Epipalaeolithic & Neolithic Egypt

This post is a collection of information, sourced from official publications, on the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic eras of Egypt.

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.

Important note: This post is a necessary forerunner of a coming presentation on the “Cataclysmic Myths” from the island of Rhodes that Diodorus Siculus describes in detail in his “Library of History“. We decided to split this research in parts for our reader’s convenience.

1. From the paper titled “Holocene lakes and prehistoric settlements of the Western Faiyum, Egypt”, by Fekri A.Hassan (1986), we read:

“(Abstract) Holocene lake stages in the Faiyum depression commenced with a high lake stand during the 10th millennium bp, followed by an early Holocene lake from 8500 to 7000 bp. A pronounced recession and the development of a palaeosol preceded another rise to a mid-Holocene, high lake level from 6500 to 5100 bp. A major drop in level coincided with the late Neolithic and Early Dynastic. The Moeris lake witnessed by Herodotus is also documented. The drop in lake level during early Ptolemaic times marked the end of the freshwater lake and was apparently, in part, a result of declining Nile floods. Terminal Palaeolithic sites are associated with the early Holocene lake and Neolithic sites with the mid-Holocene phase. Prehistoric settlements were placed near lake-margin marshes and ponds. The richness of the lake margin in aquatic resources and its susceptibility to short- and long-term fluctuations influenced both subsistence and settlements, and is believed to have encouraged a para-agricultural economy.”

2. From the paper titled “The Early Neolithic, Qarunian burial from the Northern Fayum Desert (Egypt)”, by Maciej Henneberg et al. (1989), we read:

“In the area between Qasr El-Sagha and Kom Aushim eight sites were explored. The oldest of them are of Early Neolithic age, previously described as Terminal Palaeolithic, and are dated back to Early Holocene (…) The change in terminology from “Terminal Palaeolithic” to “Early Neolithic” was prompted by recent work in the Western Desert which has resulted in the recovery of bones identified as probably domestic cattle associated with sites similar to those in the Fayum (Wendorf et al. 1984), and by the presence of cattle in one of the Qarunian sites in the Fayum (E29H1B; Gautier 1976).”

“The foregoing stratigraphic data indicate that the burial at site E29G1 should be dated to a period of lake Premoeris aggradation, or to an early period of lake Protomoeris aggradation, most probably at the beginning of the 6th millennium B.C. That means that the burial should be attributed to the population of the Qarunian industry. Traces of these people are known from at least four sites located at nowadays deserted area of the Fayum depression lying to the north of the modern Lake Qarun. These are as follows: E29H1, E29G1, E29G3 and Bahr El-Malek 4. People of Qarunian industry placed their campsites close to the water edge along beaches of the fossil lake. The sites are usually formed by small artifact concentrations of a diameter ranging from 20 to 50 m. One of the sites comprises several separate concentrations of archaeological material. Qarunian stone assemblages are typologically quite consistent (…) Location of camp sites at lake shores and enormous quantities of fish remains found there allow us to state that the major subsistence activity of the Qarunian population was a large scale fishing.

The lake was practically an inexhaustible source of fish. In those times its diameter varied from 80 km to 60 km. The lake was several times larger than the modern remnant of it — the Lake Qarun. It is hard to determine whether a large scale fishing was the permanent occupation of the Qarunian people camping along lake shores, or only a seasonal activity. Some bones of gazellas, hippopotamus and wild cattle, infrequently found at the mentioned sites, point to some hunting while grinding implements indicate perhaps gathering of food plants. The lack of special pattern of the teeth attrition observed in the skeleton also points toward a rather diversified diet; however, even very extensive and long lasting consumption of fish is not able to cause special pattern of teeth wear.”

“It must be emphasized that any comparison of a single specimen to populations gives approximate and often dubious results as to its affiliation to any of the populations. It is due to the fact that in human populations individual variability within one population is usually greater than variability between averages for various populations. It may then happen, and very frequently it actually does, that an individual originating from a given population is most similar to average characteristics of some other human group. The only thing possible is to compare an individual with several sets of averages characterizing various populations and conclude that the individual in question is most similar to an average member of such and such population. This statement is mainly of descriptive value and, though suggestive, does not provide sound basis for concluding upon its actual origin.

The female skull from site E29G1 has been compared by means of the standard Penrose method with summary data for prehistoric North African skeletal remains (Chamla 1978) and two sets of data pertaining to modern Negroes (Gorny 1957) and Australian aborigines (Milicer 1955). M. C. Chamla (1978) has collected all known to date information upon skeletal materials covering the period from Epipalaeolithic to Protohistoric times excavated in the North Africa. Material has been divided into groups with respect to its territorial origin (eastern and western groups) and cultural affinity (Capsian, Iberomaurusian, Capsian-Neolithic). From among these groups those territorially closer (eastern) were taken for comparisons with the skull in question. Negro and Australian materials are collections of skulls stored in the Institute of Anthropology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Wroclaw and originate from Uganda and the entire territory of Australia. In comparisons was also included the largest and territorially and chronologically closest, well studied series of data upon Wadi Halfa “Mesolithic” people (Greene and Armelagos 1972) (…) It may be seen that the skull in question shows the closest affinity to Wadi Halfa, modern Negroes and Australian aborigines being quite different from Epipalaeolithic materials of Northern Africa usually labelled as “Mechta type” and “proto-mediterranean type”. “

“Similarity between the jaw of the studied specimen and the jaw from Nabta Playa, as well as relation of the skull to Wadi Halfa female skulls point toward a continuity of population along the Nile and in the Western Desert, but still more material is required to support the idea that some 10-5 thousand years B.C. this continuity of peopling of the Nile Valley and its surroundings reached down to the very springs of the river in subsaharan Africa.”

3. From the paper titled “Holocene changes in the Fayum: Lake Moeris and the evolution of climate in Northeastern Africa”, by Janusz K.Kozłowski and Bolesław Ginter (1993), we read:

“After several seasons of investigations in the northem part of the Fayum Depression, Caton-Thompson and Gardner concluded that the large Pleistocene lake filling the center of the depression (up to the level of 40 m a.s.l.) gradually lowered until the Neolithic when the shore of the lake was at the level of + 10 m a.s.l. Subsequently the lake continued to shrink and remained low during the whole historical period (…) The paradigm of the successions of increasingly lower levels of the lake was finally abandoned owing to the investigations of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition (Wendorf and Schild 1976). Its findings revealed, on the northem side of the shore, a number of Holocene fluctuations of the lake, preceding not only historical times but even the Neolithic. The oldest high Holocene level of the lake has been dated to about 9,000 years B.P. “

“The next transgression, the so-called Pre-Moeris Lake, is better documented. Sediments from this period were recorded on the sites: Gl, area A and B, G3, area A and Hl, area A. The level of this lake was more than 17 m a.s.l. It is placed by the radiocarbon dates between 8,100 and 7,500 years B.P. During the recession the level of the Pre-Moeris Lake lowered to +12 m a.s.l. At that time deep erosional wadi channels formed, pointing to fairly heavy rainfall in the desert.

Subsequent transgression is associated with the Proto-Moeris Lake. Its high level (+ 19 m a.s.l.) on the site E29G1 area E is dated at 7,140 years B.P. If we take into consideration the sediments on site H1 area C the level may have been even higher.

Another lowering of the lake level is marked by red soil on the level of + 9 m (in the so-called basin X).

The Middle Holocene transgression phase is identified by Wendorf and Schild as Lake Moeris and dated from the Neolithic (Fayum A) until Dynasty IV when, they believe, the lake reached its maximum level in that transgression (+ 25 m a.s.l.). Subsequently the lake lowered to about 18 m in the period of the Middle Kingdom to remain stable until the time of Herodotus.”

“The results of the investigations we have discussed above enable us to attempt a synthesis of the Holocene lacustrine events. The hypothesis put forward by Wendorf and Schild about three pre-Neolithic transgressions of the Early Holocene lake has been fully confirmed. Certain discrepancies in comparison with the results obtained in our investigations as well as those of Hassan occur in the chronology of the maximum of the last transgression (Proto-Moeris Lake). Wendorf and Schild date it to about 6,800 years B.P., the corresponding lacustrine event is placed by F. Hassan at about 7,200 years B.P., whereas our investigations date it to about 7,400 years B.P. As a consequence of this disparity there is disagreement as to the dating of the deep recession which postdates the Proto-Moeris Lake and predates the Neolithic Lake. According to Wendorf and Schild this event should fall at the second half of the 7th millennium B.P. Hassan places it at the first half of the same millennium, whereas our observations date the deep recession at the end of the 8th millennium B.P.”

The Early Holocene settlement of the Qarunian is associated both with the recession as well as transgression phases of Lake Moeris as the hunting-fishing economy compensated for different conditions of the access to the lake. The Qarunian shows links with contemporaneous taxonomic units known from the Nile Valley such as the Shamarkian and the El-Kabian (Schild et al. 1986; Kobusiewicz 1976; Vermeersch 1970; 1978) and with the cultures of the oases of the Western Desert (Hassan and Gross 1977). A chronological and typological hiatus separates the Qarunian from the oldest Neolithic settlement in the Fayum Depression. Depending on the interpolation of dates this hiatus may have lasted from 500 to 1,500 radiocarbon years. Such a hiatus corresponds to the recession of Lake Moeris and the dry episode in the desert. This episode may have created a critical situation for Epipalaeolithic communities who inhabited the northem zone of the Western Desert at the time when in the south there was already settlement of Saharo-Sudanese Neolithic.

The appearance of the oldest population of a typically Neolithic character is associated with the period of the first transgression of the “Neolithic Lake”. This population is represented by the Fayumian identified with the Fayumian A culture according to the terminology used by G. Caton-Thompson. Seasonal fluctuations of the lake level and seasonal torrential rains in the desert shaped a seasonal model of economy with a variable participation of agriculture and breeding on the one hand, and fishing and, possibly, hunting on the other, practiced in different ecological zones, depending moreover on the distance from the lake shores. The Fayumian is a culture which shows distinct links with the cultures distributed in the Nile Valley and in the Delta.

The increasing aridity of the climate in the Sahara, especially in the second half of the 5th millennium B.P. caused a complete cultural change in the Fayum depression whereby the Fayumian was replaced by the Moerian culture with typical north-Saharan connections. The Moerian appeared in the ascending phase of the last Neolitic transgression of Lake Moeris and continued until the beginning of the next recession of the lake.”

Ancient Badarian mortuary figurine of a woman

4. From the paper titled “Submergence and burial of ancient coastal sites on the subsiding Nile delta margin, Egypt”, by Jean-Daniel Stanley (2005), we read:

“(Abstract) Ancient sites originally positioned along the Nile delta’s coastal margin are used as gauges to measure effects of «eustatic» sea-level rise (~1 mm/year) and land lowering (= subsidence) of the sediment substrate beneath settlements during the late Holocene. The combined effect of these two factors, referred to as relative sea-level change, resulted in submergence and/or burial of the base of most sites along the delta at variable rates exceeding 1 mm/year. Based on these factors, submergence of sites to depths of 5-7 m is recorded in Abu Qir Bay off the NW delta; higher values (lowering to 5 mm/year) are recorded along the NE corner of the delta. Variations of substrate topography laterally along the delta margin are caused by differences of seismicity, isostatic depression, and sediment compaction and remobilization that affect underlying deposits. Geologically recent lowering of the northern Nile delta plain surface is comparable to that of many world delta margins.”

“Previous geological and archaeological investigations indicate that the Nile delta margin has experienced submergence during the mid- to late Holocene and, according to some, this phenomenon continues at present”

Arrowheads from Al Fayum

5. From the paper titled “Prehistoric settlement in the Western Delta: a regional and local view from Sais (Sa El-Hagar)”, by Penelope Wilson (2007), we read:

There has been little intensive archaeological excavation work in the Delta until the last 35 years partly because of the apparent paucity of remains and partly because of the difficulties of working in the muddy floodplain environment, where the water table is very near ground level. Consequently, much excavation has concentrated on tell sites or areas in which archaeological remains are close to or at the surface. Such remains tend to be from the dynastic period and later, although there are Early Dynastic sites upon the sand and gravel hills of the eastern side of the Delta which have also been accessible without the necessity for too much dewatering. As a result, the early settlement history of the Nile Delta and the development from a hunter-gatherer society in the Neolithic Period to a more sedentary agricultural lifestyle in settled communities there has, as yet, too little contiguous linking evidence to provide a coherent narrative (…) the background of Delta geomorphology and the part which the river and inundation played in dictating human settlement patterns can still only be suggested at a relatively broad level.”

Neolithic and Predynastic cultures in Northern Egypt

It is likely that environmental conditions in the Delta floodplain could have supported Palaeolithic Period (c. 15,000-6.000 BC) occupation in areas of northern Egypt, following changes in sea level and the subsequent stabilisation of river behaviour in the Nile channels.

The presence of Neolithic culture (c. 6.000-3.600 BC) in the floodplain itself is also difficult to locate as it is buried under sediment deposits, but the sites in the Fayum and Merimde Beni-Salama on the south-western edge of the Nile Delta suggest that there may have been Neolithic contact or settlement further west into the Nile floodplain, as Merimdans harvested the rich natural resources of the river. The deposition of layers of sediment during the Nile inundations has meant that any remaining archaeological material is buried deeply and can be located only in exceptional circumstances or by deep drill augering carried out at likely sites and in a systematic manner. The earliest material located in this way has been the pottery sherds found in drill cores at Minshat Abu Omar, in the eastern Delta, by Lech Krzyzaniak (…) The pottery wares were described as ‘rough’ and resembling the Neolithic wares of Northern Egypt, that is, those from Merimde. Dates obtained from radiocarbon samples suggested that the pottery was older than 5,700 years BP, and the calibrated range for the samples was between 4,720 and 4,450 BC. Surveys of the eastern Delta have demonstrated that the area was heavily settled in the Early Dynastic Period, partly because of the prevailing geological and environmental conditions. It is therefore possible that if conditions were the same in the earlier Neolithic Period, there may also have been settlement of the gezira at that time. The layer of organic-rich mud partially covering the Neolithic sherds identified at Minshat Abu Omar raises questions, however, about the prevailing environmental conditions in the Delta which would have encouraged Neolithic settlement, the extent and nature of that settlement, the locations of the settlements and the reasons for the lack of continuous chronological occupation at sites (…) The identification of the Minshat Abu Omar settlement sequence might suggest that areas where Predynastic material has already been found will prove also to have earlier cultural material. If such is the case, Buto in the central northern part of the Delta would be a possible location for Neolithic settlement. As yet, however, the earliest material from Buto and the nearby site of el·Qerdahi is Buto-Maadi Stratum I material dated to around the first quarter of the fourth millennium BC both on the basis of a radiocarbon date and also by comparison with the Chalcolithic Ghassulian type of pottery found in the stratum (…) The Buto material and studies of it have provided an excellent framework for Lower Egyptian Predynastic sequences, into which material from other sites can be fitted. It has also suggested that by the Chalcolithic Period in the north, contemporary with Naqada I-II in Upper Egypt, there was contact between Buto and the Levant, Upper Egypt and Maadi, perhaps mostly based on its strategic trading location. It seems that Buto was not isolated and it is possible that earlier. Neolithic culrures will emerge to demonstrate adaptation to local conditions as well as maintaining broader contacts. The non-sedentary nature of Neolithic lifestyles perhaps suggests that there was a fluidity in cultural dispersion compared with the more ‘stationary’ Predynastic cultures.”

“In the western Delta, Sais was believed to have been an important Early Dynastic cult centre of the goddess Neith and perhaps the main city of a Lower Egyptian kingdom. Such assumptions have been made on the basis of interpretations of inscribed material from Upper Egypt (…) The presence of Prehistoric material at Sais was located, as at Minshat Abu Omar, by initial drill auger transects made across the site in order to ascertain the location of settlements and geomorphic features (…) With the subsequent removal of the Saite Period material, the lowest foundation layers have been exposed, along with the land upon which they were built. The underlying layers contain material dating to the Prehistoric and Predynastic Periods and the layers had been flattened off in some places, creating a level surface boundary between some of the Late Period debris and the underlying Prehistoric strata. Nothing dating to the intervening three thousand years was found in either the drill auger or excavation work. The area lies below the water table and is also subject to the dumping of waste water from the village nearby. The sub-surface matrices and archaeological layers are therefore waterlogged with alkaline water. The local conditions seem to have affected the preservation of all of the material, so that pottery has been water-eroded, salt-corroded and is subject to colour changes due to the salts, while the bone in some cases has been almost completely mineralised. Some charcoal has survived and a few seeds were obtained from the samples taken. The preservation of material seems to be inconsistent, however, and may be due to the precise nature of the salt content or contamination in specific areas.”

[NovoScriptorium: This paper places the earliest phase of Sais, named Sais I, in the Early Neolithic, c. 5,000-4,800 BC.]

Summary: The diagnostic sherd with fish-bone motif suggests that Phase Sais I is contemporary with Merimde Level I, Early Neolithic Phase. It is not clear from the excavated area at Sais whether the material is from a settlement or midden or was redeposited by river action. The presence of the human bone in [3015] suggests that the context is a rubbish layer with mixed debris redeposited from elsewhere. Altematively , if settlements moved from their original position and occupied previous buriaI areas, as at Merimde. Then human remains may sometimes be found in settlement debris. There was no visible evidence for buildings in this context or of stratified sequences, but the water-logged conditions meant that it was not possible to gather this kind of information. Further excavations would be required over a greater area.”

Chronology and relative dating of the Sais Prehistoric material

The Neolithic archaeological material from the Prehistoric excavations at Sais has its closest parallels in that of the Merimde Neolithic culture. The site at Merimde Beni Salama is estimated to have existed from around -4,800 to 4.400 BC (and perhaps later) and was a desert edge settlement with small communities who hunted and fished, and grew and processed crops, similar to the small agricultural economies of the Fayum. The main indicator of a contemporaneous date of the Sais material to that at Merimde is the presence of the fishbone-incised decorated ware which woud make Phase Sals I contemporary with Merimde level 1. The principal excavator at Merimde, Josef Eiwanger, suggested that Merimde Level l dated to the sixth millennium BC, partly on account of comparable material from Levantine Neolithic sites. The herringbone decoration is also found on Yarmukian pottery from sites such as Munhata in Palestine (fifth millennium BC onwards), the Neolithic B level at Jericho, or levels I-IV at Hassuna (sixth millennium BC). The pottery shows the herringbone design in horizontal bands around the necks of vessels or in chevron bands on the shoulder and body of the vessels. The design is impressed with a broad tool, but the vessels do not seem to have been burnished. Examples of this type of decoration have also been reported from the Sodmein cave in the Eastern Desert, dated to the early sixth millennium BC. The dating of the Merimde material to the sixth millennium BC means that the Sais pottery would be of the same date. There are also implications for the date of the arrival in Egypt of Levantine domesticates and the cultural influences on Fayumic Neolithic culture and Merimde in the sixth millennium, due to the dispersal of farming technology. Midant-Reynes considers that Merimde Level I belongs in the hiatus between the Helwan Epipalaeolithic and Fayum A cultures in the sixth millennium, again suggesting that the Early Neolithic Sais I should be dated to the sixth millennium and making it, with Merimde Level l, a bridging culture.

Absolute dates for cultural levels at Prehistoric sites in northern Egypt, including Merimde, Buto, EI Omari, Maadi and Minshat Abu Omar, have been supplied from radiocarbon samples at both Merimde and Buto, but they have not always proved to be consistent with the relative dates of the different strata at the sites. Hassan collected and published radiocarbon dates from the Prehistoric Period up to 1985. and his average of 4,800-4,400 BC for Merimde level I and V is considerably later than Eiwanger’s original estimate of the sixth millennium BC for Merimde Level I based on the pottery. Eiwanger considered the radiocarbon dates to be too recent but such discrepancies between the possible relative dates and absolute dates for the Merimde Ursicht levels are not unusual in Egypt. When recalculated according to latest calibration curves, the range is from 4,715-4.390 BC. It should also be noted that only a small number of samples from Merimde have been tested and dearly with a larger dataset more certainty over the radiocarbon dates would be possible.

The subsequent Buto dates are also problematic for the Buto-Maadi phases as a whole. Von der Way submitted a number of samples for testing, but after calibration the results were so variable and inconsistent, he concluded that they were unreliable as markers of fixed (absolute) chronological dates. The ground conditions, contaminants and long period of burial may have affected the final results. This holds true for Sais.”

The evidence for the Lower Egyptian and Fayum Neolithic cultures can be tabulated to show that the Fayumian Early Neolithic from the late sixth millennium was contemporary with the Merimde culture in its early stages and the El Omari culture, all of them apparently terminating in the very early fourth millennium (c. 4,000-3,900 BC). The Maadi culture, then, continues the development of the Lower Egyptian culture after the Neolithic Period from c. 3,800-3,300 BC, with clear connections to the east through trade with the Levant. The Buto-Maadi phases at Buto from 3,500 BC then continue into the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods.

The stratigraphical evidence from Sais can only assist us in a limited way to understand cultural developments from the Neolithic to Buto-Maadi Period.”

Clapper discovered in Maadi

6. From the paper titled “Stone Tool Production (UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology)”, by Hikade, Thomas (2010), we read:

The Final Palaeolithic

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 (Wendorf and Schild 1986), and by the dozens of people who were killed and buried at Jebel Sahaba (Wendorf 1968a: 954 – 995).”

The Epipalaeolthic

The microlithic character of stone tool assemblages remained more or less intact during the Epipalaeolithic (7000-6000 BCE), but showed influences from the Levant (Schmidt 1996b). 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 (Brewer 1989; Wendorf and Schild 1976: 155 – 226). (…) 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 (Schild and Wendorf 1977). 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 (Wendorf and Schild 1998: 101 – 105).”

The Neolithic (6000-4500 BCE)

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.(…) Calibrated dates for some sites are in the range of around 5900-6500 BCE.(…) 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 (McDonald 1996). 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 (Linseele and van Neer 2008). Irregular visits to the site ended in approximately 3700 BCE. At the nearby site of Sodmein Cave, people also came to the area, bringing with them large herds of sheep/goat as well (Vermeersch et al. 1994).(…) Most of the Neolithic sites in the Nile Valley and the adjacent Fayum oasis cover the time span of the fifth millennium BC, with the Fayum A culture probably setting off the sequence in the second half of the sixth millennium BC.(…) The site of Merimde Beni-Salame provides a sequence of almost 1000 years during the late 6th and first half of the fifth millennium BCE (Eiwanger 1984, 1988, 1992, 1999). The most ancient level is the so-called “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. (…) The lithic industry from el-Omari (Debono and Mortensen 1990), 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 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 (Brunton and Caton-Thompson 1928: 35 – 37, pls. XXVIII and XXIX; Holmes 1989: 93 – 188). 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.”

Egyptian prehistoric Gebel el-Arak Knife, Abydos, Egypt

7. From the paper titled “Neolithic in the Nile Valley (Fayum A, Merimde, el-Omari, Badarian)”, by E. Christiana Köhler (2011), we read:

The earliest evidence for Neolithic cultures of the Nile Valley is located in the north of Egypt and exhibits a well-developed stage of Neolithic subsistence, including the cultivation of crops, animal domestication and sedentism as well as pottery production from the late 6th Millennium B.C. onwards. The main archaeological sites are located near lacustrine or riverine water sources; along the shores of the Fayum Lake (Fayum A/Fayumian), on a spur above the edge of the western Delta floodplain (Merimde Benisalame) and on the upper banks of a small side stream of the Nile River (el-Omari) and in the south along the edge of the cultivation (region of Badari).”

Fayum A/Fayumian

Apart from large quantities of hearths and settlement debris, there appears to be no significant evidence for house structures or well-stratified occupational layers. The material remains comprise of coarsely made pottery representing simple, multi-functional shapes, especially deep bowls, with little decoration; polished stone axes; bifacially retouched tools such as sickles and concave-based arrow heads; as well as stone maces. What has been described by Caton-Thompson as ‘Fayum A’, or ‘Fayumian’ by the more recent Polish excavators, can indeed be characterized as an early Neolithic Culture, whose absolute chronological position between 5400-4400 cal B.C. (Hendrickx 1999: 18) would place it at the very beginning of the Neolithic sequence in the Nile Valley”

Merimde Benisalame

Merimde Benisalame is probably the most representative and best recorded site of the Early Neolithic as it exhibits a large settlement of about 25 hectares with well stratified remains of up to 2.50 m thickness (Eiwanger 1984-1992). These strata can be divided into five phases starting just before 5000 cal B.C. and continuing well into the 5th Millennium B.C. Although the earliest occupation (Urschicht) suggests links with the Early Neolithic cultures of the Levant, phases II-V show close material and cultural ties with the Early Neolithic in the Fayum, as the occupational features, including basket-lined storage pits, ceramics and lithic tools are highly comparable.”


The sites summarised as and named el-Omari are distributed over a relatively large area at the mouth of Wadi Hof and include what appear to be seasonal dwellings of rounded semi-subterranean huts and graves scattered among them, although direct contemporaneous habitation is not indicated (Debono & Mortensen 1990). The published radiocarbon dates place el-Omari at the end of the northern Early Neolithic sequence, i.e. between 4600 and 4400 cal B.C.

“the Neolithic of the Nile Valley is an area where a lot more focussed research will be needed in order to better understand the chronological sequences connecting north and south during the 5th Millennium B.C., as well as the exact material origins of what is currently termed Naqada Culture “

8. From the paper titled “Some remarks on the chronology of the early Naqada Culture (Naqada I / Early Naqada II) in Upper Egypt”, by Rita Hartmann (2011), we read:

By the early 4th millennium B.C. the Chalcolithic Naqada Culture had already made an appearance near the great bend of the Nile between Naqada and Mahasna; subsequently this culture spread out towards the south and north and can be attested in the middle of the millennium at the first Nile cataract and at the entrance to the Fayum. The origin of the Naqada Culture, however, is still largely unknown.”

“Absolute dates have not been able to contribute so far to the division of individual phases of the older Naqada Culture (…) the chronology of the Naqada I Period (first half of the 4th millennium B.C.) remains largely unresolved.”

Fragment of a ceremonial palette illustrating a man and a type of staff. Circa 3200–3100 BC, Predynastic, Late Naqada III.

9. From the paper titled “Prehistoric Sites along the Edge of the Western Nile Delta: Report on the Results of the Imbaba Prehistoric Survey 2013–14”, by Joanne Rowland & Geoffrey Tassie (2014), we read:

The Epipalaeolithic of the Nile Delta is at present poorly understood, due to the lack of finds from this period. These Mode 5 industries are characterised by microlithic technologies, the production of very small flakes and blades that are retouched and worked into various shapes, or used unmodified as composite tools. In Egypt and the Sudan there are only a few industries that have been identified, such as the Khartoum Mesolithic, Arkinian, Shamarkian, Afian, and Silsilian in Nubia, and the Qarunian, Elkabian, and Helwanian in Egypt. Several other Epipalaeolithic industries have been identified in the Western Desert and oases in recent years at such places as Kharga Oasis, Dakhla Oasis, Bahariya Oasis, Djara, Nabta Playa and Siwa Oasis.

The two closest industries geographically to those identified on the Wadi Gamal terraces are the Qarunian in the Faiyum and the poorly defined Helwanian in the region of Helwan, just south of Cairo. Both these industries are microlithic, consisting primarily of bladelets and blades. The Helwan point (a bladelet with bilateral retouch with notches and a stemmed base), although taking its name from the site in which it was first identified, it was first produced in the Northern Levant. Helwan points have also been found in the Faiyum and at the Neolithic site of Merimde Beni Salama.

Two phases of the Epipalaeolithic can be identified in Egypt and the Sudan, an early phase (8,600–7,500 BC) and a late phase (7,500 to 5,500 BC), with a transitional phase from the Late Palaeolithic (10,600–8,600 BC). From 11,500 cal BP the deserts of Egypt started to become savannahs, with various sources of water, and several game animals such as gazelle and hare, along with edible vegetation such as sorghum. The various groups would live in niche habitats within these vast open areas, rather than along the banks of the River Nile. This did not mean that the Nile Valley was devoid of human life, for groups would come to the river banks to catch fish, collect molluscs, reeds, and hunt birds and animals on a seasonal basis. These mobile groups could traverse large distances, and it seems that the Epipalaeolithic group that lived in the area of Sodmein Cave on the Red Sea coast may have travelled into the Nile Valley in the region of Elkab, as there are strong similarities in the toolkit with that from Elkab. However, this generally amenable climate was punctuated with abrupt climatic events, such as the cold and arid 8,200 cal BP event, which caused the Faiyum lake levels to drop substantially, and the Qarunian Epipalaeolithic communities seem to disappear from the archaeological record. During the sixth millennium BC these areas of savannah started to become deserts again, and by 5,300 BC most of these groups had migrated into the Nile Valley or the desert oases to escape this aridification.

The transition from the Epipalaeolithic to the Neolithic is one of the critical phases in human history. At both Merimde Beni Salama and Sais, the earliest levels show a relatively high blade index, which suggests that rather than a fully developed Neolithic toolkit being introduced to these sites, that there was an original lithic industry based on bladelets into which typical Neolithic tools—bifacial and polished tools—were incorporated.

The finding of Epipalaeolithic tools during the survey of the Wadi Gamal terraces is therefore of great importance in understanding the process of Neolithisation within the Nile Delta. The tools found included cores, points, flakes, segment of a semi-circle, borers, burins, blades and bladelets. The points are the most diagnostic of the tools, but these find no parallels in the Qarunian, Elkabian or Helwanian.

The blades at Abu Tartur date to ca. 6,500 BC, whereas that at Dakhla, from the Masara C unit would place it between 7,000 and 6,500 BC. However, more refinement may be possible after further study.”

“Due to the finding of lithic tools belonging to Epipalaeolithic hunter-gatherer groups who subsisted along the edges of the western Delta between 7,000 and 6,500 BC, it is possible to ask whether these Epipalaeolithic groups had pre-existing subsistence strategies that would have already facilitated their acceptance of new food production and processing strategies, or whether the first Neolithic farming communities were entirely new to the region in all respects. Tristant notes the Levantine influence in the earliest Level 1, Saharo-Sudanese in Level 2, with Levels 3-5 suggesting similarities with the Faiyumian Neolithic material. The Epipalaeolithic tools found on the Wadi Gamal terrace, have some similarities with the Level 1 Neolithic assemblage, particularly with regard to the bladelets, and it may be that the two units are fairly close in time. The exact timing of the transition from the Epipalaeolithic to the Neolithic will be addressed by collecting well contexted and stratified samples in future excavations.

Investigation of the unique local ecology of the western Delta will determine whether certain social, environmental and economic conditions, by 5,000 BC, or even earlier, would—as an adaption—have either necessitated the movement of people and a switch to settled farming, or—as a transformation—have enabled groups to benefit from this change in subsistence.”

10. From the thesis (Uppsala University) titled “Digital Reconstruction of the Archaeological Landscape in the Concession Area of the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia (1961–1964)”, by Carolin Johansson (2014), we read:

The Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Periods

Fluctuating climate has induced changes in the human habitation patterns inside Saharan Africa since the late Palaeolithic. During the last glacial maximum, which occurred approximately 20,000 years BP, the climate was relatively arid (Gasse, 2000:192) with lowering of sea level and a substantially reduced water flow in the Middle Nile. Several lithic industries have been defined for the late Palaeolithic in Lower Nubia at sites such as Wadi Kubbaniya (ca 20,000 BP) and the Qadan culture with associated cemeteries at Gebel Sahaba (ca 13,000–9,000 BCE). Comparable material from Upper Nubia is scarce and the Late Palaeolithic of the Middle Nile above the Second Cataract is thus unknown.

During the beginning of the Holocene epoch, the climate had changed and had become much wetter with a maximum of precipitation and higher flood levels around 7,000–6,000 BCE. It is from around this time the so-called Khartoum Mesolithic, a semi-permanent hunter-gatherer culture that used pottery, is identified in several places in both Upper and Lower Nubia, with an earliest appearance probably in the tenth millennium BP. These types of settlements are located close to the river and the people are believed to have lived primarily on fishing. Few have been found in other areas but that may be solely a reflection of archaeological activity that has focused on e.g. areas near the confluence of the White and the Blue Nile, which is conveniently located close to the Sudanese capital, rather than actual settlement patterns. Grindstones may indicate that at least some wild grains were processed in these settlements. In Lower Nubia, a later Mesolithic culture, the so-called Khartoum Variant has been found as small campsites with relatively little material associated with them and an apparent lack of fishing equipment. However, presence of Egyptian flint in these sites indicates substantial north-south contact along the river.

The Neolithic Period

The change from Mesolithic to Neolithic time period in this part of the world occurred about 5,000 BCE and is characterised by a shift towards food production in terms of livestock keeping. Pottery had, as seen above, already been used for millennia but domesticated cereals seem not to have been in use until quite late, at least in Upper Nubia. However, grain impressions have indicated use of wild plants already in the early Neolithic.

This change was correlated in time with the mid-Holocene climate change in which the area of the Middle Nile was moving towards drier conditions. This may have partly caused the focusing of the once dispersed Nile Valley populations into more favourable and relatively restricted areas. Populations became more dense, distinct and isolated and in this process different life styles developed. Communities resembling true farming developed in parallel with seasonal settlements and pastoral groups. The range and elaboration seen in the material culture is expanded and is primarily noted in burial contexts. Apart from pottery also bone, ivory, shells, polished stones and pigments were used for implements and personal adornment. The importance of livestock is evident in e.g. the presence of cattle skulls among grave goods. There is also plenty of rock art depicting both wild and domestic animals from the Neolithic Period onwards. However, meat from domesticated animals (cattle, sheep and goat) may not have been part of the staple-food in those early Neolithic communities (e.g. the Khartoum Neolithic in Upper Nubia) but may have been used only at special occasions marking status or ceremony. Instead, milk and blood would have been the primary products of those animals (Kendall, 2010:402). Indeed, assemblages of bones at find sites have shown that the domesticated animals only constituted a small part of the animal bone refuse, the rest belonged to wild game.”

11. From the paper titled “New Archaeozoological Data from the Fayum “Neolithic” with a Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Early Stock Keeping in Egypt“, by Veerle Linseele et al. (2014), we read:

“(Abstract) Faunal evidence from the Fayum Neolithic is often cited in the framework of early stock keeping in Egypt. However, the data suffer from a number of problems. In the present paper, large faunal datasets from new excavations at Kom K and Kom W (4850–4250 BC) are presented. They clearly show that, despite the presence of domesticates, fish predominate in the animal bone assemblages. In this sense, there is continuity with the earlier Holocene occupation from the Fayum, starting ca. 7350 BC. Domesticated plants and animals appear first from approximately 5400 BC. The earliest possible evidence for domesticates in Egypt are the very controversial domesticated cattle from the 9th/8th millennium BC in the Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba area. The earliest domesticates found elsewhere in Egypt date to the 6th millennium BC. The numbers of bones are generally extremely low at this point in time and only caprines are present. From the 5th millennium BC, the numbers of sites with domesticates dramatically increase, more species are also involved and they are usually represented by significant quantities of bones. The data from the Fayum reflect this two phase development, with very limited evidence for domesticates in the 6th millennium BC and more abundant and clearer indications in the 5th millennium BC. Any modelling of early food production in Egypt suffers from poor amounts of data, bias due to differential preservation and visibility of sites and archaeological remains, and a lack of direct dates for domesticates. In general, however, the evidence for early stock keeping and accompanying archaeological features shows large regional variation and seems to be mainly dependent on local environmental conditions. The large numbers of fish at Kom K and Kom W reflect the proximity of Lake Qarun.”

[NovoScriptorium: Fayum is one of Egypt’s oldest cities, where habitation began in the fifth millennium B.C.]


12. From the paper titled “Holocene lake sediments from the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt: a record of environmental and climate change”, by Leszek Marks et al. (2017), we read:

“(Abstract) The Qarun Lake in the Faiyum Oasis (Egypt) provides a unique record of Holocene environmental and climate change in an arid area largely devoid of fossil proxy records. Multiple lithological, palaeontological and geochemical proxies and 32 radiocarbon dates from the 26-m-long core FA-1 provide a time series of the lake’s transformation. Our results confirm that a permanent lake appeared in the Holocene at c. 10 cal. ka BP. The finely laminated lake sediments consist of diatomite, in which diatoms and ostracods together with lower concentrations of ions indicate a freshwater environment at the end of the early and middle Holocene. This freshwater supply was closely associated with regular inflows of the Nile water during flood seasons, when the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) migrated northwards in Africa, although it has probably never reached the Faiyum Oasis. Local rainfall, possibly connected with a northern atmospheric circulation, may have been important during winter. Several phases in the lake’s evolution are recognized, represented by oscillations between deep open freshwater conditions during more humid climate and shallow fresh to brackish water during drier episodes. After a long freshwater phase, the lake setting has become more brackish since c. 6.2 cal. ka BP as indicated by diatoms and increasing contents of evaporite ions in the sediment. This clearly shows that since that time the lake has occasionally become partly desiccated. This is
a result of reduced discharge of the Nile. In the late Holocene the lake was mostly brackish and then gradually turned into a saline lake. This natural process was interrupted about 2.3 cal. ka BP when a man-made canal facilitated water inflow from the Nile. The examined FA-1 core can be used as a reference age model of climate change in the Holocene and its impact on the development and decline of ancient civilizations in northeastern Africa.”

Palaeoclimatic and geoarchaeological data confirm that transformations of the natural environment in northeastern Africa during the Holocene were caused by climate fluctuations. They stimulated the development and collapse of past human cultures and civilizations in the Nile drainage basin. Long-term south–north migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) during the early and middle Holocene seems to have been responsible for a major climate change in the northern Nile drainage basin

“The dynamics of hydrological and climatic changes in the Nile drainage basin are reflected in the lithological and geochemical characteristics of sediments in the Faiyum Oasis where the lake filled a central part of the depression.”

13. From the paper titled “Early North African Cattle Domestication and Its Ecological Setting: A Reassessment”, by Michael Brass (2017), we read: 

“It is concluded that (a) Bos remains from the early Holocene at Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba were those of hunted aurochs; (b) domesticated caprines were likely present in Northeast Africa before domesticated cattle; and (c) the domesticated cattle spreading across Northeast and northern Africa, including Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba, from the late seventh millennium BC or early sixth millennium BC onwards were descendants of Bos taurus domesticated in the Middle Euphrates area of the Middle East.”

“This paper presents a reassessment of the botanical, faunal and geomorphological data from Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba to determine whether or not an early Holocene timeframe for cattle domestication, as proposed by the Combined Prehistoric Expedition (Gautier 1987; Wendorf et al. 1984, 2001; Wendorf and Schild 1980, 1994), remains a plausible explanatory model (…) I turn to the original geological report (Issawi and el Hinnawi 1984) to argue that more water was present on the surface during the early Holocene than acknowledged in the early cattle domestication model, and draw upon additional geological reports (Haynes and Haas 1980; Haynes 2001), which have been little cited in the debate, in support. I also draw upon comparisons with other archaeological and modern semi-arid regions to refute the claim that the ecology of the Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba area during the early Holocene was capable of supporting only small game animals and gazelle, which is the underpinning of the early cattle domestication model (Gautier 2001; Wendorf et al. 1984; Wendorf and Schild 1994) (…)

The re-assessment also encompasses the middle Holocene of Nabta Playa. Wasylikowa’s (2001) botanical study of the middle Holocene botanical remains did not list the water requirements of all the families and genera of plants, which is done here. Nabta Playa’s faunal materials are also examined and evaluated. The radiocarbon distribution dates for the cattle remains are made explicit for the first time: using Gautier’s (2001) own measurements and distinction between morphologically domesticated and wild cattle, combined with the data from Smith’s (1984) and Grigson’s (2000) papers, the available data shows a later appearance for domesticated cattle at Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba than had previously been assumed.

The results are then integrated into a review of the genetic and archaeological data from elsewhere in the Eastern Sahara, the current patterns in the study of domestication from the Near East and spread of domestic cattle and caprines in the Arabian peninsula. It is concluded that the first archaeological visibility of domesticated cattle derives from the mid sixth millennium BC onwards and that the most plausible explanation is that they originated from a founding population in the Near East, although the possibility of limited genetic introgression from African aurochs (Bos primigenius) is not ruled out.”

Merimde culture clay head, circa 5,000 BC

14. From the presentation titled “Tell el-Samara” issued by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, written by Frédéric Guyot (2020) we read:

Tell el-Samara is one of the most ancient villages in Egypt. Situated in the eastern part of the Nile Delta, this sandy mound, whose top would remain above water-level during the annual floods, was occupied for the first time by a small group of farmers and herders about 6,300 years ago (more than 1,500 years before the construction of the great pyramids at Giza). At that time, populations along the Nile River were beginning to adopt agricultural practices and animal husbandry while establishing themselves in locations that were conducive for a sedentary lifestyle.”

In the Nile Valley, the Delta and the deserts, different groups of people, each with their own culture, maintained various ways of life adapted to the constraints of their environment. The moist conditions of the Nile Delta offered abundant natural resources and the populations who occupied the area more than 7,000 years ago did not practice agriculture nor animal husbandry, and did not use pottery. They lived by hunting and gathering wild plants while moving seasonally to follow available resources. It was not until the beginning of the 5th millennium BC that these small and sparse communities began to adopt a new lifestyle under the impetus of the Neolithic economy spreading from the Levantine corridor.”

“As they progressively adopted agriculture and herding, the Nile Delta’s populations settled in permanent villages in which they could cultivate fields and protect the crops by storing them in silos dug into the ground. The transition to food-producing economy was a protracted process that lasted throughout the 5th millennium BC. It was only at the end of this period that one may regard the majority of communities in the Nile Delta as being sedentary and depending for the most part on agricultural products and animal husbandry for their subsistence.”

“Due to the limited number of 5th and 4th millennia BC sites known to date, it is still difficult to fully grasp how the early settlements grew in extent and how a hierarchical society emerged before the advent of a monarchy about 3,000 BC. The archaeology of Prehistoric periods is somewhat different than the archaeology of Pharaonic and Classical ones in that it focuses on the study of much more fragmentary remains.”

“In Lower Egypt the earliest evidence of pottery was discovered in 7,000 years old contexts, together with the first documented instances of cereals and pulses. It is thus likely that the use of pottery was introduced in this region from the Southern Levant at the same time as agriculture. Cereal farming was originally practiced in the Nile Delta before spreading southwards along the Nile Valley, first to the Fayum, then to Upper Egypt.”

From the middle of the 5th millennium BC, the Neolithic farming economy that developped in the Nile Delta spread throughout the Nile Valley. At the end of this process of cultural diffusion, somewhere at the turn of the 5th and 4th millennia BC, almost all the communities in Lower and Upper Egypt were sedentary herders and farmers.”

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

15. From the paper titled “Cultural Interaction Between Mesopotamia, the Levant and Lower Egypt at 5800-5200 BC.” , by Katharina Streit (2020), we read:

“(Abstract) In the late 1950s, Jacob Kaplan recognized the Wadi Rabah culture as a separate cultural entity of the southern Levant and suggested possible links to the northern Levant, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. This volume explores Kaplan’s proposal in detail and examines the cultures of northern Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt and their interactions between approx. 5800 and 5200 cal BC. The 6th millennium BC is characterized by a dense network of trade relationships and cultural interactions in the course of which this first known supra-regional cultural unit emerges. At the end of this period, the different regions largely returned to cultural individuality, only to find their way back to similarly intensive supra-regional interaction only in the Bronze Age. This study transcends modern political boundaries, different academic traditions, research priorities and methods. Based on an absolute chronology, which was developed for each region using Bayesian modeling of already existing radiocarbon data, the main features with regard to settlement patterns, material culture, burial rites, art and subsistence strategies are presented in order to identify previously unnoticed parallels in material culture and cultural practice systematically analyze between these four regions. Evidence for imported raw materials and / or products is summarized, the collected links and interactions are discussed in a broader geographical context, as well as mechanisms that may underlie this interaction, investigated and suggested possible supra-regional dynamics. It can be made probable that the cultural center that influenced the South Levant at this time is to be found in the northern Levant and northern Mesopotamia. “

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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