Early Migrations Into the Nile Valley

In the Page on Prehistory I presented some idea of the social evolution of the Upper Nile Valley, beginning with the neolithic Badarian culture and progressing into Dynastic Egypt. We should remember that the period from 6,000 BC to the first Dynasties at 3,000 BC was the same length of time as that from the first clearly recognized Pharaoh to the Romans. During this three thousand year period the early Egyptians went from a simple agricultural subsistence to a complex social order. We should distinguish between the early periods of agricultural existence, and later periods when a hierarchical social system began to control all aspects of life in the valley.

In The Followers of Horus, Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 1992, several papers were presented reviewing the early history of the Nile valley. The following map is from the Paper by Joseph Majer, The Egyptian Desert and Egyptian Prehistory.

Trade routes to the Red Sea are shown with short dotted lines. One can easily grasp how immigrants into the Nile valley from the Mesopotamian regions would have used those routes. The early immigrants came along those routes to settle the regions at Naqada, Hierakonpolis, and down the Nile to Badari.

We should not believe the "Eastern Desert" was as inhospitable as it is today. When the Andite groups were migrating weather conditions were much different. Refer to my page on Geological Forces.

As stated by Majer:

The early Badarian period, when the valley and desert peoples shared a common culture, should be contrasted with the Naqada II period, when emerging valley centers increasingly dominated new long distance trade routes that connected the valley to the Mesopotamian cultural spheres. A shift in the nature of exchange, from an essentially reciprocal system to one based on trade for profit, dominated by an emerging Upper Egyptian elite, may have provided part of the margin or surplus needed for the formation of the Egyptian state.

Although Majer limits his remarks to the "Nile valley and Eastern desert people" he describes a time when there was common culture to the Red Sea and beyond. What we call the Badarians had emigrated into the Nile Valley and carried their culture with them as they moved west. They were the early Andite settlers.

Modern scholars must create local groups of people in order to pursue their philosophies of social evolution. They do not see human migrations, but people who occupy a particular geographical area with little regard for how they got there. Then they attempt to explain how those isolated people exchanged with one another. Thus they miss how groups carry their culture with them and leave traces of it as they pass through, perhaps with elements remaining behind to settle along the way. While scientific objectivity is an admirable and necessary practice to remain neutral in assessing evidence it misses the dynamics of human origins.

Consider the remarks of H. S. Smith, writing in the same volume dedicated to Michael Hoffman:

For may years now Petrie's thesis that the Dynastic civilization of Egypt was the work of a 'Dynastic Race' of eastern invaders from the general direction of Susiana and Sumeria (Petrie 1939) has been rightly abandoned in favor of the hypothesis that it was mainly an indigenous North-East African development (Hoffman 1980).

Apparently Smith does not know of the great hiatus in the Nile Valley from 10,000 BC to 6,000 BC. Hence he cannot ask the question of where the new people came from.

To continue with the remarks of Majer:

The Eastern Desert and Red Sea coast were occupied in the Epipaleolithic Period by people who had some connection to the Nile Valley. Upper Paleolithic tools or sites have been found at Laqeita oasis (Herbert and Wright 1988/89:3) and along the Red Sea littoral (Montenat 1986; Gawarecki 1986/ 87). Some of the rock drawings of the Eastern Desert, particularly those with geometric designs or showing hunting scenes, may also date to the late Paleolithic (Davis 1978; Redford and Redford 1989). A connection between the Nile Valley and the Eastern Desert is suggested by an Upper Paleolithic knapping site discovered by Fernand Debono (1951:60-62) at Laqeita oasis which contained retouched tools similar to types found in levels I and II of the Sebilien at Kom Ombo.

Makhadma sites 2 and 4, located in the Nile Valley about ten kilometers northeast of the mouth of the Wadi Qena, has produced evidence for exchange or travel between the Red Sea Coast and the Nile Valley. These sites were fishing camps, occupied about 12,000 years ago at the time of exceptionally high Nile floods, the "wild Nile" stage. A shell of the marine gastropod Engina mendicarria, which must have come from the Red Sea, documents the earliest contact between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea Coast of which I am aware (Vermeersch et al. 1989, and this volume) The evidence thus points to cultural similarity between desert and valley for the time just prior to the introduction of agriculture.

Refer to the original paper for the reference citations.

Again, the habit of scholarship is to follow the scheme that people were first hunters and gatherers, and then gradually saw the development of agriculture. But agriculture was common wherever the Andite people migrated, carried with them from their origins.

. . . There is ample evidence that the early valley farming communities were in close contact with the Eastern Desert and Red Sea Coast and were well aware of the resources to be found there. The potential for cultivation in the Eastern Desert should also not be discounted. Debono found a Predynastic village at Laqeita oasis which he dated by the pottery to the Badarian and Naqada I periods. The presence of grain grinding stones indicates harvesting or processing of grain at the oasis (Debono 1951:66-68). The modern Bedouin grow barley, millet, maize, melons, and other crops in special plots which are watered, generally only once a year, by the floodwater coming down the wadis after the occasional storm (Hobbs 1989:45). The potential for agriculture must have been greater during a period of increased precipitation.

Although Egyptologists speculate on origins and cultural practices of the early people we have considerable evidence of their migration into the Upper Nile valley from across the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea Coast.

Shells of Red Sea gastropods were occasionally were found in the northern Nile reaches of Fayum, (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934:87-88), and were also present in small numbers at Merimde, El Omari and Wadi el-Hof (Hayes 1965:111-21). This shows that trade with the Red Sea had reached those regions early in Valley history.

However, the Badarian cultural contexts show the closet connection with the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea. Their burials frequently contained Red Sea shells (Brunton and Caton-Thompson 1928:27-38). A prominent find in the graves were huge masses of glazed steatite beads. Some Egyptologists believe those derived from Mesopotamian and Syrian contexts (Finkenstaedt, 1983), although they may also have originated from sources in the Eastern Desert (Lucas 1948:179, 480).

Their early  lack of familiarity with local resources is also noted, with debate about the significance of the evidence.

Caton-Thompson suggested that the use by the Badarians of rough derivative nodules of flint, instead of the finer chert obtainable in nearby Eocene cliffs, pointed to a people unfamiliar with the local resources. She thought they may have migrated to the valley from the Cretaceous rock regions found in the Eastern Desert south of Latitude 25 and in the Western Desert even farther south (Brunton and Caton-Thompson 1928:75). Arkell (1975:34) noted the absence of harpoons in the Badarian assemblage and thought it indicated a people unfamiliar with the Nile. Their use of the ibex (today found only in the Red Sea hills) as a decorative motif led him to believe they originated on the flanks of the Red Sea hills somewhere farther south. But Holmes (1989) has recently re-examined the Badarian lithic material and believes that the flint nodules used by the Badarians were perfectly adequate to the demands placed upon them and do not indicate the presence of newcomers to the region. They did not mine flint in the cliffs because their lithic technology did not require flint of such high quality. The lack of harpoons may be explained by the use of different fishing technologies, such as baskets or weirs, which have not been preserved in the archaeological record. Ibex probably had a wider distribution at that time.

. . . Badarian-style artifacts have turned up, however, in the Wadi Hammamat and near the Red Sea Coast. The Badarian/Nagada I settlement at Laqeita has already been mentioned. Another site containing Predynastic potsherds has recently been discovered at this oasis, but no precise date is given in the published preliminary report (Herbert and Wright 1988/89:3). Debono also excavated a tomb in the Wadi Hammamat containing pottery, fragments of malachite, and two palettes, one of a Badarian type (Debono 1951:74). Five miles from the Red Sea Coast, at Latitude 24 59' North, near Ras Samadi, roughly opposite Edfu on the Nile, G. W. Murray recorded a grave containing a rectangular slate palette with green malachite stains as well as some loose malachite powder, fragments of a tortoise shell armlet and some shells pierced for threading into a necklace. Murray proposed a late Predynastic date for the grave, but this was before the publication of the finds at Badari (Murray and Derry 1923). Resch (1964) has suggested the grave was actually contemporary with the Badarian.

. . . Everything points to a similarity of culture between desert and valley with no temporal primacy for one or the other. It is not a case of desert dwellers descending en masse into the valley from some Eastern Desert homeland (Kaiser 1956, 1985), but rather a long term interrelation between desert and valley in which movement between the two zones was relatively easy.

The early pattern of commerce and communication with the Eastern Desert, the Red Sea, and foreign regions, continued into Dynastic Egypt. However, this took on the complexity of intentional commerce for profit, as part of the developing Egyptian state structure.

It is clear that there was change over time in the relation between the valley and the Eastern Desert. The relatively close cultural connections of the Badarian Period can be contrasted with the stark contrast between Red Land and Black Land that existed during the Pharaonic Period. There is reason to believe that important changes occurred during the Naqada II period, more precisely after Naqada IIc. Valley cultures continued to procure the products of the Eastern Desert and Red Sea coast. The Eastern Desert also became a conduit for new long distance trade routes. However, increasingly exploitation of desert resources and foreign trade came under the control of the emerging Egyptian state.

As time passed and the valley civilization developed the evidence of cultural and commercial connections to Mesopotamia becomes more rich. The people were developing separate cultures that took on their own unique expression. Language also may have been changing through this period.

During the Naqada II period, the Eastern Desert also provided a connecting link to foreign cultures and a pathway for long distance trade. Obsidian supplies a good example. It does not occur naturally in Egypt, but it has been found in Naqada II and III contexts in the Nile Valley. The finds tend to be blades or flakes, suggesting only small quantities were traded. It is reported from seven Predynastic sites in Upper Egypt, but only two in Lower Egypt, suggesting its source was closer to Upper Egypt than the Delta. Trace element analysis of three Naqada II specimens indicated a probable origin in Ethiopia or Arabia, although alternate sources may be the Yemen or Eritrea at Arafali (Adulis?). A trade route must have existed which carried obsidian either across or up the Red Sea and then through the Eastern Desert in the fourth millennium B.C. (Zarins 1989).

It is interesting that a style of rock art similar to the late Predynastic rock art of the Eastern Desert (Winkler 1938) is found across the Red Sea in western Saudi Arabia. Drawings occur frequently in the vicinity of now dried-up lakes, for here too moister and cooler climatic conditions prevailed from ca. 8,000 to 2,000 B.C. Yet the Pleistocene fauna of elephants, giraffe, rhinoceros etc. is not portrayed. The most common animal shown was a long-homed male bovid, followed in frequency by ibex or wild goats, dogs, and men. The men wore penis sheaths and carried bows, quivers with tassels, spears, clubs and throwing sticks. Wild cattle flourished in the Arabian peninsula as late as the seventh millennium and some of the drawings may have been left by hunters who followed the herds (Howe 1950; Zarins 1982; Nayeem 1990:89-116, pls. I-XII). Harding (1964:50) published a fragment of a flint knife found in Aden which seemed to him to have close affinities with late Predynastic ripple flaked knives, but the claim has not been verified.

In Naqada IIc-d and Naqada III, Near Eastern influence can be seen in Egypt in many fields: certain pottery and stone vase forms, brick architecture and artistic motifs. Consider, for example, cylinder seals. Frankfort (1951) and Kantor (1952) thought that some of the cylinder seals found in Predynastic graves had been made in Mesopotamia and that others, although made in Egypt, had followed Mesopotamian patterns. However, Boehmer's (1974) study of the seals and Podzorski's (1988) publication of a new example both suggest an Elamite origin for some of the them rather than a Sumerian one. Much earlier, Baumgartel (1955) had also suggested an Elamite origin for certain stone vase forms.

How did these Elamite cylinder seals and other eastern commodities, such as lapis (Payne 1968), arrive in Egypt? The latest evidence strengthens the possibility of direct contact between Upper Egypt and Elam via caravan routes through the Arabian peninsula or by boat around it:

  1. Elam is farther by land from Upper Egypt than Mesopotamia. Yet, at the same time it is no farther, but possibly (depending on the port) even closer by sea.
  2. On the Egyptian side there was a long standing connection between the Nile Valley, the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea Coast. An exchange network moved obsidian up or across the Red Sea and possibly linked Western Arabia and Egypt.
  3. The presence of Ubaid and Proto-literate pottery in the Persian Gulf shows that there too long distance trade was an established tradition. In the fifth millennium B.C., Mesopotamian influence was reaching the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula. Ubaid pottery has been found at sites along the western coast of the Persian Gulf as far down as the United Arab Emirates (Nayeem 1990: 117-122; Roaf 1990: 51-56; Burkholder 1972). Mesopotamian trading colonies may have existed in Oman in the late Protoliterate Period, ca. 3000-2900 B.C. (Caspers 1971:43).
  4. Improved climatic conditions in Arabia facilitated coasting or caravan trade. Increasing aridity may later have contributed to its collapse.

Elam was a Near Eastern kingdom in what is now Iran, dating back to 6000 BC. Historic recognition begins about 3000 BC. Closely tied to Mesopotamia throughout its history, Elam was occupied by the Akkadians and then Ur, before reattaining its independence.

If indeed there was contact between Mesopotamia/Elam and the Nile Valley across or around the Arabian Peninsula, then we must ask who was responsible for the connection. Three groups must be considered. There are the Naqada II people of the Nile Valley, the nomads of the Eastern Desert or Arabia, and the inhabitants of Mesopotamia and Elam. A good case can be made for the last group being responsible for the connection. The presence of Mesopotamian artistic motifs in Egyptian contexts (such as the hero and lions on the Gebel el-Arak knife handle and in the Hierakonpolis Painted Tomb, see Smith, this volume) indicates the presence of foreigners in Egypt who had brought with them knowledge of the mythological cycles the images represented. Very likely Mesopotamian or Elamite adventurers (or people from the Persian Gulf acculturated to the Mesopotamian system) made the journey in search of the traditional products of Egypt; gold and ivory. They could take advantage of the preexisting networks that radiated from both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultural spheres, and had only to cross a relatively benign stretch in between. It is not unlikely that the sea route was used.

We can see in these remarks how scholars separate groups of people, motivated by later developments, without recognition of migrations.

Here is a picture of the Gebel el-Arak knife. First is a full image of the obverse; then the handle for both sides.

The Gebel el Arak knife

The flint knife has a carved ivory handle. It was found near Denderah (Upper Egypt). It is one of the oldest examples of bas-relief carving. The whole knife is 25 cm, the handle about 10 cm long.

It depicts two groups of men fighting each other. Those who attack from the left all have short-cut hair; those being attacked seem to have long hair. The attackers are armed with clubs and maces, while the long-haired group seem to be unarmed. (One individual from the former group may have a bow.) This suggests the attack is a raid upon civilians. Otherwise the hair length seems to be the only differences between the two groups: they all wear loincloths or penile sheaths, are barefoot and - as far as one can tell - beardless and have uncovered heads. The fallen are shown among boats, have short hair, and hence may be from the attackers.. The presence of the boats suggests the scene is at a harbor or coastal region, and that the attackers came from some location that required water transport.

Two different kinds of boats are shown. Those in the lower row have the crescent shape of Egyptian reed boats, while the flat keeled boats with the high prows and sterns may be foreign. Since the drawing of the man holding the throats of two lions on the reverse is a clear Mesopotamian image one group may be from that region. This heroic figure probably symbolizes his victory. However, Egyptian pictographs of both types of boats in both the eastern and western deserts, as well as on vases, confuse the origin of the attackers and attacked. The dates of the different boats are uncertain but they show prevalently in later Naqadian depictions. Note that the boats have a deck house, a depiction common to such drawings of early Egypt.


The various animals, both wild and tame, suggest a strong conceptual connection of the heroic figure to animal life, showing his dominion over nature as well as over the vanquished.

The scenes indicate a commemorative artifact, a reminder of an episode involving groups of men in victorious battle which the commander wished to preserve. Since he is the only one with a full beard (and a cap) we cannot be certain which group he represented. His wrap around skirt, fillet on the cap, and face and feet in profile have parallels with a ruler figure from a Uruk stela shown spearing and shooting lions.

The lion ravaging other creatures on the knife is the same depiction as found on other Mesopotamian artifacts.

Refer to further discussion in following paper.

Returning to the remarks by Majer:

What routes through the Eastern Desert did this foreign trade follow? Frankfort rightly drew attention to the importance of the Wadi Hammamat in this regard. However we shouldn't forget the Wadi Abbad. At Kanais and other sites leading out toward the coast are numerous rock drawings which are evidence for the extensive penetration of the region in the late Predynastic (Cervicek 1974:57ff; Resch 1963; Berger, this volume). We will never reach a full understanding of this rock art until excavation reveals habitation sites connected to it. Still a few things seem clear. The pictures are not evidence of Eastern Invaders, but rather are a continuation of a long pattern of connection between valley and desert. Hierakonpolis, with its important associations with the formation of the unified Egyptian state, no doubt, had its own link to the coast and access to the eastern trade that bypassed the Wadi Hammamat. In Ptolemaic times, the Wadi Abbad route again played a central role in foreign trade when war elephants captured on the Ethiopian coast were walked across it from the Red Sea to the Nile (Murray 1967).

Of course, Majer's opinion about Eastern Invaders is strictly that, an opinion. He displays lack of penetration into the past where Eastern Invaders truly were the answer to the origins of the people of the Nile Valley and Ancient Egypt.