Paleolithic Egypt

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In the Paleolithic Era, the Sahara and the Nile River valleys were far different then we know it today. The Sahara did not consist of sand but rolling grass lands that sprang forth with abundant vegetation and food. This period of ample vegetation and rainfall lasted until about 30,000 BC. Then the climate began to dry up and the rolling grass lands started to recede and the food supply began to vanish. The people then made their trek to the Nile Valley with its readily available water, game, and arable land. The period marked the change from hunting and gathering to the time of farming. Additionally, this period is believed to have been much more temperate and rainy than the Nile Valley of today.

The earliest evidence for humans in Egypt dates from around 500,000 - 700,000 years ago. These hominid finds are those of Homo erectus. Early Paleolithic sites are most often found near now dried-up springs or lakes or in areas where materials to make stone tools are plentiful.

One of these sites is Arkin 8, discovered by Polish archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski near Wadi Halfa. These are some of the oldest buildings in the world ever found. The remains of the structures are oval depressions about 30 cm deep and 2 x 1 meters across.  Many are lined with flat sandstone slabs. They are called tent rings, because the rocks support a dome-like shelter of skins or brush. This type of dwelling provides a permanent place to live, but if necessary, can be taken down easily and moved.  It is a type of structure favored by nomadic tribes making the transition from hunter-gatherer to semi-permanent settlement all over the world.

By the Middle Paleolithic, Homo erectus had been replaced by Homo neanderthalensis. It was about this time that more efficient stone tools were being made by making several stone tools from one core, resulting in numerous thin, sharp flakes that required minimal reshaping to make what was desired. The standardization of stone toolmaking led to the development of several new tools. They developed the lancelet spear point, a better piercing point which easily fit into a wooden shaft.

The next advancement in tool making came during the Aterian Industry which dates around 40,000 BC. The Aterian Industry improved spear and projectile points by adding a notch on the bottom of the stone point, so it could be more securely fastened to the wooden shaft. The other breakthrough in this period is the invention of the spear-thrower, which allowed for more striking power and better accuracy. The spear-thrower consisted of a wooden shaft with a notch on one end where the spear rested. The development of the spear-thrower allowed for increased efficiency in hunting large animals. They hunted a wide variety of animals such as the white rhinoceros, camel, gazelles, warthogs, ostriches, and various types of antelopes.

The Khormusan Industry, which overlapped the Aterian Industry, started some time between 40,000 and 30,000 BC. The Khormusan Industry pushed advancement even farther by making tools from animal bones and ground hematite, but they also used a wide variety of stone tools. The main feature that marks the Khormusan Industry is their small arrow heads that resemble those of Native Americans. The use of bows by the Aterian and Khormusan industries is still questioned; to date there is no set proof that they used bow technology.

During the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic around 30,000 BC, the pluvial conditions ended and desertification overtook the Sahara region. People were forced to migrate closer to the Nile River valley. Near the Nile, new cultures and industries started to develop. These new industries had many new trends in their production of stone tools, especially that of the miniaturization and specialization.

The Sebilian Industry that followed the Khotmusan Industry added little advancement to tool making, and some aspects even went backwards in tool making. The Sebilian Industry is known for their development of burins, small stubby points. They started by making tools from diorite, a hard igneous rock which was widely found in their environment. Later on they switched over to flint which was easier to work.

The Sebilian Industry did coexist with another culture called the Silsillian Industry which did make significant advancements in tool technology. The Silsillians used such blades as truncated blades and microliths. The truncated blades are made for one specific task and are of irregular shape. The microliths are small blades used in such tools as arrows, sickles, and harpoons. The micro blade technology was most likely used because of the small supply of good toolmaking stone, such as diorite and flint.

The Qadan Industry was the first to show major signs of intensive seed collection and other agriculturally similar techniques. They used such tools as sickles and grinding stones. These tools show that by this time people had developed the skills for plant-dependent activities. The use of these tools astonishingly vanished around 10,000 BC for a small period of time, perhaps as a result of climatic change.  This resulted in hunting and gathering returning as the adaptive strategy.

Beginning after 13,000 BC, cemeteries and evidence of ritual burial are found. Skeletons were often decorated with necklaces, pendants, breast ornaments and headdresses of shell and bone.

The Epipaleolithic Period dates between 10,000 - 5,500 BC and is the transition between the Paleolithic and the Predynastic periods in ancient Egypt. During this time, the hunter-gatherers began a transition to the village-dwelling farming cultures.

The Nile Valley of the Paleolithic was much larger then it is today, its annual flooding made permanent habitation of its floodplain impossible. As the climate became drier and the extent of the flooding was reduced, people were able to settle on the Nile floodplain. After 7000 BC, permanent settlements were located on the floodplain of the Nile. These began as seasonal camps but become more permanent as people began to develop true agriculture.

References:

Egypt: Complete Guide for Travel, Ancient & Modern Egypt. http://www.touregypt.net/index.htm, InterCity Oz, Inc., 1999-2003.

Hall, H. R. The Ancient History of the Near East.  Methuen & CO., London. 1913.

Hoffman, Michael A. Egypt Before the Pharaohs. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York. 1984.

James, T. G. H. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. Harper & Row, New York. 1979.

Written By Mitch Oachs and Nathan Bailey, 2002

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