Predynastic Egypt: Life Before the Pyramids
The history of Ancient Egypt spans several millennia and is filled with wonders and achievements which are veiled in mystery and the enigmatic secrets of distant times. For decades, the archaeological excavations and the discoveries in the field of Egyptology never ceased to amaze both the scholars and the world. But rarely do we stop to think about predynastic Egypt and the very beginnings of a powerful civilization. Where did it all come from? How did the peoples of the Nile valley develop into such an amazing and highly advanced civilization?
The Long Age of Predynastic Egypt
The areas adjacent to the fertile Nile valleys were always a hotbed of human development. To understand the emergence of the earliest predynastic Egyptian society, we need to reach far back in time. Some of the earliest steps of evolution and development in the Nile Valley began as early as 120,000 years BC. One of these was the Achulean Culture – a primitive stage of early human development, characterized by stone tools of an oval, pear shape. As Homo Sapiens gradually overtook Homo Erectus, different cultures took the spot, with further advancements in primitive technologies.
One of the unique cultures in prehistoric Egypt that developed was the so-called Khormoussan culture, named for the site of Khor Musa, near the later famed Egyptian site of Wadi Halfa. This society appeared around 45,000 years BC around Maghreb and the southern regions of the Sahara. One thing that is notable for the peoples of this culture is the slow abandonment of the desert regions, and a migration nearer to the fertile valleys of the Nile. They were nomadic, following wild herds and making temporary camps in river valleys.
The area of Wadi Halfa, Nubian Desert (CC by SA 3.0)
Wadi Halfa is considered one of the oldest sites in prehistoric Egypt, where the oldest structures were discovered – some dated to 100,000 BC. It was around this site that the later Khormoussan culture was established. They were known for their technological advancements over time. They mastered the use of stone tools, but also developed use of bone and hematite. It began sometime between 42,000 and 32,000 before present, and ended around 16,000 BC, with the gradual emergence of new, more advanced cultures. One of these new cultures that came afterwards is known as the Qadan culture. It moved into the Neolithic stage of development between 15,000 and 10,000 BC and is characteristic of several areas and settlements. These are the well-known Elkab at Wadi Halfa, the Faiyum, Deir el-Badari, Deir Tasa, and El-Omari, near Halwan.
The predynastic Qadan Culture had new advancements and characteristics which would be crucial for the gradual emergence of a proto Egyptian identity. They were the first to take some of the earliest steps towards proper agriculture. They prepared and ate wild grasses and grains and made efforts to cultivate and harvest local flora. They also took up hunting and fishing and developed more advanced weapons and tools. During the several millennia of their bloom, the Qadan Culture began using pottery and weaved baskets, and established unique funerary practices that included some early forms of necropolises and similar burial sites. They also developed sickles and grinding stones. Gradually, new cultures took place, each one making new advancements and laying a bigger foundation towards the eventual emergence of the Egyptian Civilization.
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. (CC by SA 3.0)
An Emerging Identity – The Neolithic Cultures
A formative culture of the Nile Valley during the Neolithic period was known as the Faiyum culture. Around 6000 BC, the settlements that are characteristic of the Neolithic period begin to appear around Egypt. Several scholarly studies base this Neolithic emergence around migrants from the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East, who migrated back to Egypt and brought with them agriculture. Flourishing from around 4400 to 3900 BC, and emerging perhaps even earlier, the Faiyum culture marks a period when people of the region were forced to move due to the continued expansion of the desert. This cultural sequence emerged on the northern and northeastern shores of the ancient lake and oasis of the Faiyum district. The inhabitants of its shores were dependent on hunting and fishing and were mostly nomadic and moved with seasonal migrations of large wild herds.
The Faiyum culture of predynastic Egypt used unique stone tools which showed large shapes with notches and denticulates. They began using arrowheads, and socketed flint blades. Archaeological evidence shows us that rough linen was in manufacture, as well as woven baskets. One interesting aspect of the Faiyum culture is the fact that they began living in small “micro” bands and extended family groups which were led by chieftains. With this cultural trait, we can see the emergence of communities with strong leadership appearing in Egypt.
The early Neolithic cultures were nomadic and moved with their animals from one place to another. Credit: krachapol / Adobe Stock
In time, the Faiyum culture was replaced by peoples with much more developed technologies, like the well-known Badarian Culture. Flourishing from 4500 to 4000 BC, the Badarian Culture and Faiyum overlapped, but the former was more advanced. Peoples of this cultural sequence lived in the Nile region, in the areas of el-Hamamiya, el-Matmar, el-Mostagedda, and so on. Contrary to others, the Badarian peoples lived in tents made of skins and huts made out of reeds. Notably, they cultivated wheat and barley, and collected fruits and herbs, and used castor beans for oil. Bones of domesticated animals were a characteristic archaeological find at Badarian sites.
Badarian culture in predynastic Egypt also displayed complex funerary practices, with oval roofed graves in which the deceased were buried with many grave goods of ivory and stone, and food offerings. Two such large gravesites were discovered, on the edges of the desert, on the eastern side of the Nile between el-Matmar and el-Etmantieh.
Both Faiyum and the more advanced Badarian culture are important segments of the spectrum in which the future Egyptian civilization developed.
A carved figure from the Badarian culture, 4000 BC. (Image: British Museum)
Naqada – The Earliest Face of Ancient Egypt
But perhaps the best researched of these cultures – and the most important in the story of Predynastic Egypt – is the so-called Naqada culture. Its earliest form emerged around 4,000 BC, and was also called Amratian Culture, or Naqada I. Several things characterize this Chalcolitic culture. Pottery became more advanced, and trading was established between Upper and Lower regions of Egypt. Other trade was established with Nubian regions, from where obsidian and gold were imported.
The next step in Naqada culture is the stage II. Also known as the Gerzean culture, the Naqada II thrived from around 3500 to 3200 BC and was centered around Gerzeh. This period was crucial in laying the foundations of the Egyptian civilization.
Naqada II was an unbroken, gradual development from Naqada I – emerging in the Nile delta and spreading south through the Upper Egypt region. It is possible that it formed even before 3500 BC, alongside a smaller Omari B culture. Archaeological evidence of this culture displays new developments in ceramic ware, with unique styles, iconic motifs, and natural imagery. This culture had all elements of a proto Egyptian civilization emerging – from first elaborate burials, necropolises, funerary items, and other elements coming into use. During this period trades outside of Egypt’s borders became prominent. Evidence of trade with Sinai and Palestine are found, and a centralized power emerged.
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And as the desert encroached more and more, these peoples became increasingly dependent on the fertile Nile Valley for their food source and raising of crops. This increase of food made a gradual shift towards a sedentary lifestyle, and Egyptians formed cities – some of which numbered up to 5,000 people.
During Naqada II, copper became widespread in use. Even though high-quality stone weapons were still fashioned, copper was also dominant. One of the greatest examples of predynastic ceremonial flint weaponry comes from this period and is known as the Gebel el-Arak knife. A ceremonial knife, it is made under a strong Mesopotamian influence, with an elaborately carved ivory handle and an exquisite flint blade. It is an important insight into the early relations between emerging Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The Gebel el-Arak knife (CC by SA 3.0)
It is these Mesopotamian influences that led to the theory that the Egypt of that period was ruled by a Mesopotamian ruling class, although this theory is no longer supported by scholars.
The final stage of the predynastic period of Egypt, and the crucial part of its formation is the Naqada III period, also known as the Dynasty 0 or the Protodynastic Period. A further development of the preceding Naqada II, this period lasted from 3200 to 3000 BC. This period marked the height of predynastic Egypt’s striving towards a political unification and a state formation, and the first mentions of ruling kings of powerful regional political entities known as polities. During this protodynastic period, first shapes of an emerging Egyptian civilization that we know today became visible. The powerful polities that arose in the valley of the Nile were city states, with three most powerful ones being Thinis, Nekhen, and Naqada. And the one that rose on top from these three is the almost mythical Thinis.
Thinis was a city state that was attested in many ancient historical sources numerous times, but even so, its remains were never discovered. All sources and evidence point to a location near Abydos, another important Egyptian city.
The Bull Palette, a famous piece attributed to the Naqada III period of protodynastic Egypt (CC by SA 3.0)
Uniting the Two Crowns of Egypt
Thinis became a center of the so-called Thinite Confederacy, a proposed tribal union that was one of the steps that preceded the unification of Upper Egypt. Thinis managed to successfully conquer Naqada and unify Upper Egypt. It then merged with Nekhen – seemingly without conflict – and conquered Lower Egypt. The rulers of this predynastic period are often termed as “Dynasty 0”. Still, the pharaoh that united Upper and Lower Egypt in this protodynastic period is not known with certainty. Ancient Egyptian records mention this to be Menes, a ruler of whom no evidence exists. Thus, scholars believe that the unifier of Egypt was most likely Narmer. Narmer can be considered as the 3 rd Egyptian ruler whose name is attested and evidenced, after Iry-Hor and Ka.
The most important evidence that supports the theory that Narmer was the unifier of Egypt, is the so-called “Narmer Pallette”, one of the most important archaeological finds from Egypt. This siltstone palette depicts some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions, and the earliest known depiction of an Egyptian king. On it, intricately carved scenes depict a victorious ruler – thought by most to be Narmer – in a dominant stance with a mace raised high above his head, ready to strike a kneeling prisoner. On this side the ruler wears the hedjet – the White Crown of Upper Egypt.
On the other side is a complex layered display of several scenes, the largest of which displays a victory parade. On this side, the ruler is displayed with the deshret, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, and also with a mace and flail, a traditional symbol of kingship in Egyptian art. The fact that the king bears both crowns of Egypt – which combined make up the sekhemti (pschent) – the royal double crown of Egypt.
On the palette is a carved serekh – a heraldic standard, that bears a puzzle (rebus) which shows a catfish, and a chisel. The puzzle is actually a name – catfish in Ancient Egyptian was n’r, while the chisel was mr. Together, they form the phonetic representation of the name Narmer.
Mankind’s Development Observed
With the unification of Egypt, and the establishing of first kingdoms and the earliest dynasties, the official timeline of Ancient Egypt begins. The predynastic period serves to offer us a perfect glimpse into the complex process of a developing civilization – a process that lasts for several millennia. It shows us how different groups emerge and disappear, and how each new century placed man one step ahead with new technologies and refined tools.
Step by step, century by century, millennia by millennia, the peoples that emerged in the desert regions of the Egypt and the fertile valleys of the Nile built up a complex set of beliefs and myths, establishing technologies which would bring to life one of the most important civilizations in mankind’s history.
Top image: Statuette of a woman from predynastic Egypt, 4 th millennium BC (CC by SA 2.0)
Bunson, M. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Infobase Publishing.
Kemp, B. 2007. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation. Routledge.
Kemp, B., and Trigger, B., and Lloyd, A., and O’Connor, D. 1983. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge University Press.