Added March 1998. Updated November 26, 2000.
Southern Methodist University
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Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii
Polskiej Aakademii Nauk
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Located 100 km west of Abu Simbel, in southernmost Egypt, Nabta Playa is a large, internally drained basin, which during the early Holocene ( ca. 11,000 - 5500 calibrated radiocarbon years ago) was a large and important ceremonial center for prehistoric people. It was intermittently and seasonally filled with water, which encouraged people to come there, and today it contains dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of archaeological sites. People came from many regions to Nabta Playa to record astronomical events, erect alignments of megaliths, and build impressive stone structures.
From around 65,000 years ago until about 12,000 years ago the Western Desert was hyper-arid, at least as dry as today and perhaps drier. This began to change after 12,000 years ago when the summer rains of tropical Africa began to move northward, bringing sufficient moisture for a wide variety of sahelian grasses, trees and bushes to grow, and for a few small animals to exist, mostly hares and small gazelle, but also including a few small carnivores. Even with the rains it was still very dry; the annual rainfall was no more than 100 - 150 mm per year, and it was unpredictable and punctuated with numerous droughts, some of which caused the desert to be abandoned for lengthy periods. The earliest (11,000 - 9300 years ago, calibrated) settlements at Nabta were composed of small seasonal camps of cattle-herding and ceramic-using people. These early cattle are regarded as domestic (Wendorf and Schild 1994), and it may have been in the Western Desert that the African pattern of cattle herding developed, wherein cattle serve as a "walking larder" and provide milk and blood, rather than meat (except for ceremonial occasions) and are the economic basis for power and prestige. Pottery is very rare in these sites, but distinctive. It is decorated over the entire exterior with complex patterns of impressions applied with a comb in a rocking motion. The source of this pottery has not been identified, but it is among the oldest known in Africa, and older than pottery in Southwest Asia. These early people probably came into the desert after the summer rains from either farther south or the adjacent Nile Valley, in either case searching for pasture for their cattle. Each fall, when the surface water in the playas dried up and there was no water for them or their cattle, they had to return to the Nile, or perhaps to the better watered areas to the south.
By 9000 years ago (8000 bp, uncalibrated), the settlements were much larger, and their inhabitants were able to live in the desert year-round, digging large, deep wells and living in organized villages consisting of small huts arranged in straight lines. The many plant remains in these sites tell us they were collecting large numbers of edible wild plants, including sorghum, millets, legumes, tubers, and fruits. Around 8800 years ago (7800 bp, uncalibrated), they began to make pottery locally, possibly the earliest pottery in Egypt. A few hundred years later, around 8100 years ago (7100 bp, uncalibrated), sheep and goats occur for the first time at Nabta, almost certainly introduced from Southwest Asia, where domestic caprovids had been known for over 2000 years. There must have been many changes in the settlement system to accommodate these new animals; the settlements are very large and contain numerous hearths, but there is no evidence of huts or houses.
A major change occurred in the character of the Neolithic society at Nabta occurred around 7500 years ago, following a major drought which drove the previous groups from the desert. The groups who returned to the desert now clearly had a complex social system that expressed a degree of organization and control not previously seen in Egypt. They sacrificed young cows and buried them in clay-lined and roofed chambers covered by rough stone tumuli, they erected alignments of large, unshaped stones, they built Egypt's earliest astronomical measuring device (a "calendar circle" which appears to have been used to mark the summer solstice), and they constructed more than 30 complex structures having both surface and subterranean features. A shaped stone from one of these complexes may be the oldest known sculpture in Egypt.
These structures are important because they indicate the way the people were able to organize work, celebrate their culture, and perhaps express their religious beliefs, and furthermore, they tell us that the Saharan people may have been more highly organized than their contemporaries in the Nile Valley.
A regional ceremonial center is a place where related but widely separated groups gather periodically to conduct ceremonies and to reaffirm their social and political solidarity. Even today in many parts of Africa these centers serve as foci of religious, political and social functions for the entire group. Nabta seems to have been such a center for pastoralists living in the southwestern portion of the Egyptian Western Desert. It probably began to function as a regional ceremonial center during the Middle Neolithic (8100-7600 years ago), when groups residing in other nearby basins gathered there for ceremonial and other purposes during the summer wet season when the playa was at its largest extent. This gathering occurred on a dune along the northwestern shore of the playa where there are hundreds of hearths and more than two meters of accumulated cultural debris.
Among the more interesting elements in the cultural debris at this gathering site were numerous bones of cattle. While present in most sites, bones of cattle are elsewhere never very numerous, good evidence that they were kept primarily for their milk and blood, rather than for meat. This pattern resembles the role of cattle among modern African pastoralists, where cattle represent wealth and political power and are rarely killed except on important ceremonial or social occasions, such as the death of a leader or a marriage. This so-called "African Cattle Complex" may have begun in the Western Desert of Egypt.
The role of Nabta as a regional ceremonial center is also indicated by a north-south alignment of nine large (average, 3 x 2 x 0.5 m) quartzitic sandstone slabs set upright about 100 m apart, and partially imbedded in playa sediments near the gathering area along the northwest margin of the seasonal lake. The blocks were unshaped, and many of them are now broken; however, they can be refitted. Outcrops of similar sandstone occur in the vicinity, some less than a kilometer from the alignment. The alignment cannot be dated precisely, but it is probably Late Neolithic in age, and if so it was erected between 7500 and 5500 years ago. It is similar to the large stone alignments found in Western Europe, where they are dated to the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, about the same age as the Nabta alignment. There are other alignments known farther south in both East and West Africa, but they are thought to date much later, to the Iron Age.
About 300 m beyond the north end of the Nabta alignment is a "calendar circle" consisting of a series of small sandstone slabs arranged in a circle about 4 m in diameter. Among the ring of stones are four pairs of larger stones, each pair set close together and separated by a narrow space, or gate. The gates on two of these pairs align generally north-south; the gates on the other two pairs form a line at 700 east of north, which aligns with the calculated position of sunrise at the summer solstice 6000 years ago. In the center of the circle are six upright slabs arranged in two lines , whose astronomical function, if any, is not evident. Charcoal from one of the numerous hearths around the "calendar" dated around 6800 years ago (6000 bp +- 60 years, CAMS - 17287).
Another 300 meters farther north of the calendar circle is a stone-covered tumulus containing the remains of a complete articulated young adult cow buried in a chamber that was dug into the floor of the wadi, surrounded by a clay collar, and roofed with limbs of tamarisk. The chamber was then covered with broken rocks forming a mound 8 meters in diameter and a meter high. A piece of wood from the roof yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date between 7400 and 7300 years ago (6470 bp +- 270 years, CAMS - 17289). In the same area seven other similar stone tumuli containing the remains of cattle were excavated, but none of them had subsurface chambers; instead, the bones of the cattle, a few of which were still articulated, were simply placed among the stones.
Among the most interesting features at Nabta is the group of thirty "complex structures" located in an area about 500 meters long and 200 meters wide, on a high remnant of playa clays and silts about a kilometer south of the large settlement which yielded so many bones of cattle. Each of these structures consists of a group of large, elongated, roughly shaped or unshaped sandstone blocks set upright to frame an oval area about five meters in length and four meters in width, oriented slightly west of north. In the center of this oval there is one, sometimes two, very large flat slabs laid horizontally. Two of these structures have been excavated, a third has been tested, and drill-holes have been dug at two others. All are basically similar, although they differ in some details. All of the excavated and tested structures were built over mushroom-shaped tablerocks, the tops of which were deeply buried (from two to three and a half meters below the surface) in heavy playa clays and silts. These tablerocks are quartzitic lenses in the underlying bedrock which were shaped by erosion of the softer surrounding sediments before the overlying playa sediments were deposited. How the Nabta people managed to find these tablerocks deeply buried below the surface is not clear, but it may have been mere chance and occurred during the excavation of a water well. Except for the structures, however, there is no other archaeological material in this area, which is highly unusual for the Nabta Basin, where archaeological sites of various ages occur almost everywhere.
The excavation of the largest of these complex structures disclosed that before the upright stones were erected, a large pit about six meters in diameter and four meters deep had been dug. The table rock at the base of the pit was shaped by removing the irregular edges, leaving a convex perimeter on three sides. The fourth side, at the north end, was worked by flaking to form a straight edge. The top of the table rock was also smoothed. The pit was then partially refilled with playa clay to a level about a half meter above the top of the table rock, and then an enormous (ca. 2.5 tons), carefully shaped stone was brought in and held in position by several small slabs. The base of the shaped stone was 2.5 meters below the surface. What this "sculpture" represents is not clear; it is shaped on only two sides, and its sculptors used the natural bedding in the rock to achieve a wide, curved surface which they smoothed. In some views the stone vaguely resembles a large animal. After the shaped stone was placed in position, the pit was backfilled completely, and the surface architecture of large upright stones and two large horizontal central stones was erected directly over the tablerock.
The other excavated structure also had been erected over a tablerock, and it too had a large stone over the tablerock, but work on that stone was limited to a few flakes removed from one end. The third complex structure was only tested. It was one of eight that were tightly clustered and interlocked together. The units were smaller, constructed of smaller stones, but had the same configuration with a large horizontal central stone. The test excavations recovered charcoal from a shelf on the edge of the pit under the structure, and this charcoal yielded a calibrated radiocarbon age between 5600 and 5400 years ago (4800 +- 80 years bp; DRI 3358). This is the only date available for these structures, and it is about 1500 years later than we had estimated from the stratigraphic evidence. This cluster differs from the other complex structures, and it may relate to a late phase in this phenomena; however, there is no other reason to reject the date.
Drilling at two other structures showed that they had also been erected over buried tablerocks. Although only two of these features were excavated completely, and a third only tested, it is highly likely that most of the others were also built over deeply buried tablerocks that may or may not have been modified, and may also have large worked stones in the fill above the tablerock. These complex structures appear to be unique to Nabta; they are not known to occur in the Nile Valley, or elsewhere in the Western Desert. It should be noted, however, that they are difficult to recognize (they were regarded a bedrock outcrops for many years), and they may be more widespread in the Eastern Sahara than now believed.
We had expected to find burials of elite individuals below the central stones, but no traces of human remains were seen, although the excavations were carried beyond the limits of the original pits dug to expose the tablerock. The function of the complex structures remains unknown, however, it may be useful to consider the implications of their presence at Nabta.
The construction of the megaliths and the large complex structures at Nabta required significant effort, indicating the presence of a religious or political authority with control over human resources for an extended period of time. They, together with the calendar circle and cattle burials, represent an elaborate and previously unsuspected ceremonialism in the Neolithic of the Eastern Sahara. Although the evidence remains insecure and thus it cannot be demonstrated that these Saharan cattle pastoralists had a ranked society, this is, nevertheless, a strong possibility.
The discoveries at Nabta Playa suggest the possibility of a previously unrecognized relationship between the Neolithic people living along the Nile and pastoralists in the adjacent Sahara which may have contributed to the rise of social complexity in ancient Egypt. This complexity, as expressed by different levels of authority within the society, forms the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt. It was this authority at Nabta which made possible the planned arrangement of their villages, the excavation of large, deep wells, and the construction of complex stone structures made of large, shaped and unshaped stones. There are other Nabta features which are shared by the two areas, but which appear suddenly and without evident local antecedents in the late Predynastic and early Old Kingdom in the Nile Valley. These include the role of cattle to express differences of wealth, power and authority, the emphasis on cattle in religious beliefs, and the use of astronomical knowledge and devices to predict solar events. Many of these features have a prior and long history of development at Nabta.
The geographic position of the Nabta center is also of interest. Nabta may have been a contact point between the early Neolithic groups along the Nile who had an agricultural economy and the cattle pastoralists in the Eastern Sahara. The functional separation of these two different economies may have played a significant role in the emergence of complexity among both groups. The evidence for Nilotic influence on pastoralists is not extensive and is presently limited to ceramic technology, domestic caprovids, and the occasional trade of shells of Nile species and rare stones from the Nile gravel. However, there are many aspects of political and ceremonial life in the Predynastic and Old Kingdom that reflects a strong impact from Saharan cattle pastoralists.
The likely possibility of a symbiotic relationship between the cattle pastoralists in the Sahara and the Neolithic groups in the Nile Valley points to a potentially important role for the Nabta regional ceremonial center. Among East African cattle pastoralists regional ceremonial centers, because of their integrative role, are frequently placed near boundaries between different segments of a tribe, or between different tribal groups. The Nabta center could well have served that purpose, it could have been located between several groups of pastoralists, and between pastoralists and the Neolithic farmers along the Nile, 100 km away.
It has long been assumed that Egypt borrowed the concepts of complexity from Mesopotamia; however, it is now generally recognized that a process like social complexity cannot be diffused from one area to another, but instead develops from local causes. It might occur, for example, when there are two radically different economic systems in close physical proximity, as is found where agriculturists have close relationships with pastoralists. Pastoralists usually live in tense harmony with their village neighbors, but from time to time they will take advantage of a weakness and take control. It is in this setting that the socially complex Late Neolithic cattle pastoralists and their regional ceremonial center at Nabta is of particular importance.
There are many features in the religious beliefs and social systems of early Egyptians which are not found in Mesopotamia. Among the ancient Egyptians, cattle were the central focus of the belief system. They were deified and regarded as earthly representatives of the gods. A cow was also seen as the mother of the sun, who is sometimes referred to as the "Bull of Heaven." The Egyptian pharaoh was regarded as the embodiment of two gods, Horus, for Upper Egypt and Seth, for Lower Egypt, but he was primarily Horus, son of Hathor, who was a cow. Horus is also sometimes depicted as a strong bull, and images of cattle are prominent in Predynastic and Old Kingdom art; in some instances images of bulls occur with depiction's of stars. Another important Old Kingdom concept was Min, the god of rain, who is associated with a white bull, and to whom the annual harvest festival was dedicated.
It is significant that the emphasis on cattle in the belief system of the Old Kingdom was not reflected in the economy. While cattle were known and were the major measure of wealth, the economy was based primarily on agriculture and small livestock - sheep and goats. Also, cattle were not important among the preceding Neolithic in the Nile Valley, which suggests that the Old Kingdom belief system was imposed from the outside, perhaps in the traditional fashion, a conquest by pastoralists who periodically come in from their "lands of insolence" to conquer their farming neighbors (Coon 1958:295-323; Khazanov 1994). It is tempting to suggest that the impressive cattle burials at the A-Group site of Qustul (Williams 1986), in Egypt south of Abu Simbel, may relate to just such an event. At the moment these interesting possibilities must be regarded as speculative; the data on the structure of the Saharan pastoralist societies remains inadequate, and the character of the early Neolithic in the Nile Valley in Nubia and Upper Egypt is poorly understood, but a study of the interaction between the Sahara and the Nile may throw significant light on the processes that led to the rise of Egyptian Civilization.
Malville, Wendorf, Mazar, and Schild
1998 NATURE 292:488-491 2 April 1998.
Wendorf and Schild
1998 "Nabta Playa and its role in Northeastern African Prehistory" JOUR. OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY 17:97-123.
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