Monday, August 05, 2019


To many, ancient Egypt is synonymous with the pharaohs and pyramids of the Dynastic period starting about 3,100 BC. Yet long before that, about 9,300-4,000 BC, enigmatic Neolithic peoples flourished. Indeed, it was the lifestyles and cultural innovations of these peoples that provided the very foundation for the advanced civilizations to come.

One reason why we know so little about Neolithic Egypt is that the sites are often inaccessible, lying beneath the Nile's former flood plain or in outlying deserts.With permission from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) we—members of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition – explore Neolithic sites in Egypt's western desert. The sites we are currently excavating lie along the former shores of an extinct seasonal lake near a place called Gebel Ramlah.

Though not lush, the Neolithic was wetter than today, which allowed these ancient herders to populate what is now the middle of nowhere. We focus on the Final Neolithic (4,600-4,000 BC), which was built on the success of the Late Neolithic (5,500-4,650 BC) with domesticated cattle and goats, wild plant processing and cattle burials. These people also made apparent megaliths, shrines and even calendar circles—which look a bit like a mini Stonehenge.

In 2001-2003 we excavated three cemeteries from this era—the first in the western desert—where we uncovered and studied 68 skeletons. The graves were full of artifacts, with ornamental pottery, sea shells, stone and ostrich eggshell jewelry. We also discovered carved mica (a silicate mineral) and animal remains, as well as elaborate cosmetic tools for women and stone weapons for men.
We learned that these people enjoyed low childhood mortality, tall stature and long life. Men averaged 170 cm, while women were about 160 cm. Most men and women lived beyond 40 years, with some into their 50s—a long time in those days.

Astonishingly, the largest of these two cemeteries had a separate burial area for children under three years of age, but mostly infants including late-term fetuses. Three women buried with infants were also found, so perhaps they died in childbirth. In fact, this is the world's earliest known infant cemetery.

The sites also shed light on the family structures of the time. The overall sex ratio across all cemeteries is three women to each man, which may indicate polygamy. However, the total number of burials and a lack of reference to individual houses suggests these were extended family cemeteries.

These behavioral indicators, together with the seemingly innovative technological and ceremonial architecture mentioned earlier, such as the calendar circles and shrines, imply a level of sophistication well beyond that of simple herders. Taken together, the findings provide a glimpse of things yet to come in Ancient Egypt.

In fact, the pace of destruction has increased significantly since 2001. Once exposed, the context of these sites can be lost and organic material can get sandblasted to bits. This means that if we hadn't discovered these remains when we did, they would have soon been lost forever. But sadly this likely means that other sites from the time are literally disappearing. For that reason, we and the SCA have decided that, when we have studied our material, all will be reburied on site to, hopefully, survive for thousands more years.


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