Ancient Egypt,  Predynastic Egypt

The pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods

The peoples of pre-dynastic Egypt were the successors of the Paleolithic inhabitants of northeastern Africa, who had spread over much of its area; during wet phases they had left remains in regions as inhospitable as the Great Sand Sea. The final desiccation of the Sahara was not complete until the end of the 3rd millennium BC; over thousands of years people must have migrated from there to the Nile Valley, the environment of which improved as it dried out. In this process, the decisive change from the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life of Paleolithic times to settled agriculture has not so far been identified. Some time after 5000 BC the raising of crops was introduced, probably on a horticultural scale, in small, local cultures that seem to have penetrated southward through Egypt into the oases and the Sudan. Several of the basic food plants that were grown are native to the Near East, so the new techniques probably spread from there. No large-scale migration need have been involved, and the cultures were at first largely self-contained. The preserved evidence for them is unrepresentative, because it comes from the low desert, where relatively few people lived; as later, most people probably settled in the Valley and Delta.

The earliest known Neolithic cultures in Egypt have been found at Marimda Bani Salama, on the southwest edge of the Delta, and farther to the southwest, in the Fayyum. The site at Marimda Bani Salama, which dates to the 6th-5th millennia BC, gives evidence of settlement and shows that cereals were grown. In the Fayyum, where evidence dates to the 5th millennium BC, the settlements were near the shore of Lake Qarun, and the settlers engaged in fishing. Marimda is a very large site that was occupied for many centuries. The inhabitants lived in lightly built huts; they may have buried their dead within their houses, but areas where burials have been found may not have been occupied by dwellings at the same time. Pottery was used in both cultures. In addition to these Egyptian Neolithic cultures, others have been identified in the Western Desert, in the Second Cataract area, and north of Khartoum. Some of these are as early as the Egyptian ones, while others overlapped with the succeeding Egyptian predynastic cultures.

In Upper Egypt, between Asyut and Luxor, have been found the Tasian culture (named after Dayr Tasa) and the Badarian culture (named after al-Badari); these date from the late 5th millennium BC. Most of the evidence for them comes from cemeteries, where the burials included fine blacktopped red pottery, ornaments, some copper objects, and glazed steatite beads. The most characteristic predynastic luxury objects, slate palettes for grinding cosmetics, occur for the first time in this period. The burials show little differentiation of wealth and status and seem to belong to a peasant culture without central political organization.

Probably contemporary with both predynastic and dynastic times are thousands of rock drawings of a wide range of motifs, including boats, found throughout the Eastern Desert, in Lower Nubia, and as far west as Mount 'Uwaynat, which stands near modern Egypt's borders with Libya and The Sudan in the southwest. The drawings show that nomads were common throughout the desert, probably down to the late 3rd millennium BC, but they cannot be dated precisely; they may all have been produced by nomads, or inhabitants of the Nile Valley may often have penetrated the desert and made drawings.

Naqadah I, named after the major site of Naqadah but also called Amratian after al-'Amirah, is a distinct phase that succeeded Badarian and has been found as far south as Kawm al-Ahmar (Hierakonpolis; ancient Egyptian Nekhen), near the sandstone barrier of Jabal al-Silsila, which was the cultural boundary of Egypt in predynastic times. Naqadah I differs from Badarian in its density of settlement and in the typology of its material culture, but hardly at all in the social organization implied by finds. Burials were in shallow pits in which the bodies faced to the west, like those of later Egyptians. Notable types of material found in graves are fine pottery decorated with representational designs in white on red, figurines of men and women, and hard stone mace-heads that are the precursors of important late predynastic objects.

Naqadah II, also known as Gerzean after al-Girza, is the most important predynastic culture. The heartland of its development was the same as that of Naqadah I, but it spread gradually throughout the country. South of Jabal al-Silsila, sites of the culturally similar Nubian A Group are found as far as the Second Cataract and beyond; these have a long span, continuing as late as the Egyptian Early Dynastic Period. During Naqadah II, large sites developed at Kawm al-Ahmar, Naqadah, and Abydos, showing by their size the concentration of settlement, as well as exhibiting increasing differentiation in wealth and status. Few sites have been identified between Asyut and the Fayyum, and this region may have been sparsely settled, perhaps supporting a pastoral rather than agricultural population. Near modern Cairo, at al-'Umari, Ma'adi, and Wadi Digla, and stretching as far south as the latitude of the Fayyum, are sites of a separate, contemporary culture. Ma'adi was an extensive settlement that traded with the Near East and probably acted as an intermediary for transmitting goods to the south. In this period, imports of lapis lazuli provide evidence that trade networks extended as far afield as Afghanistan.

The material culture of Naqadah II included increasing numbers of prestige objects. The characteristic mortuary pottery is made of buff desert clay, principally from around Qena, and is decorated in red with pictures of uncertain meaning showing boats, animals, and scenes with human figures. Stone vases, many made of hard stones that come from remote areas of the Eastern Desert, are common and of remarkable quality, and cosmetic palettes display elaborate designs, with outlines in the form of animals, birds, or fish. Flint was worked with extraordinary skill to produce large ceremonial knives of a type that continued in use during dynastic times.

Sites of late Naqadah II (sometimes termed Naqadah III) are found throughout Egypt, including the Memphite area and the Delta, and appear to have replaced the local Lower Egyptian cultures. Links with the Near East intensified and some distinctively Mesopotamian motifs and objects were briefly in fashion in Egypt. The cultural unification of the country probably accompanied a political unification, but this must have proceeded in stages and cannot be reconstructed in detail. In an intermediate stage, local states may have formed at Kawm al-Ahmar, Naqadah, and Abydos, and in the Delta at such sites as Buto (modern Tall al-Fara'in) and Sais. Ultimately, Abydos became preeminent; its late predynastic cemetery of Umm al-Qa'ab was extended to form the burial place of the kings of the 1st dynasty. In the latest predynastic period, objects bearing written symbols of royalty were deposited throughout the country, and primitive writing also appeared in marks on pottery. Because the basic symbol for the king, a falcon on a decorated palace facade, hardly varies, these objects are thought to have belonged to a single line of kings or a single state, and not to a set of small states. This symbol became the royal Horus name, the first element in a king's titulary, which presented the reigning king as the manifestation of an aspect of the god Horus, the leading god of the country. Over the next few centuries several further definitions of the king's presence were added to this one.

Thus at this time Egypt seems to have been a state unified under kings who introduced writing and the first bureaucratic administration. These kings, who could have ruled for more than a century, may correspond with a set of names preserved on the Palermo Stone, but no direct identification can be made between them. The latest was probably Narmer, whose name has been found near Memphis, at Abydos, on a ceremonial palette and mace-head from Kawm al-Ahmar, and at the Palestinian sites of Tall Gat and 'Arad. The relief scenes on the palette show him wearing the two chief crowns of Egypt and defeating northern enemies, but these probably are stereotyped symbols of the king's power and role and not records of specific events of his reign. They demonstrate that the position of the king in society and its presentation in mixed pictorial and written form had been elaborated by this date.

During this time Egyptian artistic style and conventions were formulated, together with writing. The process led to a complete and remarkably rapid transformation of material culture, so that many dynastic Egyptian prestige objects hardly resemble their forerunners.

Home Page

International History Project