about composition. Rock art specialist Alex Campbell told National Geographic that paintings form this period “started to show man as above nature, rather than as part of nature, seeking its help.”

Images from the Pastoral Period seem to suggest that black people lived in the Sahara at that time. Black people, some of whom wear garments and adornments and have hairdos like some current tribal groups in Africa, are often shown among herds of cattle . Some show men riding n bulls. There are also scenes of couples making love and women carrying children on their backs.

One image from Tassili-n-Ajjer seems to depict help from the spirit world being sought with animal magic. A member of the Fulani tribe that still conduct similar rituals told National Geographic: “The spirit of the earth assumes the shape of the snake goddess, Tyanaba, protector of cattle. Curved lines represent the serpent as she encircles a sacred bull. A man, second from the right joins four women....At the far right, the “mistress of milk” reclines to chant to the earth. She implores that the goddess lift the bulls’ bewitchment — perhaps an illness — and ensure propagation of the herd. The woman third from the left listens for the earth’s response.”

Among the early depictions of war is a battle scene, in a rock painting in Tassili n’Ajjer. dated to between 4300 and 2500 B.C., with groups of men firing bows and arrows at each other. In the image a group on the right stand ready to fire their bows as a group on the left begins an assault.

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Horse and Camel Period of Saharan Rock Art

The arrival of the horse in the region around 1650 B.C. inaugurated the Horse period. The arrival of the camel around 200 B.C. inaugurated the Camel period and is seen as indicator that Sahara was drying out and becoming the Sahara as we know it and a desert so dry it could no longer support horses.

Images from the Horse period include hunters in chariots, carrying weapons in one hand and holding reigns in the other hand, being chased by a dog. Some scholars regard these hunters as a the People of the Sea, a mysterious group with bronze weapons and armor that unsuccessfully attacked Egypt before retreating into the desert where they assimilated with the indigenous Garamantes, later described by Herodotus as “very powerful people” who rode four-horse chariots and chased black cave dwellers “like the screeching of bats.”

Many images from the Camel period have a childlike quality. The camels in these images are sometimes ridden by riders who ride on saddles covered by a linen framework called a basour that provided the riders with some sun protection.

Rock Art Sites in Egypt

Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium wrote: “The potentialities of Egyptian rock art have been explored at many different locations throughout the above-defined area. One of the places where highly significant discoveries have been made during the past few decades is the Theban Desert immediately northwest of Luxor. In the scope of the Theban Desert Road Survey, John and Deborah Darnell of Yale University have recorded, apart from a wealth of rock inscriptions, an impressive array of early to terminal Predynastic rock art, including depictions of boats, various animals, and superbly detailed human figures. Much of this rock art is closely linked to ancient caravan routes short-cutting the Qena Bend of the Nile and/or leading from the Nile Valley to the oases of the Western Desert. The age of many of these figures is well established. On the basis of close resemblances to depictions on painted ceramics and other decorated artifacts, many date unquestionably to the mid- to late Predynastic Period (Naqada I-II, c. 4000 – 3200 B.C.). Others may even be older and can be attributed to the early Predynastic (Tasian or Badarian, c. 4500 – 4000 B.C.). [Source: Dirk Huyge, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“These new discoveries complement rock art long known from the Nile Valley proper, such as that from the site of Elkab and from the Eastern Desert. The latter area, already partly explored by Weigall, Winkler, and others in the early part of the previous century, has seen relatively little systematic recording in recent years. However, some surveys, conducted by amateur archaeologists since the late 1990s between the Wadi Hammamat in the north and the Wadi Barramiya in the south, have substantially added to the currently available documentation. One of the most striking features of this Eastern Desert rock art is the preponderance of images of high-prowed boats, more than 240 of which have been logged to date. In this sense and in several other aspects (for instance, a greater emphasis on cattle representations and herding scenes), it is different from the rock art of the Nile Valley. How these regional discrepancies should be explained is still a matter of dispute and speculation. It has been suggested that the Eastern Desert rock art was the work of “proto-Bedouin”—that is, nomads who resided in the desert on a semi- permanent basis, but were in regular contact with Nile Valley dwellers and had an intimate knowledge of the natural and cultural Nilotic environment.

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Gravure Rupestre, Algeria

“The suggestion may also apply to the rock art of the Western Desert, the oases in particular, which also has its own particularities as well as many similarities to the rock art of the Nile Valley. One striking feature of Western Desert rock art, that of Dakhla and Kharga Oases in particular, consists of stylized images of sitting or standing obese women dressed in often elaborately decorated long skirts. According to Lech Krzyżaniak (personal communication) the images are certainly pre-Old Kingdom and should be dated to early or mid-Holocene times (eighth to fourth millennium B.C.). As the area of distribution of these figures corresponds to that of the local Neolithic (Bashendi A and B) assemblages, they are possibly associated and may therefore belong to the sixth or fifth millennium B.C.. It is possible that rock art from Farafra Oasis, including cave paintings featuring numerous hand stencils, may be equally old. The bulk of the rock art in the oases of the Western Desert, however, seems to be Pharaonic (dating mostly to the late Old Kingdom) and displays a rather stereotypical repertoire: incised sandals, outlines of feet, hunting scenes, mammals, birds, feathered men, and pubic triangles (see, for instance, Kaper and Willems 2002 for rock art related to late Old Kingdom military installations at Dakhla Oasis). Still later rock art, of the Greco-Roman and Islamic Periods, is known from, among other places, Kharga and Bahriya. Among its representations are geometric signs, equid drawn carts or chariots, and schematic figures of humans and camels.

Oldest Rock Art in Egypt

Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels wrote: “Whereas the bulk of Egyptian petroglyphs can be ascribed to the Predynastic cultures immediately preceding and foreshadowing Pharaonic civilization (mainly fourth millennium B.C.), still older rock art has come to light in recent years. Dating to the very end of the Palaeolithic, the so-called “Epi-palaeolithic” (c. 7000 - 5500 B.C.), are most probably the bizarre-looking mushroom-shaped designs that characterize the rock art of el-Hosh, about 30 kilometers south of Edfu. Frequently appearing in clusters and occasionally as isolated figures, these designs, which can tentatively be interpreted as representations of labyrinth-fish-traps, are often associated with abstract and figurative motifs, including circles, ladder-shaped drawings, human figures, footprints, and crocodiles. Probably affiliated “geometric” rock art assemblages are known from Sudanese Nubia (Abka) and have recently also been reported from the Aswan area . The occurrence of similar rock art at several locations in the Eastern Desert (and possibly also at Dakhla, Farafra, and Siwa in the Western Desert) suggests that the Epi-palaeolithic image- makers were extremely mobile and must have lived a nomadic existence. Rock art examples pre-dating the Epi-palaeolithic have recently been discovered at three locations in the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley: Abu Tanqura. [Source: Dirk Huyge, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Bahri at el-Hosh, Qurta, and Wadi Abu Subeira. The rock art repertoire at these sites is fundamentally different from the Epi- palaeolithic assemblages and consists for the most part of naturalistically drawn animal figures. Bovids (wild cattle or aurochs) are largely predominant , followed by birds, hippopotamuses, gazelle, fish, and hartebeest. In addition, there are also several highly stylized representations of human figures and a small number of probable non-figurative or abstract signs. For the time being, the dating evidence is entirely circumstantial, but it is likely that this rock art is late Palaeolithic in age. A date of about 15,000 B.C. has tentatively been proposed. If this is correct, this rock art is not only Egypt’s most ancient art, but one of the oldest graphic traditions known to date from the African continent.

El-Hosh geomatric rock art

Why Was Early Rock Art Made in Egypt?

Dirk Huyge wrote: “Setting aside simplistic and naive explanations—for instance, that the rock drawings may be merely the result of casual pastime or the exercises of sculpture- apprentices—magical, totemistic, religious, and politico-ideological motivations have been advanced to explain the ancient Egyptian rock art tradition. None of these clarifies the rock art phenomenon as a whole, but it appears that religion and ideology offer more satisfactory and certainly less circuitous approaches than magic and totemism, both of which are grounded on indirect ethnographical comparisons. Inevitably, both the religious and the ideological approach have been carried to extremes. For instance, Červiček, in various contributions, has attempted to demonstrate that Egyptian rock art is completely permeated with religion: without exception human figures pose in cultic attitudes, carry out liturgical actions, or represent anthropomorphic deities; boats are meant to be divine or funeral barques, and animals relate to offering rituals or represent a zoomorphic pantheon. Ultimately, creating rock art is performing a devotional act in itself. A more cautious and balanced approach may be required. [Source: Dirk Huyge, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“On a general epistemological level, it may be suggested that any hermeneutic approach to rock art should ideally be conceived as a historical exegesis. This implies that the search for meaning and motivation should basically be founded on contemporaneous materials and sources. With regard to the prehistoric and early historic periods, however, such information is sparse or even non-existent. Non-synchronous sources then have to be sought. To a considerable extent this is also the case for the Egyptian rock art production. Not unlike many other rock art traditions in the world, Egyptian rock art is truly a “fossil” record, in the sense that no living or oral traditions elucidate its contents, meaning, or motivation. Fortunately, from the Predynastic through the Pharaonic Periods, ancient Egyptian civilization displayed a single line of progress and a considerable degree of conceptual conservatism. Pharaonic culture was a gradual outgrowth of indigenous prehistoric traditions. In fact, what occurred in Egypt between c. 3200 and 3030 B.C. (at the time of state formation), was not an abrupt change of iconography but rather a profound formalization, standardization, and officialization. Image-making passed from a less disciplined “pre-formal” artistic stage to a “formal” canonical phase. This change is immense, but, basically, it is cosmetic, with the content of the iconography (the themes) and the underlying beliefs (the meaning and motivation) remaining much the same, as they would for several millennia. With that in mind, a diachronic approach to rock art, in which phenomena are not considered individually but as integral parts of a historical chain of development, can be considered scientifically sound.

“Attempts toward such an approach, applied to the rock art of the Upper Egyptian site of Elkab, suggest that petroglyphs were subject to religious, ideological, and other mental shifts traceable through time in the culture-historical record and correspond to a range of meanings and motivations, such as cosmology, ideology, and personal religious practice, as well as more trivial incentives, such as pride and prestige.

Graffiti in Ancient Egypt as a Historical Source

Eugene Cruz-Uribe of Northern Arizona University wrote: “Some of the earliest evidence for written communication in Egypt derives from figural graffiti—a variation of rock art. These texts are evidenced from many sites in Egypt, especially the Western Desert. From probable derivative of rock art, were a significant means of recording religious, totemic, gender, and territorial boundaries throughout Egypt, the Near East, and Africa. In Egypt, numerous sites with figural graffiti have been found along the Nile Valley and in the Eastern Desert; however, the largest number of sites with collections of prehistoric rock art comes from Nubia and the Western Desert. The locations of these sites coincide with known prehistoric “occupation” and usage areas (such as camp sites, watering holes, and sources of flint). The surveys and excavations by Schild, Wendorf, Mills, Darnell, Klemm, and many others have enriched the corpus of known rock-art sites. The Nubian salvage operations in the Nile Valley—especially those of the Čzech concession and, more recently, of the Belgian team —have reported major sites that have evoked comparisons with the Lascaux galleries in France. [Source: Eugene Cruz-Uribe, Northern Arizona University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“Analysis of the figural graffiti found at these sites has developed slowly. While earlier publications focused mainly on cataloguing and describing the finds, and while figural graffiti that have an accompanying (textual) inscription have often been fronted in discussions, it is important to emphasize that both textual graffiti and figural graffiti are grapholects of the Egyptian communication system as a whole. Representative of figural graffiti are boat drawings, discussed by Červíček, who established criteria with which to place these items within a concise chronological framework. The studies by Huyge have expanded our understanding of these and other types of images. Huyge has suggested that we can analyze certain non-textual graffiti using ethnographic markers and textual references, especially for interactions between (ancient) non-literate Bedouin populations and settled literate groups within the Nile Valley. Among these representations we find boxes surrounding textual graffiti. The significance of such boxes has not been studied in depth, but their presence may prove useful for dating and placement purposes and may also provide a means of connecting textual graffiti with figural forms. We also find numerous signs of religious significance, such as pilgrims’ feet in and around pilgrimage destination sites (mainly tombs and temples), and religious images on the exterior walls of temples (such as the Khonsu Temple at Karnak), where the general populace honored the local temple gods.

graffiti drawings made on rocks

“The range of figures bearing figural graffiti is immense and often exhibits some connection to the location in which the figures were found. Thus sites that had religious significance, such as temples and shrines, may feature a large number of representations of deities—either anthropo- morphic images or examples of animals sacred to the local deity (rams, vultures, falcons, bulls, and the like are all seen in various contexts). One complicating aspect of the role of figural graffiti in temple areas is the question of whether the exterior walls, where most of these graffiti are found, bore official decoration (scenes and/or hieroglyphic inscriptions), for we find examples where people emulated already existing decorations by replicating, for example—and usually on a smaller scale—a deity (standing or seated on a throne), an offering table, a sacred bark, or a flower bouquet. In many cases the quantity and size of the graffiti were contingent on the amount of relatively flat space available. In quarries and in way-stops on caravan routes, figural graffiti depicting the “composer” are common, as are depictions of desert animals, cattle, donkeys, and camels.

Over time some sites became contested areas, competed over by several parties. A classic example of this is the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae where Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks, Romans, and later Coptic Christians, each claimed access and rights to all or part of the island. Each group had its own priority and wrote its own culturally designated graffiti there (mostly textual, although some figural examples are present). A similar situation can be found in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings: on the tomb walls we frequently find examples of textual graffiti left by Greek, and Greek-speaking Egyptian, visitors, as well as some figural graffiti. Later the Coptic Christians usurped these spaces, converting the tombs into sites dedicated to local martyrs (for example, the martyr Appa Ammonias in the tomb of Ramses IV) by drawing abundant crosses and figures of the local saint.

“Certain sites may prove over time to have greater significance as we learn more of the nature of figural graffiti in their original context. What may have motivated the composers of these graffiti is often not known. One site that may prove instructional with further study is the quarry of Abdel Qurna just north of Asyut on the Nile’s east bank. The site contains a large number of both figural and textual graffiti. On the face of the cliff is a “wall” of boat graffiti, where over the centuries visitors continually expanded the number of examples of boats portrayed. Preliminary dating suggests that the boat graffiti include a range of examples dating from late Predynastic times through the Late Period (712–332 B.C.). It is possible that later visitors to the site found the earlier boat graffiti and emulated them with contemporary examples. We do not yet know why boat graffiti are displayed at this particular site. What we can say is that in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) and Late Period the site was principally a limestone quarry, similar to a number of adjacent sites. Over time numerous groups came to quarry stone for official uses and left remains of their visits, as evidenced by the graffiti.

“In Egypt it appears that, over time, the number of figural graffiti decreased. One could argue that this indicates that earlier communication methods (including figural graffiti) were being replaced by textual graffiti and subsequently hypothesize that, as the culture became more literate, figural graffiti were abandoned in favor of textual forms. However, the Egyptian evidence shows that this cannot be the case. Since the hieroglyphic writing system remained figural in essence until the Coptic stage of the language, the appearance of “textual” graffiti in Egypt was simply an extension and continuation of the figural graffiti forms within the Egyptian context. Thus at the quarry of Abdel Qurna we have the 19th-Dynasty stela of the scribe Mehy and a cartouche of 26th-Dynasty pharaoh Apries. Each is in essence a figural graffito, as the images represent an aspect of the individual (or agents of the individual) visiting the site. That both contain “texts” simply indicates that they can be considered a different variety of figural graffiti. Hieroglyphs—in which text and picture are one—are thus, in a sense, an advanced form of figural graffiti.

“When we analyze most sites where graffiti are found (in the present context, “graffiti” refers to unofficial inscriptions), we can see that Egyptian culture was unique in its ability to pass seemlessly from rock art to text over time in a way that only cultures utilizing figural writing systems could. That Coptic graffiti are also found at the site of Abdel Qurna may indicate that even after the figural system had passed away, the alphabetic system utilized earlier scriptural techniques and locational criteria.”

People Who Made the Saharan Rock Art

Tadrart Acacus Libya
Little is known about the artists that created the Saharan art work. They may be ancestors of people that still roam the desert or they may be ancestors of people that live today in the Sahel or areas further south in Africa. The long hairdos of some rock art figures found in Libya are similar to those of the modern Wodaadbe people of Niger. Body decorations found on rock art images in Chad resemble body art that found in the Surma of southern Ethiopia today.

When the Sahara dried out the people that lived there migrated southward. Rock art found in southern Africa that is similar to that found in the Sahara is thought to have been introduced there by herdsman originally from North Africa who migrated southward over the generations until they reached southern Africa.

Bushmen paintings in southern Africa and the Bushmen themselves have been studied for insight into the art and artists.

Epipalaeolthic (7000-6000 B.C.) Stone Tools in Egypt

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: “The microlithic character of stone tool assemblages remained more or less intact during the Epipalaeolithic (7000-6000 B.C.), but showed influences from the Levant. Tools from Helwan are dominated by scalene bladelet tools, backed triangles, and lunates with some so-called Helwan points – an elongated projectile point with bilateral notches and a short tang. Retouch can cover the whole point, the tip, or just the hafting area. The majority of these points do not exactly resemble Egyptian points, and their likely origin is the Sinai and the southern Levant, with the best parallels from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. In the Fayum, the Epipalaeolithic is known as Qarunian or Fayum B, and dates to approximately 8200-7200 BP. The lithic industry possesses a microlithic character based on backed or scalene bladelets, lunates, and triangles. The toolkit ranges from backed pieces (more than 50 percent of all the tools), notched and denticulated tools, geometrics, and some microburins, to a few endscrapers and even rarer perforators. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Badari culture scraper

“In Upper Egypt, the campsites of Elkab (c. 8000 BP) yielded a lithic industry, the Elkabian, based on wadi pebbles and consisting mainly of bladelets as well as blade tools. Amongst the bladelet tools are backed pieces, lunates, notches, denticulates, and geometrics and microburins. At the Epipalaeolithic site at Tree Shelter in the Eastern Desert, approximately 25 kilometers west of Quseir, hunter-gatherers already visited the place around 7000 B.C.. Overall, their lithic industry is strikingly similar to the Elkabian and is characterized by the production of blades and bladelets.

“Yet with respect to tools, endscrapers are rare at Elkab, while at Tree Shelter they account for the majority of tools, indicating hide preparation. Surprisingly, there was also a bifacial arrowhead among the stone tools at Tree Shelter, thus introducing bifacial flaking to this area. The lithic assemblages from the Eastern Desert and Elkab show similarities with sites in the Western Desert, where a similar bladelet technology can be found at sites such as E-72- 5 in the Dyke area, and denticulated, notched pieces and microburins are common tool types. This type of assemblage is also quite similar to the inventories associated with the “Early Neolitihic” sites at el-Ghorab and Nabta Playa in the Western Desert.

Neolithic (6000-4500 B.C.) Stone Tools in Egypt

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: “There are several sites in the Western Desert of post-Palaeolithic date that had an important influence on the development of Predynastic stone tool technology. In the Dakhla oasis we find the Beshendi and Sheikh Muftah industries. The former is a flake industry based on small flint nodules and quartzite. The inventories are characterized by many projectile points, up to 40 percent of all the tools, many of them bifacially retouched. There are also large bifacial tools present such as foliates and knives. Notched or denticulated pieces, scrapers, perforators, and side-blow flakes complement the tool kit. At Sheikh Muftah sites, imported tabular flint, which was often heat-treated, was the preferred raw material for perforators, scrapers, and denticulated pieces. There are fewer projectile points; a bifacial, tanged arrowhead is the major projectile form. Side-blow flakes, picks, sickles, and a few knives are present as well. Bifacial tools are also found in assemblages from the Farafra oasis. Calibrated dates for some sites are in the range of around 5900-6500 B.C.. Many bifacial tools also come from Rohlf’s Cave at Djara, where large, leaf-shaped, bifacial knives with fine, parallel ripples dominate the stone tool assemblages. Common elements at the sites listed above are projectile points and side-blow flakes. Many of the sites in the Western Desert share several Neolithic characteristics, such as pottery and grinding stones, as well as domesticated cattle and a lithic industry with bifacial tools, such as arrowheads, foliates, and knives. The Eastern Desert is by far less well explored in comparison to the Western Desert. During the Neolithic, herders came to the already- mentioned site of Tree Shelter, now bringing with them herds of sheep and goat. Irregular visits to the site ended in approximately 3700 B.C.. At the nearby site of Sodmein Cave, people also came to the area, bringing with them large herds of sheep/goat as well. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“Most of the Neolithic sites in the Nile Valley and the adjacent Fayum oasis cover the time span of the fifth millennium B.C., with the Fayum A culture probably setting off the sequence in the second half of the sixth millennium B.C. The lithic industry of Fayum A is generally characterized by a flake industry with frequent denticulates, notched pieces, and retouched flakes. Also present are bifacial tools and scrapers on side-blow flakes. Axes often possess a polished working edge. The typical projectile point was the so-called bifacial “Fayum point” with a concave hollow base and long wings.

flint knives

“The site of Merimde Beni-Salame provides a sequence of almost 1000 years during the late 6th and first half of the fifth millennium B.C.. The most ancient level is the so-called “Urschicht,” with a flake-blade industry using mainly light brown terrace pebbles. Dorsal retouching is common, while ventral retouches remained scarce, as did end retouching. Coarse tools are represented by scrapers on core caps and some bifacially retouched tools. Amongst the arrowheads, a small artifact stands out. It was completely retouched on the dorsal, while the ventral shows only retouching at the tip and along the shaft. The projectile point has fins and two opposite notches on either margin, similar to the Epipalaeolithic Helwan points. The lithic industry of level II is of a very different character, dominated by bifacials. Amongst the various types of bifacials are perforators, sickles, and denticulates, with the latter two often bearing sickle sheen. Another group of bifacial tools are axes with polished cutting edges. A new form of projectile point had a triangular shape with straight ending wings, sometimes finely denticulated edges, and a concave base. Blades were still produced and turned into simple blade tools, but their length increased when compared to the Urschicht. The lithic industry of the youngest phase at Merimde (level III-V) can be seen as a continuation of the bifacial industry from level II. Flintknappers again made use of wadi pebbles, albeit on a small scale. The form of the triangular projectile point was becoming more clearly defined in level IV when it reaches the classical Merimde point for arrows and harpoons alike.

“The lithic industry from el-Omari, south of modern Cairo, is based on flakes that overwhelmingly use the locally available, roughly fist-sized gravel flint, resulting in relatively small flakes, alongside a core industry for bifacial tools. The latter especially show similarities with Merimde Beni-Salame and the Fayum Neolithic. The main tool types are denticulated and notched pieces, perforators, various retouched pieces, scrapers, and a few sickle blades. A unique tool at el-Omari is the handled knife made on large blades. Made from a grayish flint that was brought to the site in the form of blanks, they feature a steep retouching on the back and a cutting edge on the right and left margin. Microliths are another element at el-Omari reminiscent of an Epipalaeolithic tradition. The polished axes from the later phase at el- Omari, however, point to a southern tradition from the Badari region. This late Neolithic industry in Upper Egypt was a flake-blade industry with various retouched pieces, drills, and endscrapers as the dominant tool types. Concave-base projectile points are also similar to those from Lower Egypt, but are often more finely made. Knives, adzes, or fishtail knives were rare elements. Although the exact chronological position of the Badarian remains somewhat debated, it is clear that it gives the first evidence for agriculture in Upper Egypt, and that in the region it developed into the Naqada I culture, which is characterized, in regard to its lithic material, by the Mostagedda industry. All in all, the Badarian stone industry is not merely a rough core industry, but a flake-blade industry with increasing standardization of lithic implements.

Predynastic Burials in Egypt

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In ancient Egypt, the primary evidence for the Predynastic Period, principally the fourth millennium B.C., derives from burials. In Upper Egypt, there is a clear trend over the period towards greater investment in mortuary facilities and rituals, experimentation in body treatments, and increasing disparity in burial form and content between a small number of elite and a larger non-elite population. In Maadi/Buto contexts in Lower Egypt, pit burials remained simple with minimal differentiation and less of a focus upon display-orientated rituals [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

It was from Upper Egyptian cemetery sites such as Naqada and Ballas and el- Abadiya and Hiw that the Predynastic was first recognized and classified. Over 15,000 burials are documented for Upper Egypt, but less than 600 Maadi/Buto graves from Lower Egypt are known. From the content and form of these burials, the chronological framework of the fourth millennium B.C. has been constructed and the nature and development of social complexity during the rise of the state charted. There has been a particular focus upon aspects of wealth and status differentiation following the work of Hoffman. The clear trend identified in these studies, for Naqadan burials at least, is for a widening disparity between graves in terms of the effort invested in tomb construction (size and architecture) and in the provision of grave goods. Less attention has been paid to other aspects of social identities represented in burials, such as gender, age, and ethnicity, although recent excavations at Adaima, Hierakonpolis, and in the Delta are providing firmer foundations for more nuanced interpretations, together with a reassessment of early twentieth century excavations.

“In comparison to Neolithic fifth millennium B.C. ‘house burials’, interred in what are probably the abandoned parts of settlements at el-Omari and Merimde Beni-Salame, most graves known from the Badarian and fourth millennium B.C. are from cemeteries set apart from habitation. Nevertheless, in both Upper and Lower Egypt some interments, predominately those of children, are still found within settlements, sometimes within large ceramic vessels (‘pot-burials’). This may account, to some extent, for the under-representation of children within most cemeteries.”

Location of Predynastic Burials in Egypt

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In Upper Egypt, the earliest identified burials date to just before the fourth millennium B.C. and are considered to be Badarian burials. These are known principally from the locales of Badari, Mostagedda, and Matmar, although more limited evidence has been recognized further south to Hierakonpolis. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Naqada I burials are known to stretch further south into Lower Nubia, but none are attested north of the Badari region. These cemeteries were usually placed at the low desert above the floodplain, thus facilitating their preservation. More detrimental to the mortuary record has been grave robbing, an occurrence not restricted to modern times, and many interments were plundered shortly after the funeral by perpetrators who were aware of the goods interred within.

“From Naqada IIC on, burials with Upper Egyptian characteristics began to appear in Lower Egypt at Gerza, Haraga, Abusir el-Melek, and Minshat Abu Omar. These are associated with the spread, and eventual predominance, of Upper Egyptian social practices and ideology across Egypt. In Upper Egypt, the contrast between an emerging elite and non-elite is manifest starkly at three sites, hypothesized to be regional power centers of Upper Egypt, where discrete elite cemetery areas were maintained apart from the others. These comprise: Hierakonpolis, Locality 6; Naqada, Cemetery T; and Abydos, Cemetery U.

“Far fewer burials of the Maadi/Buto tradition are known in Lower Egypt, possibly due to Nile flooding and shifts in the river’s course, as well as the fact that such burials were only archaeologically recognized and published relatively recently. Those that have been found are roughly equivalent to mid- Naqada I to Naqada IIB/C. The eponymous settlement site of Maadi and associated cemetery Wadi Digla hold the largest concentration of material, with other notable remains at Heliopolis. Eleven graves at el-Saff represent the furthest south that burials of this sort are attested.”

Naqadan Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “Predynastic burials were subterranean pits dug into the ground. Initially, during Badarian times, oval pits were the norm, but over the course of the Predynastic Period there was a trend towards larger, more rectangular graves. Nonetheless, many burials remained shallow and only large enough to accommodate a contracted body wrapped in a mat. Quantifying the proportion of such poor burials is problematic as they often went undocumented in early excavation reports or have been destroyed on account of their shallowness. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Naqada vase

“In late Naqada II, some funerary offerings in larger tombs came to be placed in separate niches, presaging the compartmentalization of Pharaonic Period tombs. A small percentage of Naqadan II/III tombs were plastered in or over with mud, or were lined or roofed with wood. Wood and pottery coffins are known by Naqada III. The use of mud-brick for the construction of subterranean tombs is attested at a few sites in late Naqada II, but by early Naqada III, this had been adopted as a standard feature of high-status burials, such as at Minshat Abu Omar. The series of Naqada III brick-lined tombs at Abydos, some with multiple chambers, form direct precursors to the 1st and 2nd Dynasty royal tombs that extend south from this location.

“The presence of an above ground feature demarcating burial plots may be assumed from the infrequency of inter-cutting graves and underlines the importance of social memory to ancient communities. There is limited evidence for the form these memorials might have taken, but a simple hillock, as has been observed at Adaima, is one possibility. In the elite cemetery at Hierakonpolis, Locality 6, post holes have been found around some graves, including a Naqada IIA-B tomb (Tomb 23), implying that some form of covering was erected over the burial chamber. Measuring 5.5 meters by 3.1 meters, it is the largest tomb known for this date. Also unique to Hierakonpolis is a large (4.5 x 2 x 1.5 meters deep) mud-brick-lined pit with painted plaster walls, known as Tomb 100; it is dated to Naqada IIC, which attests to an early date for tomb painting in an elite context. On a white mud-plastered background, images of animals, boats, and humans in combat are portrayed in red and black.”

Grave Goods in the Naqadan Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “The Neolithic burials at Merimde were usually without grave goods, and at el-Omari only one small pot was generally included. In contrast, from the Badarian onward, the investment in burial symbolism was more pronounced, and the dead could be accompanied to the grave by numerous types of accoutrements, the number of which varied considerably depending upon period and social factors, including status. In all periods, several interments were still entirely devoid of offerings, although decomposition of organic offerings as well as grave robbing may account for some of these absences. Yet other graves contained numerous artifacts, with the average number of grave goods increasing from the Badarian through to mid-Naqada II; approximately only 2 percent of graves contained more than 10 goods in Badarian times compared to roughly 13 percent in Naqada I and II. From Naqada I-III, fewer and fewer individuals were buried in graves that possessed abundant grave goods. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Naqada female figure

“Ceramics are the most prominent offerings in all periods, but the profile of pottery types changed significantly. In Naqada I, ceramic offerings were primarily fine-wares made up of black-topped (B-ware) vessels (comprising over 50 percent assemblage), red polished (P-ware) vessels, and occasionally white cross-lined (C- ware) vessels. In Naqada II, these fine black- topped ceramics declined in number, C-ware disappeared, and there was a shift towards the inclusion of larger quantities of coarser fabric vessels (rough-ware), sometimes numbering in the hundreds in elite tombs, as well as the introduction of marl clay vessels. This shift from fewer fine containers to greater numbers of rougher forms has been related to the increasing importance of storage of offerings and vestiges of complex burial rites. These include: remains of bread, beer, and animal products, remnants perhaps of a funeral feast shared with and presented to the deceased; charcoal and ashes, possibly from a ‘great burning’, the residue of which was transferred to the grave; or ‘dummy offerings’ of sand, earth, or mud. This diversity of contents reflects the increasing complexity of mortuary rituals and social obligations that were conducted at and around burials.

“Other than pottery, beads, sometimes of a wide variety of materials, are the most common artifacts found, but a diverse array of stone vessels (especially in Naqada II), mudstone palettes, flint bladelets, and knives are also fairly frequent. Clay figurines, stone maceheads, animal bones, pendants, and ivory spoons or pins are found more sporadically. Notable is the increasingly wide repertoire of goods, such as lapis lazuli, obtained via long- distance exchange during Naqada II, interpreted as forming part of a prestige- goods economy. In particular the imported Canaanite jars (over 400) from the early Naqada III, twelve-chambered tomb U-j at Abydos give some indication as to the social abilities of emerging leaders.

“Grave goods were often carefully arranged around the corpse, and it has been remarked that Naqadan mortuary traditions included a ‘formula’ in which “… each object had its appointed position” and that there were “fixed rituals for funeral observance”. There is certainly a recurring structure to many tombs, particularly those from Naqada IIC onwards, with wavy- handled jars usually placed above the head, large storage jars below the feet, and objects such as small stone jars and palettes neatly placed near the head and hands. It may not be possible to have insight into the complete symbolic content of these practices, but perhaps in the patterns created by their repetition it is possible to gain a sense that there were socially specific understandings of how a burial should be properly, and efficaciously, conducted, in a manner that suggests the grave could act as an arena for display-orientated practices. Nevertheless, to say that mortuary rituals were ‘fixed’ is an overstatement as no two Predynastic burials are identical. Rather than there being a universal set of rules governing arrangement, there seem to have been general principles that permitted an improvisatory performance of burial.

“Such choice in funeral arrangements is also clear from the objects selected for inclusion in the tomb. It was previously assumed that some objects were made specifically for mortuary consumption, such as decorated pottery (D-ware). Examination of use-wear and settlement deposits has demonstrated, however, that this is not the case and that the majority of tomb paraphernalia derived from daily life. Nevertheless, with the benefit of concurrent excavation of cemeteries and settlement at Adaima, it is evident that whilst all the pottery recorded from the cemetery is attested in the settlement, only certain forms from the settlement were deemed to be appropriate in a funeral context. Comparison of the types of flints found in settlement and burial contexts also reveals preferential selection for blades, bladelets, and knives for use in mortuary arenas. Palettes may also have been used differently in funeral contexts in comparison to everyday life, with green malachite staining predominant in burial contexts but red ochre more common on settlement palettes.”

Lower Egyptian/Maadi/Buto Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In comparison to Upper Egyptian tombs, Maadi/Buto burials in Lower Egypt are simpler and are poorly represented in the archaeological record. These graves were oval pits into which the deceased was laid in a contracted position, sometimes wrapped in a mat or other fabric, with the head usually positioned south and facing east. No collective burials are known, but the single inhumations display minimal differentiation in size and provision. Interspersed amongst the human burials were individual burials for goats and a dog, which were accompanied by some ceramics. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Grave goods are scarce, and most burials at Maadi and Wadi Digla were devoid of offerings. Some contained a single vessel, although a minority contained more—the maximum found at Maadi was eight and at Heliopolis ten. Inclusions of other artifact classes within the burials are rare. Aspatharia rubens shells, flint bladelets, gray ore, and malachite pigmentation were documented in a few of the graves at Wadi Digla. One rhomboid palette, an ivory comb, and a single stone vessel were exceptional additions to a few graves in the Wadi Digla cemetery.

“Thus, in contrast to the Naqadan burials, the body at these sites was the primary focus of the grave rather than acting as a foundation around which meanings, relationships, and social statements could be represented by the juxtaposition of several categories of artifacts. This dearth of material is more likely to be a matter of social custom rather than a reflection of the poverty of this society, for the associated settlement deposits displayed evidence for significant amounts of copper, stone vases, as well as examples of locally styled, decorated pottery and anthropoid figures. Therefore, the simpler nature of these burials is not to suggest these communities were any less complex in the social management of death, which may have been conducted away from the cemetery site or in an intangible manner.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Middle Paleolithoc tools from pharonic civilization, Nubian tools from Plos and Khormusan tools from Science Digest, el-Hosh rock art, Per Storemyr Archaeology & Conservation.

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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