The Paleolithic (“Old Stone Age”) Period was the earliest period of human activity in Egypt. Paleolithic settlements usually formed close to either a water source (the Nile or an oasis) or a source of useful raw materials.
The environment in Egypt during the early Paleolithic Period was very different. The Sahara was a lush grass plain, not an arid dessert, and the Nile was a complex web of tributaries (sometimes referred to as the Protonile) rather than a single channel.
Tools were largely made of stone (although bone, horn, and wood could also be employed) and the people subsisted on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Pottery and agriculture had not yet been developed. The period is sub-divided into periods based on the dominant types of tools in use at the time.
Lower Paleolithic cultures predominantly used large pear shaped or oval stone tools, often referred to as Acheulean hand axes. Unmodified flakes which were chipped from the stone core were also used for cutting. One of the oldest examples was discovered in sediment laid down by the Nile close to Abu Simbel at around 700,000 years ago. This date may not be certain, but there is firm evidence of Acheulean technology in the Western Desert at 300,000 BC.
One of the most interesting settlements from the period, Arkin 8, was discovered close to Wadi Halfa near the modern border with Sudan. It seems to have been a temporary camp, possibly used seasonally. It was not very well preserved, but did provide an impressive number of artefacts (predominantly pebble like tools) and a structure thought to date to around 100,000BC. Composed of a series of sandstone blocks set in a semi-circle with a 180cm by 120cm oval foundation dug 30cm deep, it is one of the earliest structures to be found anywhere in the world.
During the Middle Paleolithic Period (around 250,000 to 50,000 years ago) Acheulean hand axes became rare, and were replaced by small flake-tools made using the Levallois Method (striking flakes of stone from a prepared core). Middle Paleolithic tools have been found in the Nile Valley and Nubia, but the best preserved examples come from the Western Desert, in particular Bir Sahara and Bir Tarfawi.
Around 90,000 years ago the climate began to change and the Sahara became the arid desert we recognise today. People migrated to the Nile Valley and the oases (such as Kharga).
Cultures in this period are referred to as Mousterian, Aterian, and Khormusian with reference to the type of tools they preferred. Some scholars have proposed that these cultures followed each other sequentially. However, radiocarbon dating suggests that they overlapped in time. It is also proposed that they were in fact the same group of people, just using different tools in different situations.
Tools, such as the stone tipped throwing spear, allowed people to develop their hunting skills and take on much larger prey. As a result, they flourished and left behind large numbers of tools to attest to their abundance. An interesting find from this period (dated to around 55,000 years ago) is the Paleolithic burial of an anatomically modern child at Taramsa, close to Dendera.
The environment became more arid around 37,000 years ago. The great oasis at Kharga dried up and the flora and fauna which had sustained the Middle Paleolithic cultures vanished. The Mousterian and Aterian cultures had to leave or die. It is likely that those who survived made their way to the Nile valley where they met the Khormusian peoples (and probably others so far not distinguished).
Arguably the most important site from this period is Nazlet Khater, the site of the earliest known underground mining complex in the world (dated to around 35,000 to 29,500 BC). Several shafts and underground chambers were excavated to reach the chert cobbles from which lithic blades (long slender shards struck off from a prepared core) could be made. Nearby, archaeologists found the second earliest human burial in Egypt, and the earliest known funerary gift (a bifacial axe).
Upper Paleolithic or Late Paleolithic (around 21,000 to 12,000BC) cultures are characterised by the long thin stone blades they commonly employed. The blades are so thin that it is suggested they were used to form harpoons and arrows. These tools represent a refinement of the Khormusian technology which is referred to as Halfan.
Between 17,000 and 13,000 Egypt benefited from a wetter and more hospitable climate and the Halfan people flourished alongside three other cultural groups; the Kubbaniyan, the Idfuan, and the Qadan. Archaeological evidence suggests more regional variation and local innovation than in earlier periods, and a greater diversity of subsistence strategies and hunting and gathering practices.
The development of the mortar and pestle allowed grains and tubers (some of which were only edible once ground) to form a larger part of their diet. The Kubbiyaniyan peoples also employed communal storage facilities implying greater social complexity and an understanding of how (and for how long) they could store produce.
With the end of the last Ice Age around 13,000 to 12,000 years ago, increased rainfall cause the White Nile to flow again. This wetter period saw a series of very high Nile floods referred to as the “Wild Nile”. Qadan burials from this period display the earliest evidence of ancient conflict. Large numbers of the people, who were often buried in communal graves, show signs of violence. Some still have stone shards embedded in their bones.
Another important site from the period is the cemetery at Wadi Tushka, north of Abu Simbel. Here a number of burials were marked with the skulls of cattle prefacing the importance of domestic cattle in later C Group and Kerma cultures.
Two main cultural groups have been found which date to the Epipaleolithic (or final Paleolithic) Period; the Qarunian culture in the Faiyum, and the Elkabian culture in Upper Egypt.
The Qarunian people (also designated as Faiyum B) hunted gazelle, hippo, waterfowl, and hartebeest and fished extensively. Evidence of their campsites along the banks of the marshland date to between 6240 and 5480 BC. They used small-backed microlithic blades, often formed from chert. When the Faiyum was cut off from the Nile by lower floods (around 5480 BC), their culture disappeared and the area was not repopulated for around 300 years.
The Elkabian site consists of a lower level of occupation (around 6400 BC), a middle level (at 6040 BC) and an upper level (at around 5980 BC). As well as plentiful evidence of fishing (some of which suggests these may have been seasonal fishing outposts), there is some indication that they used reed boats to fish in deeper waters. Archaeologists also found numerous ostrich shell beads.
- Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
- Brewer Douglas J. (2005) Ancient Egypt: Foundations of a Civilization
- Brewer Douglas J. (2012) The Archaeology of Ancient Egypt: Beyond Pharaohs
- Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
- Hendrickx, S and Vermeersch, P(2000) “Prehistory: From the Paleolithic to the Badarian Culture”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
Copyright J Hill 2016