Epi-paleolithic cultures, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

The term "Epi-paleolithic" is used in North Africa to refer to artifact assemblages characterized by microlithic tools spanning the interval between the end of the Paleolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic. The term "Neolithic" is often used to refer to the presence of pottery and grinding stones, once believed to be invariably associated with the advent of food production. However, sites in North Africa with no evidence of food production have yielded both pottery and grinding stones. Moreover, evidence for food production, such as bones of domesticated animals and plant remains of domesticated plants, is highly controversial in some of the sites attributed to the Neolithic. In addition, the separation of the Epi-paleolithic from the Final Paleolithic is uncertain because microlithic tools also occur in some sites of the Final Paleolithic. Accordingly, the term Epipaleolithic is ambiguous, with no definite chronological boundaries, no special mode of adaptation and no distinct tool assemblage. In general, the terms Epi-paleolithic, Terminal Paleolithic or Post-Paleolithic have been used to refer to artifact assemblages (often grouped into "industries"—groups of assemblages from several sites showing overall similarities in the kind and frequency of tool types and manufacturing techniques) dating from circa 12,000 to 8,000/6,000 BP (before present in radiocarbon years, i.e. uncalibrated radiocarbon dates).

The Epi-paleolithic assemblages in the Nile Valley include the Arkinian, the Shamarkian, el-Kabian and Qarunian, and span a period from circa 12,000-7,500 BP. No Neolithic sites in the Nile Valley date before the sixth millennium BP. By contrast, evidence for domesticated cattle from the tenth millennium BP has been advocated, but not widely accepted. However, it is very likely that domesticated cattle, as well as sheep and goats, were herded in the Western Desert (Eastern Sahara) during the eighth millennium BP.

Tool assemblages from the Western Desert, which are regarded either as early Neolithic or Post-Paleolithic, are characterized by backed and truncated bladelets, denticulates, burins, perforators, end-scrapers, geometric microliths and projectile points. Bone has been reported, but is scarce. Pottery is especially rare in Baharia and Siwa Oases. In the Nile Valley, tool assemblages include end-scrapers, burins, perforators, notches, denticulates, backed bladelets and flakes, (Ouchtata) bladelets, scaled pieces, truncated flakes, geometrics and microburins. Grinding stones are present in the Arkinian assemblage and common in the Qarunian assemblage. Bone tools have also been reported from Qarunian sites and from the site of Catfish Cave, near Korosko in Lower Nubia.

Faunal remains from the Nilotic Epi-paleolithic sites include those of wild cattle, hartebeest and fish. Red-fronted gazelle, addax and hippopotamus were reported from Qarunian sites. Large amounts of fish were recovered from the lower layers at Catfish Cave and from the Qarunian sites in the Fayum depression. Pottery has been reported from Shamarkian sites (circa 8,860 BP) and from el-Tarif (circa 6,310 BP) in Thebes. The occurrence of pottery in the Sudan dates to circa 9,400 BP at the site of Sarurab. In the central Sahara, pottery dates to circa 9,400-9,000 BP.

Epi-paleolithic sites apparently reflect a terminal development of cultural changes that were underway as early as 20,000 years ago in response to the advent of arid, cooler conditions. A cooling of as much as 9° C is suggested for East and South Africa then. North Africa would have been subjected to icy blasts in winter from northwesterly winds. Desert dunes advanced some 500km south of their present limits. By 14,000 BP, conditions began to change as the belt of summer monsoon rains moved northward, coinciding with the retreat of the glaciers in the mountains of East Africa. The rain-fed water pools created mini-oases in many parts of the eastern Sahara. Nile floods also began to rise, and by circa 12,500 BP, exceptionally high Nile floods inundated the desert margin beyond the limits of the modern floodplain. Between circa 10,000-7,000 BP, mean annual rainfall in the southern part of the Egyptian Sahara was about 200mm.

The climatic changes during the end of the Pleistocene seem to have triggered a variety of responses, indicated by the emergence of novel stone tool types (especially microlithic tools), bone tools for fishing, grinding stones and pottery. The subsistence base, which included hunting, fowling, plant gathering and fishing, was fairly broad. Fish were apparently exploited more regularly than before. Specialized hunting may have been pursued by some groups, such as the Sebilian. Fishing may have also been the main subsistence activity for other groups (Qarunian). Frequent changes in climatic conditions during the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene also seem to have led to a fast rate of cultural change, as shown by the relatively quick succession of different industries. Interaction among peoples in the Nile Valley was inevitable. In the Sahara, populations would have had to change or expand their home range frequently, thus facilitating the exchange of ideas and artifacts across a broad belt of Africa.

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