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Mike Brass. 1998 essay. Predynastic Egyptian subsistence activities

Through from the Palaeolithic to the start of Dynastic Egypt, man utilised the Nile Valley and the floodplain margins to his own advantage into order to procure the necessary food resources for his survival. Yet the emphasis on resources shifted over time, in conjunction with the fluctuating fortunes of the Nile River and the rainfall. These were dynamics socio-economic shifts, that led ultimately to what has become known as "The Land of the Pharaohs".

The Late Palaeolithic socio-economic strategies

Until 1991 the presence of 'sickle sheen' on Late Palaeolithic grinding stones and sickle blades was widely regarded as an indicator of an economy based, from 13 000 BC until 10 500 BC, on intensive collecting, a forerunner to domestication that was wiped out by disaster. In conjunction with a population 'explosion' in this era a change in the faunal assemblage occurred at Isnan sites (Isna, Naqada and Dishna) where fish remains were absent, unlike the previous inhabitants of these areas, and the indicators are that they only hunted large bovids. This decline on the emphasis of fishing as a means of survival was suggested to be interrelated to the appearance of ground grain which, on the grounds of the associated pollen, was tentatively hypothesised to be barley. This large-grass pollen was believed to be an indicator of environmental changes allowing it to successfully spread rapidly throughout the Nile Valley.

Therefore a hypothetical scenario was gradually constructed suggesting that a socio-economic change occurred shortly after 13 000 BC, involving experimentation in proto-agriculture that led to increased population. This proto-agricultural experiment ended c. 10 500 BC, as the grinding stones and sickle blades were supplanted by the small geometric stone tools of the Epipalaeolithic inhabitants (riverine lifestyle) of the Nile Valley.

The explanations that have been put forward as to why this experiment failed are of no concern, as recent microscopic analyses by Wendorf and his associates have disproven the scenario and have inaugurated a new way of thinking regarding the new way of life lived by the Nile Valley's Late Palaeolithic inhabitants.

Accelerated radiocarbon tests on barley and einkorn seeds from Wadi Kubbaniya proved their intrusive nature. Three implements were selected from Isnan sites, one retouched blade and two flakes. The sheen on the blade differed from "proper sickle gloss' in that its surface shows a series of parallel depression channels and this pattern is not reproducible with silica plants. The direction of the depressions and the abrupt ending of the polish only a few millimetres from the edge (plant wear normally being continuous) suggest that the blade was used in the sawing of a 'gritty' substance.

This evidence, in tandem with the microscopic examination of five lunate pieces from the Qadan site 8905, reveals that they were used in a scraping motion and thereby provides instead a new insight into a Palaeolithic socio-economy based on the intensive exploitation of some few seasonally available foods, e.g. wet-land tubers, dom palm fruits and fish. Hartebeest, wild cattle, hippopotamus and red-fronted gazelle remains have also been excavated.

Thus a broad adaptive strategy was adapted by the late Palaeolithic Nile Valley inhabitants, with the floodplain offering a wide selection of food resource possibilities. This affected settlement location, with them being located near the floodplain.

The Nile Valley Neolithic

With the catastrophic flooding experienced in 10 500 BC, after the low flood levels during the Last Glacial Maximum and coupled with the receding floods 11 000 years ago (with the resulting decrease in vegetation density), fishing and aquatic plant exploitation thus became a viable means of subsistence.

Between 6000 - 5000 BC, mid-Holocene droughts occurred in the Sahara causing the migration of many desert food-producers into the Valley. The merging of the existing Nilotic inhabitants and the new arrivals is evident in the archaeological record by evidence of the fusion of the Saharan Neolithic economy of herding and cultivation, and the Nilotic fishing strategy, with the first proto-agricultural communities being founded along the floodplain edge.

Until 6000 BC, the Nile inhabitants relied on various fishing, hunting and plant collecting strategies for survival and the droughts, which also adversely affected the Valley, would have resulted in a willingness to experiment with alternative economies. The Saharans, with their cattle, and sheep and goat herds, with the resulting socio-economic impacts this would have had in the integration with the existing Nilotic communities, were most likely the stimulus in the unfolding events that would result in the advent of dynastic Egypt.

The Middle and Late Predynastic inhabitants were primarily involved in wheat and barley cultivation, along with the stock keeping of animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. The scarcity of wild game remains, among those found the highest number of bones coming from gazelle, emphasises the relative low priority in the general Neolithic diet. Subsistence activities were determined by the Nile floods, which resulted in three economic seasons paralleled by the inundation, the drought, and the contrasting inbetween.

Misconceptions of the Nile Valley ecology

Until the mid-1970s, numerous misconceptions existed concerning the 'establishment' of the predynastic inhabitants in the Nile Valley. As expressed by authors such as Childe and Newberry , the argument went that during the Pleistocene glacial period the settlements were restricted to the desert and the Valley was believed to have been an inaccessible jungle and swamp land, and the Delta hardly existed. With the increasing aridity over 10 500 BC when the glaciers melted and the rains over the Ethiopian highlands (the source of the Nile) declined, the Nile floodplain began to attract settlers as it offered water and permanent sustenance. These inhabitants, now firmly settled on the margins of the floodplain, slowly during the fifth and fourth millennia BC began the processes of draining the swamps and thicket cutting, as well as beginning irrigation schemes; in effect, it was believed that hydraulics was a big factor in development.

This confusion came about primarily as a result of incorrect postulated similarities between the Nile and the Sudd swamps found in central Sudan. The archaeologists and geologists of that era did not take into account the difference between a free-draining floodplain and the swamps, and this error was compounded by the lack of information on Palaeolithic settlements, irrigation and on the geomorphology of the Delta. In effect, the view summed up perfectly the severe lack of 1920s paleaoclimatic understanding.

The introduction of agriculture changed the siting of settlements, with the early communities choosing not to move from the desert margins, the khaset, down onto the floodplain, the ta. The early agriculturists continued to make use of the forested river-banks for the sites for their villages, while grazing animals in the grass and bush country of the alluvial flats for nine months, and sowing their crops on the fertile floodplain after the recession of the annual flood.

Thus the early agricultural landscape of Ancient Egypt was one of natural irrigation. Drainage was not required in order for the Valley to become liveable. With the natural flooding and draining of the floodplain, the annual flood permitted a single crop season over up to two-thirds of the alluvial ground. The advent of forms of artificial irrigation was the increase in the area of the annual cropland in relation to variable flood level, water being stored in the basins after unwanted brief floods, and the expansion of crop planting to the floodplain perimeter.

The Ancient Egyptian artificial irrigation system was, in effect, a refined natural system improved by a relatively low amount of labour, which included the annual dredging of the natural, diverging flood canals; small ditches being dug in order for the low points of the natural levees to be breached; earthen dams blocking off the gathering streams; and manually raising and transport of water via buckets to irrigate the fields adjacent.


By the beginning of the Early Predynastic Period, the inhabitants of the Upper Nile Valley depended little on hunting for survival, having adopted an agricultural way of life. Despite some motifs of the Early Dynastic Period pots that may or may not be pictorial representations of canals, archaeological field work has revealed no evidence of artificial irrigation dating to this period.

There was no need in the ancient world for 'cash crops' and the population was relatively small by today's standards, being only 4 - 5 million near the end of the New Kingdom. The earliest currently available evidence for artificial irrigation is the Macehead of the predynastic ruler King Scorpion, which may not be the physical excavation of an irrigation canal but rather the symbolic cutting of a levee. Either way, therefore, a form of water control is evident, proving that the transition from a natural to an artificial irrigation system that was regulated (by the locals) had already been accomplished before Dynasty 1. Yet the technological agricultural sophistication of the predynastic and early dynastic was not of a level warranting systematic control by national government, let alone be one of the causes for its rise.

The level of the Nile floods declined in the late predynastic, yet the response of the Ancient Egyptians was to cultivate new fields and construct new dwellings close to the new floodplain, instead of irrigating the existing fields by means of extended canals. It was only the important sites like Nagada and Hierakonpolis, where status was clearly spatially demarcated and where shrines are evident, which thrived still on the desert edge.

The 'Oriental Despotism' hypothesis advocated by Wittfogel, in which he suggests "the dependence of China, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt on large-scale irrigation led to the rise of despotic, bureaucratic, centralized states", is incorrect. Basin irrigation was adequate to cover the needs of the local populations, as explained by Lloyd thus: "Large-scale crop cultivation relied at all periods upon the relatively primitive but efficient basin system of irrigation. This was organized at the local rather than a national level, but the ease and success of the process was always dependent upon the volume of the Nile which varied considerably in antiquity."

Ancient written sources state clearly that the government was interested in the land in terms of the annual agricultural yields in order to levy taxes. But these same sources are effectively mute on the subject of irrigation. The hypothesis that hydraulics was one of the primary causes of the rise of the Ancient Egyptian civilization is clearly too simplistic. The involvement of national government was minimal at best and irrigation management did not play the crucial role envisaged by Wittfogel.

These dynamics socio-economic shifts in hunting strategy and other means of survival like cattle herding and agriculture, were all vital cogs in the line of numerous, interrelated circumstances and events that, in one way or another, defined what form the future dynastic state would become.


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Carneiro, R. L.; A Theory of the Origin of the State; Science, Vol. 169 (1970)

Hassan, F. A.; Prehistoric Settlements along the Main Nile; In Williams, M.A.J. & Faure, H. (eds) The Sahara and the Nile; A.A. Balkema (Rotterdam: 1980)

Hassan, F.A.; The Predynastic of Egypt; Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 2 (1988)

Hassan, F.A.; The dynamics of a riverine civilization: a geoarchaeological perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt; World Archaeology, Vol. 29 (1997)

Hassan, F. A.; Holocene climatic change and riverine dynamics in the Nile Valley; In di Lernia, S. & Manzi, G. (eds) Before Food Production in North Africa: Questions and tools dealing with resource exploitation and population dynamics at 12, 000 - 7000 bp; Union Internationale Des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques, XIII World Congress, Forli 1996; A.B.A.C.O. Edizioni 1998

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Wendorf, F. et al.; Understanding the Late Palaeolithic tools with lustrous edges from the Lower Nile Valley; Antiquity 65 (1991)

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