Any mention of ancient Egyptian history quickly conjures up images of pyramids, vast stone temples and pharaohs with gold bedecked headdress. In short, we tend to think of Egypt’s history in the context of the dynastic period that began around 3,100BC and the events which ensued from then onwards.
The rise of civilization in Egypt didn’t occur in a cultural vacuum, it required increasing complexity in a formative culture to eventually spawn such astonishing complexity. The ancestors of the first dynastic period people were already in the region from perhaps as early as 11,000 years before the present day. The area we know today as Egypt was already inhabited from sometime between 11,300 to 6,000 years ago. These Neolithic people were highly adaptive, and it was the product of their cultural innovations that provided the bedrock upon which one of the world’s greatest civilization could then be constructed.
The strange thing is that there has been very little attention put on these ‘first Egyptians’, likely because of the fact they stand in the shadow of their famous descendants. Through gaining a deeper understanding of the pre-Dynastic Egyptian cultures of the region, we can approach the root thinking which, enabled such an incredible flourishing of human consciousness. The latest excavations involve six burials which have provided crucial understandings of the mysterious ancient people from the region.
Investigating the pre-dynastic people of Neolithic Egypt has long proven difficult in part due to the fact many of the best sites for archaeological exploration are extremely hard to access, positioned under the Nile’s previous flood plains or out in the nearby desert.
Members of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition have now explored several Neolithic sites situated in Egypt’s western desert. The locations being excavated are clustered near to the shores of a long-vanished lake close to Gebel Ramlah.
Weather was very different during Egypt’s Neolithic period, much wetter than the present, the climate favoured animal herding as a way of life and populations existed in places which are barren today.
From 5,500 – 4,650BC local groups had already moved to a lifestyle dependant on domesticated cattle and utilization of various semi-wild plant crops. Peculiar burials of cattle were sometimes carried out for religious reasons.
During a period known as the Final Neolithic, 4,600-4,000BC, the population in the region began to engineer megalithic structures ranging from spiritual shrines astronomical stone circles – though on a relatively small scale compared to famous examples like Britain’s Stonehenge. The ceremonial and ritual burials of human remains uncovered in cemeteries are associated with the latter end of this Final Neolithic period.
Between 2001 to 2003 excavations were carried out in three gravesites around Gebel Ramlah, revealing 68 sets of human remains and associated grave artefacts. Skeletons allow scientists to approach a closer understanding of the cultural elements and the environment at the time of life. The subsequent analysis of skeletal remains reveals information on everything from health to interpersonal relationships, even wear and tear on teeth can tell important stories.
The cemetery contained large deposits of ornamental pottery, shells, worked stone and simple jewellery. It is also interesting that carved mica was found as this went on to be a popular mineral for artistic work in the later dynastic period Egypt. Based on the finds of women’s cosmetic tools, we know that these people cared about self-presentation and the stone weapons suggest men were involved in fighting or hunting.
Skeletal examination revealed a relatively tall people with men averaging around 170cm, and women close to 160cm. Lifespans were relatively lengthy for the period when considering cultures around the world, with many people surviving into their 50s.
The research began to take a turn for the bizarre during the 2009-2016 digging season as two additional cemeteries were explored. Careful analysis of a new 130 skeleton revealed a population with higher childhood mortality, generally reduced lifespan (by around 10 years on average) and significantly reduced height (several centimetres). These graves lacked the wealth of burial ornaments previously seen during exploration.
The larger of the two new cemeteries included a section reserved for children under three, most were significantly younger infants and even late-term foetuses. Three skeletons of women were found buried with infants suggestive of deaths during childbirth. This seems to indicate a radical change, whether dietary or perhaps disease-related. This makes the Western Desert to the first place on Earth known to have an infant graveyard during this early period of history.
The differences observed between the two cemeteries seem to indicate two distinct groups, one being a type of nobility with greater access to healthy food and material wealth indicated by the many artefacts. The skeletons are generally so similar that it seems unlikely the two sets of burials are from separate populations. If this is really an example of social stratification visible in burial practices it would make it the oldest so divided cemetery currently known in the Egyptian region.
One peculiarity that was recognised with the imbalance of female burials at a ratio of three women to each man, this was the case across all the cemeteries examined. Whether the number of female burials points to polygamy is less clear, it may be that the men were interred with extended family members. That the child cemetery only contained remains of those under three years suggested that beyond that age a child took on a more elevated status in the group and were no longer classed as infants.
The archaeologists found evidence of reuse of some gravesites, in these cases older skeletons had been carefully repositioned, sometimes even having teeth put back into the skulls. There was clearly a degree of reverence for deceased relatives and ancestors indicating strong spiritual components to the society.
When we put all the findings together, we have a picture of an innovative population involved with producing ceremonial spaces, calendar circles, complex burial practices and artistic fabrications. It would seem clear these were people well on their way to founding the high culture that would birth one of the planet’s greatest ancient civilizations.