The Prehistory of Egypt

With the onset of the last great ice age about 30,000 years ago huge glaciers formed on the high African mountains of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. When the great global meltdown began about 12,000 years ago these huge glaciers sent massive volumes of water to the north. The gigantic discharges flowed out of Lake Victoria and down the Blue and White Nile valley basins. Catastrophic floods filled the lower Egyptian valley, washing away all villages and burying their shattered remnants in sediment, thus breaking the continuity of human life in Egypt. Archaeologist today call this the "Wild Nile."

Seasonal heavy floods held the Nile valley in its grip for more than three thousand years. During this period human occupation was impossible. Then, as the glacial melting slowed the valley became suitable to human settlement once again. The glaciers continued to melt through the millennia, until today very little is left of them.

The Sahara saw repeated wet and arid cycles that follow the ice ages over the past five hundred thousand years. During the wet cycles the Sahara saw much human occupation, when the desert "blossomed like the rose." After the last ice age the region once again was occupied. However, melting of the world ice sheets caused a northward shift of the monsoon belt, creating increasingly arid conditions in the once verdant Sahara regions. The peak of human occupation in the Western Desert took place between 6,500 and 4,700 BC, when weather conditions forced abandonment of those areas. The final desiccation of the Sahara was not complete until the end of the 3rd millennium BC. Many archaeologists believe those people migrated south to sub-Saharan Africa, or to the Nile valley, the environment of which greatly improved as it dried out from the previous heavy flooding.

Refer to previous discussion by the Urantia Papers.

One site in upper Egypt, out of reach of the wild river inundations, showed the gathering of large quantities of fish, and preservation through smoking. Some cemeteries in this southern region show an exceptionally high rate of injury caused by stone weapons, suggesting that the dramatic climate changes were affecting human food supplies and survival.

Meanwhile, virtually no evidence exists for human occupation in the Nile valley between 10,000 and 6,000 BC except for a group of very small sites around 9,400 BC at the second cataract. A hiatus in radiocarbon dates suggests the valley was barren of settlements during that period. Then human groups again began to enter the valley. Some may have come off the Sahara plateau. Others may have come from the Levant via the Mediterranean. Still others were Andite, coming from Mesopotamian regions and overland from the Red Sea.

The illustration below shows relative chronology for Egypt and neighboring regions after the Great Deglaciation. The Table is from Ancient Egypt, A Social History, B. G. Trigger, B. J. Kemp, D. O'Connor, A. B. Lloyd, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

This chart can be compared with the following table, borrowed from the web site of Francesco Raffael.


Period - years

Phase (Kaiser)

Tombs - Other objects - Rulers

Suggested Sequence

(c. 3900)

Naqada Iabc, IIa

(Abydos tomb U-239)
(Hierakonpolis Loc. 6, tombs 3, 6)
B-, P-, C- class pottery

Early rhomboidal palettes, undecorated or with incised drawings


(c. 3600)

Naqada IIb

Decorated Pottery (D-class)
(Naqada tomb 1411, T4)
Gebelein painted cloth (IIc?)

From rhomboidal shapes to fusiform, with appendices and animal heads on the edge

Naqada IIc/d1,2

Wavy handled pottery (W-class)
Brooklyn, Carnarvon knife handles (Naqada IIc-IIIa)
(NOTE: Abu Zeidan t.32, which contained the Brooklyn knife-handle, dates early Naqada III)
(Hierakonpolis tomb 100).
(Abydos t. U-q, U-547; knife handle in t. U-503 and fragments from U-127)

Zoomorphous palettes
(fishes, turtles, mammals)
Ostrich palette
Gerzeh palette
  Min palette


Late Predynastic
(c. 3300)

Naqada IIIa1,2

(Hierakonpolis Loc. 6, tomb 11)
Scorpion I
(Abydos tomb U-j)

Louvre palette
Oxford palette
Hunters palette




Naqada IIIb1

(Seyala tomb 137.1; Qustul tomb L24)
Horizon A
Anonymous Serekhs, Double Falcon,
Ny-Hor, Pe-Hor, Hat-Hor, Hedj-Hor; (Iry-Hor)

(Gebel Sheikh Suleiman graffito)
(Hierakonpolis Loc. 6, tomb 10)

Metropolitan Mus. palette
Battlefield (Vultures) palette
Bull palette
Tehenu palette
Plover palette
Narmer Palette
(end of Narmer's reign c.3000)

(c. 3150-3000)

Naqada IIIb2/c1

Horizon B
Tarkhan Crocodile, Hk (?) Scorpion II, Abydos: Iry Hor, Ka, Narmer
(Hierakonpolis Loc. 6, tomb 1)

The archaeological evidence shows two different emerging cultures, one in the Delta, and one in upper Egypt, centered around the great bend in the Nile, the location of modern Qina, and overland routes from the Red Sea locations now known as Bur Safajah and Al Qusayr. These routes of travel between the Nile and the Red Sea have been known since ancient times. Radiocarbon dating suggests the settlements in the Delta may somewhat predate those in upper Egypt.

If agriculture was known in Anatolia and other regions of the Near East in the Natufian cultures from 9,000 BC, and if the Nile was resettled by immigrants from those regions, we should expect that they brought agriculture and animal herding with them. The Nile valley did not exist in grand isolation from the rest of the world, even though many Egyptologists are oriented to that frame of mind. Evidence suggests that horticultural in small, local groups may have traveled southward along the Nile from the Delta into nearby oases and the Sudan. However, penetration of such horticulture may also have come overland from the Red Sea. Several of the basic food plants that were grown are native to the Near East. Large-scale migrations were not necessary to introduce this influence. We should also remember that the evidence from the Wadi Kubbaniya shows agriculture in Egypt before the great ice age deglaciation.

Although direct evidence for agriculture and animal herding has not yet been found for this early period controversy exists. Grinding stones, usually associated with grain production, and hence farming, were discovered. Unable to credit agriculture at this date some archeologists presume that the people ground harvested wild plants! (Note earlier discussion that showed the plants could not be processed through grinding.) Decorated potsherds are also found at these sites, showing a more cultured way of life. The construction of wells, slab-lined houses, and wattle-and-daub buildings show a permanent populace, only possible with an adequate supply of food.

Much dispute exists about the possible of influence of different areas of the Near East. Some favor the Levant, and countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores. Others propose origins in Mesopotamian regions. The first possibility is preferred by many archaeologists because they believe the earliest known Neolithic cultures in Egypt were found at Marimda Bani Salama, on the southwest edge of the Delta, and farther to the southwest, in the Fayyum lake region. The site at Marimda, which dates to the 6th-5th millennia BC, gives evidence of settlement and shows that cereals were grown. In the Fayyum the settlements were near the shore of Lake Qarun, where the settlers also engaged in fishing. Marimda is a very large site that was occupied for many centuries. The inhabitants lived in lightly-built huts and used pottery. But other sites have been identified in the Western Desert, in the Second Cataract area, and north of Khartoum. Some of these Neolithic sites are as early as those in the Delta, while others overlapped with the succeeding Egyptian predynastic cultures. Hence the origin and chronology of the inhabitants of the Egyptian region are not clear from present knowledge.

In Upper Egypt, between Asyut and Luxor, remains of the Badarian cultures date from the mid 5th millennium BC. This culture was located on the east bank of the Nile River at al-Badari and at Deir Tasa. British excavations there during the 1920s revealed settlements and cemeteries dating to about 4000 BC, or earlier.

The existence of a still earlier culture, called the Tasian, as a chronologically or culturally separate unit has not been demonstrated beyond doubt. Precise separation of the cultures has not been determined; they may have coexisted, or may have blended one with the other. Tasian remains are somewhat intermingled with the materials of the subsequent Badarian stage, and, although the total absence of metal and the more primitive appearance of its pottery would seem to argue for an earlier date, it is also possible that the Tasian was contemporary with the Badarian. Remains indicate that the Tasians/Badarians were settled farmers who cultivated emmer wheat and barley and raised herds of sheep and goats. The dead were usually buried in straw coffins, with the bodies in crouching or bent positions, head to the south, face looking west. Most Egyptologists today consider the Tasian to be simply part of the Badarian Culture, with the differentiation perhaps originating in the desire for fame by the excavators.

Most of the evidence for the Badarian/Tasian culture comes from cemeteries, where the burials included 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 artistic and technical skills of the Badarians continually improved over the centuries. While the early excavations in the 1920's thought of the Badarians as limited to one site, later work showed them all along the Nile valley in Upper Egypt. Material remains include combs and spoons of ivory, female figurines, and copper and stone beads. Badarian materials have also been found at Jazirat Armant, al-Hammamiyah, Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar), al-Matmar, and Tall al-Kawm al-Kabir.

The pottery of the Badarian Period is distinguished by a black top with red body. It was extremely thin-walled and well-baked; many regard it as the best ever made in the Nile River valley. The firing was probably done in a rudimentary kiln with the pottery and fuel piled together and then covered with animal dung. Pottery making at this stage is thought to have been a cottage industry with some local specialization. Badarian pottery is found in three main types which gradually change over time, and which continued to be produced in later periods: red-polished ware (called P-ware), black-polishedware (called BP-ware), and black-topped red-polished ware (called B-ware). The B-ware pottery is the most distinctive of the early Predynastic pottery types. The irregular black top and interior of B-ware is thought to have been produced by placing the red-hot vessel in the burning embers of a fire. They are all handmade using the coil method, since the slow wheel was not introduced into Egypt until later. The jars have very hard, thin walls but the shapes are still fairly basic, confined mainly to open bowls at this stage. Some vessels were decorated with prominent ribbing, while others are burnished. A rippling effect was sometimes produced by trailing a serrated bone or comb over the surface before firing. Some finer vessels were decorated with incised designs of palm fronds or six-rayed stars.

The economy was based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Settlement sites show small villages or hamlets.

The origins of this culture are problematic. Based on the limited evidence of pottery and grave goods archaeologists cannot reach a consensus whether the new culture was completely foreign to the Nile Valley or whether it represents an adaptation of new ideas and technologies by the indigenous people. Different archeologists have looked north, south, east, and west. Many believe it did not develop from a single source. The presence of Red Sea shells in graves shows commerce to the east. Since no Badarian culture is evident from the lower Nile the contacts must have come over land routes from the Red Sea. Refer to Chapter 2 on Egyptian Prehistory in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw, Editor, Oxford University Press, 2000.

For a long time the Badarian was considered to have emerged from the south, because it was thought that the Badarians had poor knowledge of chert, which would show that they came from the non-calcareous part of Egypt to the south; on the other hand, the origins of agriculture and animal husbandry were assumed to lie in the Near East. The theory that the Badarian originated in the south is, however, no longer accepted. The selection of chert is perfectly logical for the Badarian lithic technology, which seems to show links with the Late Neolithic from the Western Desert. The rippled pottery, one of the most characteristic features of the Badarian, probably developed from burnished and smudged pottery, which is present both in late Sahara Neolithic sites and from Merimda in the north to the Khartoum Neolithic sites in the south. Rippled pottery may thus have been a local development of a Saharan tradition.

The Badarian culture may have been characterized by regional differences, the unit in the Badari region itself being the only one that has so far been properly investigated or attested. On the other hand, a more or less uniform Badarian culture may have been represented over the whole area between Badari and Hierakonpolis, but, since the development of the Naqada culture took place more to the south, it seems quite possible that the Badarian survived for a longer time in the Badari region itself. The evidence suggests that the Badarian culture did not appear from a single source, although many archeologists prefer the Western Desert as the predominant one. On the other hand, the provenance of domesticated plants remains controversial: an origin in the Levant, via the Lower Egyptian Faiyum and Merimda cultures, might be possible.

See also the article on Predynastic Development in Upper Egypt in the proceedings of the Polish Academy of Sciences on the 1984 Poznan conference, Origin and Early Development of Food-Producing Cultures in North-Eastern Africa, Poznan, 1984. Tomas R. Hays stated:

The origin of the Badarian is not known, but influence from the Near East has been suspected (Frankfort, 1951, Kantor, 1965). Brunton and Caton-Thompson (1928) suggested that the Predynastic Egyptians were not indigenous, but possibly arrivals from the Red Sea. The idea of intrusion of people into the Nile Valley has been repeated by more recent workers.

That these "Neolithic" groups came from outside the Nile Valley is generally accepted, but their origin has been placed in the east (Kantor, 1965), west (Hassan et al., 1980), and south. Baumgartel (1965) and Arkell and Ucko (1965) postulated that the origins may be found in the Sudan.

Hays evaluated pottery from various surrounding sites outside the Nile valley. He concluded that the pottery styles moved from the Central Sudan and Nubia, with a contribution from the Western Desert. He sees this evolution continuing from about 6,000 BC.

Strong evidence argues against origin of the Badarian people from the south. Although influences in ceramic styles and techniques may have come from various areas, and been incorporated into their pottery, this does not mean the people came from those areas. More than a hundred years ago Flinders Petrie recognized the genetic traits of the Naqada people. They had "white" or "yellow" skins, and red, blond, or brown curly hair. He compared them to the Amorites and Libyans. See Naqada and Ballas, Arris and Phillips, Ltd, Warminster, 1896. By Amorites and Libyans he meant fair people with features similar to those found in many areas of Europe today. After exposing literally thousands of bodies that had been preserved in the hot Egyptian sands he could well testify to their racial features.

The chronological position of the Badarian Culture as a precursor to the more recent Naqada Culture is now clearly established through excavation at the stratified site of North Spur Hammamiya. In fact, the available evidence shows that one culture flowed into the next, as a social evolutionary process. For a long time it was thought that the Badarian Culture remained restricted to the Badari region. Characteristic Badari finds however have also been found much further to the south at Mahgar Dendera, Armant, Elkab and Hierakonpolis and also to the east in the Wadi Hammamat. The widespread cultural dispersion along the Nile valley provides some insight into the influence of these people as genetic ancestors to the later Egyptians.

Refer to later discussion on Race.

We also know that substantial travel of people across the Eastern Desert from the Red Sea is attested by petroglyphs in the mountains between the Red Sea and the Nile showing sea-faring boats.

Refer to later discussion on Boats

Refer also to my previous discussion that shows cultures in the Nile valley at this early date had to come from the outside. No indigenous cultures could have survived the "wild Nile."

This culture began the onset of influences in the Nile valley which forever determined her future.

Wendy Anderson, in a paper entitle Badarian Burial: Evidence of Social Inequality in Middle Egypt During the Predynastic Era, JARCE, XXIX, 1992, showed that an elite social status was recognized at this early date. Cemeteries tended to be segregated according to wealth. Grave goods were status symbols, with the wealthier citizens accorded larger quantities of gifts to accompany them in the afterlife. This practice follows that of people all over the world, which equates lavish burials with high social rank. As stated by Anderson:

The most richly furnished graves were restricted to a minority of the mortuary population, and futhermore, such tombs were subject to plundering. (This information) may be interpreted as a manifestation of the unequal distribution of material wealth amongst the grave occupants and thus an indication of differential access to resources by members of the same Badarian community.

Anderson goes on to comment about differentiation of grave goods that suggests a more complex arrangement of difference social positions, not merely an "elite" separated from "commoners." Her analysis of several different burial statuses indicated several different social positions. However, she shows that a general analysis of the excavations, involving eighteen cemeteries, reflected a bimodal division of graves with ninety-two per cent of "poor" individuals, and eight per cent who were "wealthy." She also noted that there was a definite increase in grave goods over time, reflecting a general increase in the general wealth of the communities.

While the evidence suggests this was a limited practice at that point in Egyptian prehistory it became increasingly important throughout the subsequent Naqada Period. Curiously, the Badarian children and young people were given a large number of grave goods, while some adults had none at all. Since the pottery and other artifacts had an economic value this practice may have been dictated by relative lack of wealth, with compassion being exhibited to younger members of the groups. Anderson, Petrie, and others noted that plundering of the grave goods took place shortly after burial while their content was still known, suggesting again that the grave goods had important economic value. As the centuries passed the increasing number of grave goods showed an increase in relative wealth. Also, during the Naqada period some graves became larger and more elaborate, until this social process evolved into mastabas and eventually the pyramid tombs.

Despite the existence of some excavated settlement sites the Badarian Culture is mostly known from cemeteries in the low desert along the east bank of the Nile. All graves are simply pit burials often incorporating a mat on which the body was placed. As was customary in early Egypt, bodies were placed in a contracted position on the left side and with the head to the south looking west. The hands were placed in front of the face or under the cheek. See my web page on Ginger. This practice continued until well into the Dynastic period for commoners. Curiously, and for unknown reasons, in the Early Predynastic period about 15% of the bodies have a head orientation to the north. In the Middle Predynastic this became 98% to the south with only 2% to the north, and then changed back again in early dynastic times.

Other cultural differentiation began to develop as the Badarian evolved into the Naqada phases. Naqadah I sites, named after the major site of Naqadah on the west bank, 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. In other words, it had the same cultural dynamic but was evolving in its material techniques. Burials continued to follow the Tasian/Badarian practice in shallow pits in which the heads were laid to the south facing west, in a contracted womb position. This burial practice continued throughout the early periods, and into dynastic times. 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.

The evolution of Egyptian society from the Tasian-Badarian groups to dynastic times was extremely rapid.

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 up and down the Nile valley. These sites have a long span, continuing as late as the Egyptian Early Dynastic Period, circa 3,000 BC. 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 Naqadian sites have been identified between Asyut and the Fayyum. 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. 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 Qina, 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 of upper Egypt 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 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. However, the falcon symbol may have universally portrayed the concept of kingship and does not necessarily relate directly to pharaonic descent. 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 symbolic definitions of the king's position were added to this one.

At this time Egypt seems to have been a state unified under single kings and the first bureaucratic administration. These kings may correspond with a set of names preserved on the Palermo Stone, but no direct identification can be made of 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 social evolution 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 several hundreds years earlier.