Saturday, November 7, 2009

Egypt-Epipaleolithic: 10,000 - c. 5,500 BC

The Epipaleolithic years are largely a transition between the Paleolithic and the Predynastic time periods in ancient Egypt, a time between the hunter-gatherers of before and the appearance of the true farming of the village-dwelling cultures after 5500 BC. Most of the information from this era comes from the site of El Kab, nestled between the eastern bank of the Nile and the Red Sea Hills. Before the discoveries at El Kab, it was thought that Paleolithic artifacts, even those dating to the Epipaleolithic, would not be found on the floodplain of the Nile, simply because of the action of the inundation. However, in the case of many of the artifact sites, it was the inundation that preserved them, as the Nile deposited layer upon layer of soil each year without washing the artifacts away.

Three major "camps" of Epipaleolithic peoples were discovered, the oldest dating to around 6400 BC, the one above it to 6040 BC, and the uppermost to 5980 BC. The importance of this site can easily be seen in the fact that the major archaeologist of the site, Dr. Paul Vermeersch, classified over 4,000 artifacts. Most of these were artfully made and minutely detailed microblades. Beads made of ostrich shell were also discovered, showing that even then the ancient Egyptians had a love for ornamentation. Burins, scrapers, and points of all sizes and description rounded out the inventory.

The camps at El Kab were most likely occupied only during spring and summer. The annual inundation of the Nile, especially given how massive it was then, would make it next to impossible to live in those locations year round. It is apparent that these tribes were still largely nomadic. Despite this, the camps (for such we should label them) enjoyed many times of prosperity, living near the cool Nile and benefiting from its supply of fish, supplemented by the traditional hunting of savanna wildlife such as wild cattle and gazelles.

The two most prominent industries at this time, as discovered near Wadi Halfa in the northern Sudan, were the Arkinian and the Sharmarkian. So far, Arkinian artifacts have only been found at one site and have been dated to around 7440 BC. The site is a small settlement, with possibly around thirteen dwellings, given the concentration of debris in a clustered location. Like many of the settlements at this time near the Nile, this was most likely a seasonal camp of some kind, though we will have to wait until other Arkinian sites are discovered. Arkinian was largely a microlithic industry, making use of very small, skillfully crafted stone tools, but large blades and a new method of extracting more material from a stone, the double-platform core, have been found.

We know more about the Sharmarkian industry than the Arkinian. A newer industry, but one that spans a much larger time period, Sharmarkian artifacts have been dated from 5750 BC to 3270 BC, if not even more recent. Although more prolific, the Sharmarkian artifacts actually show adecline in the quality of toolcraft toward the end of the Sharmarkian. Settlements of these people have been found on the beaches of soil left by the inundation. These seasonal camps merged together and grew into large concentrations of dwellings over time. There is evidence in these later Epipaleolithic sites of a population explosion around 5500 BC, possibly due to the development of true agriculture as well as animal domestication. In a very short time, geologically speaking, the people had gone from savanna nomads to riverdwellers, making a very efficient adaptation to the new environment.

Unfortunately, we still do not know exactly when agriculture and animal domestication were discovered (or introduced by another people) in Egypt. There is an odd gap of around a thousand years between these riverine settlements of the late Epipaleolithic and the true farming villages of the Predynastic cultures during which great strides in Egyptian knowledge were made. It is even surmised that it was during this time that they began to develop the writing systems that would evolve into the hieroglyphs. There are sites in Nubia that possess possible remains of domesticated animals that date to around 5110 BC. Whether domestication was brought into Egypt or was discovered within her borders is still a debated topic. All things aside, this final time period before the Predynastic age remains a very important problem for researchers. Each new discovery, though, sheds more light on the history of the first Egyptians.

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