How Excavating Egypt’s Golden Sands Revealed the Cultures that Gave Birth to Ancient Egypt

The 'Prehistory" of Ancient Egypt is buried beneath its golden sands.

Before the rise of the first Pharaohs that united Upper and Lower Egypt, and before the Pyramidaomania that took over ancient Egypt lasting for more than 1,000 years, there were people living along the Nile, creating settlements, technologies and sophisticated forms of ceremonial archeology. These prehistoric cultures built massive stone circles, intricate sanctuaries and megalithic buildings, indicative of a level of sophistication that goes well beyond that shown by groups of herders.

Archaeological excitations throughout the years have shed light on the various cultures that existed along the Nile, but one recent archaeological mission has revealed unprecedented details, revealed the very origins of Ancient Egypt.

Archeologists excavating Egypt’s golden sands have now come across what they believe is evidence of the ancient cultures that inhabited the region, eventually giving rise to the ancient Egyptian Civilization that would build hundreds of pyramids, massive cities, and megalithic temples through thousands of years.

The Origins of the land of Pharaohs

The first settlers of the land we call today Egypt reached the banks of the Nile River, then a cluster of marshes focus of malaria, escaping the desertification of the Sahara. The original communities made the land livable and were structured in primitive regions and settlements.

A map of ancient Egypt. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

Time passed and after generations of agreements and disputes the people of prehistoric Egypt were grouped into two proto-nations, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, to finally be unified by Menes towards the year 3100 BC considered by the ancient Egyptians the first true Pharaoh of Egypt.

This is the so-called Predynastic era, traditionally equivalent to the finals stages of the Neolithic period, beginning around 6000 BC and ending in the Naqada III period around 3000 BC.

Despite this, archeological excavations of the Nile have revealed early stone tools from the last million years or so.

But long after the first people appeared along the Nile, but before the rise of the first Pharaoh, Egypt was home to different cultures that contributed in a great way to the later development of a civilization like no other.

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After the progressive withdrawal of the glaciations, the grasslands were increased and the various indigenous populations were concentrated, driven by the Sahara desertification process. Throughout the years, archeologists excavating different parts have identified a number of cultures developing in the region, allowing them to put together the massive puzzle of Ancient Egypt’s origins.

Oldest structures before Pyramids and Pharaohs

Some of the most ancient buildings discovered along the Nile River were excavated by archeologists Waldemar Chmielewski along the southern border near Wadi Halfa, Sudan. The structures, dating back some 100,000 years are the very first buildings of the region. Chmielewski identified oval depression some 30 centimeters deep, around 2 meters across which were lined with flat sandstone slabs. These structures are dubbed tent rings, and archeologists argue that the rocks most likely supported dome-like roofs made of skins or brush.

The structures were most likely the very first permanent places to live but were easily dismantled if there was a necessity to move. Hence, the structures were mobile and early disassembled, and reassembled, providing the Nile River’s first hunter-gatherers with a semi-permanent habitation.

Different Cultures

In the Egyptian Western Desert, the beginnings of human occupation date as early as 9300 BC, this lasted until the middle of the third millennium BC, when desertification lo longer supported human occupation.

As time passed on, different cultures would come into existence during the Mesolithic including the Qadan culture which originated in Upper Egypt some 15,000 years ago persisting for around 4000 years. This culture was characterized by hunting and food gathering techniques that eventually led to the incorporation of wild grasses and grains into the diet.  The Qadan culture developed stone tools that helped them collect and process plants prior to consumption.

During the Neolithic, diverse cultures developed in Lower Egypt as the continues expansion of the desert forced ancient Egyptian ancestors to settle around the Nile, forcing them into creating more permanent settlements, hence changing their lifestyle.

The period in history spanning from 9,000 BC to 6,000 BC is scarce in term of archeological discoveries. But around 6,000 BC, Neolithic settlements popped up all over Egypt. Agriculture developed, and settlements increased in size. It is estimated that from around 8,000 BC, more people migrated to the Nile, giving rise to a centralized society and agricultural economy.

Artifacts of Egypt from the Prehistoric period. Image Credit Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.
Artifacts of Egypt from the Prehistoric period. Image Credit Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Merimde Culture marked an important phase in the development of ancient Egypt. In fact, this culture is among the few known to have created larger settlements that flourished in Lower Egypt. During this culture, from around 5,000 BC to around 4,200 BC, people lived in smaller hits and produced simple examples of pottery. They possessed stone tools and help cattle, sheep goats and pigs while harvesting sorghum and barley. According to archaeologists, the very first Egyptian lifesize head made of clay originated from the Merimde culture.

The Maadi culture in Lower Egypt, from around 4,000 BC marked an important transition in the history of the region giving rise to developed forms of architecture and technology.

Upper Egypt saw the rise of different cultures that equally contributed to ancient Egypt.

Among them, we have the Tasian culture which produced some of the earliest examples of blacktop-ware, a specific kind of colored pottery that played an essential role in the eventual dating of Predynastic Egypt. The Badarian culture developed from approximately 4,400 to 4,000 BC. The Amratian culture which lasted from around 4,000 BC to around 3,500 BC offers evidence of trade between Upper and Lower Egypt. The culture imported obsidian, as well as small amounts of gold from Nubia.

The Gerzean culture is believed to have laid the foundation for Dynastic Egypt. It was during this time, between 3,500 BC and 3,200 BC that predynastic Egyptians stopped using reeds in building structures and started a massive mud-brick production. Copper played an important role and it was during this culture that we see the first copper weapons appear.

Gabel Ramah and the Origins of Ancient Egypt

And while the above cultures are relatively well studied, not much was known about a Neolithic Culture much credited with giving rise to ancient Egypt, its cities, monuments, and pyramids.

That’s because archaeological sites are often poorly accessible and the remnants of their once glorious settlements are under old Nile flood plain, and even in peripheral deserts, complicating their study.

Nonetheless, scientists from the Combined Prehistoric Expedition, with permission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt (SCA) have managed to study some of the sites in Egypt’s western desert.

Despite the fact the region was not lush as some would expect, it was much greener than it is today, which helped herdsmen populate the area which is now an arid desert. Excavating a place called Gebel Ramlah, researchers discovered that the cultures inhabiting the region buried their dead in organized cemeteries and the skeletons uncovered there offer unprecedented clues about the lifestyle of the culture, thousands of years ago.

Grave artefacts from 2001-2003 excavations. Image Credit: Joel D. Irish, Czekaj- Zastawny Agnieszka, Jacek Kabacinski / The Conversation.
Grave artifacts from 2001-2003 excavations. Image Credit: Joel D. Irish, Czekaj- Zastawny Agnieszka, Jacek Kabacinski / The Conversation.

It was these people who built megaliths, intricate shires and calendar circles reminiscent in design (although not in size) to other sites such as Stonehenge. The site was studied between 2001 and 2003 when experts discovered a total of 68 skeletons in the area. They uncovered ornamental jewelry as well as weapons.

More recent expeditions, between 2006 and 2016, found cemeteries different from the rest. After analyzing around 130 skeletons, the researchers found the tombs were accompanied with fewer artifacts and increased mortality rate, compared to the skeletons uncovered in previous expeditions. Although these two cemeteries may have belonged to different groups of people it is very unlikely due to general physical similarities, which led experts to believe that one cemetery was for the elite, while the other for workers.

This was the first discovery of such a phenomenon in predynastic Egypt, experts revealed.

Researchers also uncovered evidence that attainment of “personhood” – the age children are socialized into being “people” – was from three years. Furthermore, the researchers in the study revealed there was clear evidence of respect for the dead.

These behavioral indicators, combined with the technological and ceremonial architecture, such as calendar circles and sanctuaries, imply a level of sophistication that goes well beyond that shown by groups of herders. Taken together, the findings provide a glimpse of things yet to come in Ancient Egypt.