Neolithic cultures, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

The "Neolithic" (literally the "New Stone Age") is the common (if imprecise) term widely used to denote the initial appearance in a given region of food-producing—that is, agricultural—economies. For hundreds of millennia before agriculture appeared in Egypt, people lived there by hunting, fishing and gathering the area’s rich profusion of natural flora and fauna, but about 7,500 years ago people in several areas of Egypt began cultivating wheat and barley and herding sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. The modest farms and crude hoes and grinding stones (two important new forms of stone tools of the "Neolithic") of these first Egyptian farmers might appear uninteresting and unimportant when compared, for example, to the great pyramids and funerary riches of the pharaohs who followed them, but, as in all other great civilizations of antiquity, Egypt’s first states were only possible because agriculture provided vastly greater and more reliable amounts of food than hunting and gathering; all the tombs and temples and great cities of pharaonic Egypt were supported by the primitive annual cultivation of wheat, barley and a few other crops, supplemented by domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and other animals.

How did this transition to agriculture occur, and precisely when? And most interesting of all, why? Generations of scholars have contemplated these questions, and not only in Egypt; agriculture appeared in many areas of the world at about the same time.


The key element in agriculture is environmental modification. Hunters and gatherers modify the environments of plants and animals in a small way, of course, by making camp fires and so forth, but farmers modify environments in much more intense ways. They plow fields, cut and burn forests, irrigate and weed crops, protect their farm animals from predators, and in many other ways alter the "natural" conditions of plant and animal life. Even in Egypt, where the Nile provided a relatively easy form of agriculture in which seeds could be planted in the wet rich soils left every year by the Nile floods, people still had to weed, build dikes to trap basins of water for irrigation, hand-water some crops, pen cattle, herd sheep and do other simple agricultural tasks.

The essence of domestication is mutualism, the increasing dependence of plants, animals and people on each other, often to the point that plants and animals lose their ability to survive in the wild. Wheat and barley, for example, were altered genetically during the domestication process so that, among other changes, their seeds remain tightly attached to the plant’s stem. This would be an extremely maladaptive change if these plants had to live in their natural environment, without human help in seeding these crops. Wild wheat and barley had evolved ways of seeding themselves by means of a brittle grain head that even light wind or the activities of birds and rodents could shatter, spilling the seeds on the ground to germinate the next year’s plants. This ability to reproduce without human help has been largely lost as people have manipulated these crops over the millennia. Some of the initial genetic changes were probably accidental, made by people who did not know that by, for example, harvesting wild cereals more intensively by tapping ripe heads and collecting the grains from the shattering grain heads they were removing from the genetic population the seeds with this brittle characteristic. But cereals with this tough non-shattering grain head are far easier to collect with sickles than the brittle wild varieties, and at some point people undoubtedly began intentionally to plant seeds from parent plants with desirable characteristics, just as they began to select for sheep with better wool, cows that produced more milk, and so forth.

Given this sense of what agriculture and domestication are, we can consider how Egypt made the transition to an agricultural society. To begin with, farming in Egypt did not start because some genius observed natural reproduction in plants and animals and then domesticated animals and laid out a farm. The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture in Egypt took place over centuries and involved plants and animals whose domestication required many millennia of both "natural" and intentional selection. Agricultural economies also require the development of specialized tools. Though vague, the "Neolithic" is not altogether an inappropriate term for early farming, because farming called for an entirely different toolkit from that used in hunting and gathering. Sickles and hoes in particular are important cereal farming tools, and archaeologically one of the most visible signs of changing economies is an increase in the stone mortars and pestles (grinding stones) used by most ancient peoples to make flour from grain.


Perhaps the most infallible marker of the growing importance of agriculture is containers. Hunter-gatherers in different areas of the world used gourds, and occasionally stone and wood bowls (and in Egypt, empty ostrich eggs), but farming requires many cheap containers for food preparation, storage, plant watering and a thousand other uses. Pottery was, of course, the means by which early farmers across the world met this need for containers, and the processes of pottery production were independently invented many times.

It now seems very probable that all the major Egyptian farm crops and some of the domesticated animals were domesticated outside of Egypt, mainly in southwest Asia, and then introduced to Egypt. Various scholars have advanced the hypothesis that agriculture appeared later in Egypt than in southwest Asia because the Nile Valley was so rich in native wild animals and plants that there was a "resistance" to farming, especially since we must assume that early farming was a laborious and not always reliable way of making a living in the preindustrial world. However, there is some evidence that ancient Egyptians were not simply passive recipients of foreign domesticates, for they appear to have domesticated several plants and animals.

The best evidence for this is the result of many years of research by Fred Wendorf, Romauld Schild, Angela Close and their associates, in the Western Desert, the area in modern Egypt’s southwest quarter. Their work has given us a detailed picture of the hunter-gatherers who roamed the fringes of the Nile Valley before agriculture appeared. About 11,000 years ago Africa’s southern monsoon rain belt shifted northward, so that much more rain fell each year in the southern part of what is now the eastern Saharan Desert. By about 9,500 years ago, people began moving into the areas bordering the Nile Valley, into the rich grasslands that supported great herds of gazelles, wild cattle and other animals. The evidence is sketchy but it seems to suggest that people moved out into these grasslands from the Nile Valley itself, which at this time teemed with huge catfish, hippopotami, waterfowl and many other animal and plant resources. At Kom Ombo,Wadi Kubbaniya and other southern Egyptian sites, stone tools and other remains have been found that represent sedentary communities of people who relied heavily on animals and plants whose environments they significantly modified. The mortars, sickle blades and other implements found at these sites suggest substantial plant use, but the adaptation appears to have been a mobile one, based on small groups pursuing a diversified hunting- gathering economy. The earliest evidence of forms of subsistence, settlement and technology in northeast Africa that differed significantly from those of the late Pleistocene comes from the desert areas of Bir Kiseiba and Nabta in what is now southwest Egypt. On the basis of evidence from this area, Wendorf, Schild and Close note that both cattle and pottery were known here as early as anywhere else in the world.

Thus, as early as 9,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians seem to have been in the process of domesticating plants and animals and developing the ground stone tools and other implements of an agricultural economy. But these local domesticates appear to have been displaced at some point after about 8,000 years ago, when domesticated strains of wheat and barley were introduced into Egypt, along with domesticated sheep and goats (there is no reliable evidence that the wild ancestors of either sheep (Ovis orientalis) or goats (Capra hircus) lived in North Africa). We do not know—and may never know—if people using these domesticated plants and animals immigrated to Egypt or whether these domesticates were simply introduced along trade routes that had been in operation for many centuries before farming appeared. Once established, however, the farming communities quickly spread through the Delta and Nile Valley, displacing both those hunter-gatherer groups that might have remained as well as groups that were already highly dependent on local plants and had developed something of an agricultural technology. The growing aridity of the period after about 7000 BC may well have forced people into the Nile Valley from the increasingly barren desert margins, and perhaps they brought with them both domesticated cattle and the ground stone tools that would have been especially productive when combined with southwest Asian domesticated crops and animals. These technological changes and the contrast between non-agricultural and agricultural economies is vividly illustrated in Egypt’s Fayum Oasis, which contains some of the earliest and most extensive remains of agriculture in Egypt. Around the ancient shorelines of the lake that used to fill this oasis are the remains of hundreds of camp sites of people who hunted, fished and foraged this rich lacustrine environment between about 9000 and 6000 BC. These camp sites are marked by countless small stone tools, many of them in the form of blades about 10cm long, and the animal bones found amidst these tool scatters are from the native wild fauna of the region, principally fish, crocodiles, hippopotami, birds and wild forms of cattle. There are no grinding stones, pottery fragments or other evidence that they grew crops, and no evidence that they raised domestic animals.

However, along other, later shorelines of the Fayum lake are the remains of settlements of people who lived partly by farming. In 1925-6, Gertrude Caton Thompson and Ellen Gardner excavated several of these Neolithic sites (later dated to about 5000 BC) on the northern side of the ancient Fayum lake, and near these sites they found many evidences of primitive agriculture. In one area, for example, they found 165 pits, many of them lined with coiled straw "basketry" and some of them containing wheat (emmer wheat, Triticum dicoccum) and barley (Hordeum sp.). These pits averaged 91-122cm in diameter and 30-61cm in depth. Inside some of the silos were agricultural tools, including a beautifully preserved sickle of wood and flint. So well preserved was some of the grain that investigators at the British Museum tried (unsuccessfully) to germinate it. In the sites near these silos are innumerable potsherds, hundreds of limestone grinding stones, sickle blades, and the remains of the domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and other animals that these Fayum people used to complement their grain crops.

These evidences from the Fayum are still among the very earliest signs of agriculture known in Egypt, but no evidence was found by Caton Thompson, or by any of the later researchers in this area, that the people living in the Fayum "invented" agriculture and made the transition to farming there. The wheat, barley, sheep and goats of the Neolithic Fayum appear to be of strains domesticated in southwest Asia, not Egypt, and there seems to have been a period between the hunter-gatherers and the first farmers when the Fayum was not occupied. So where did these Fayum farmers come from, and when? How did they initially take up agriculture?

The answers to these questions, unfortunately, may be lost or deeply buried in the Nile alluvium. Because of the Nile’s scouring effects and because of the intensity of occupation and cultivation of the Nile’s margins, as well as the thick layer of silt that presumably covers the earliest occupations of the Delta and other areas of the Nile channel, very little is known about early agriculture in Egypt in areas beyond the Fayum and Merimde Beni-salame. If the radiocarbon date of about 4700 BC from samples taken by means of an auger from several meters below ground level (from just above a layer containing pottery) in the far eastern Delta is representative, the earliest agricultural communities in Egypt are far under the groundwater levels, beneath thick layers of silt.

Once domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle were well established in Egypt, probably at least by 5000 BC, the cultural landscape began changing rapidly. The Fayum agriculturalists, for example, seem never to have made the transition to a fully agricultural way of life based on village communities, perhaps because the productivity of the lake made primitive agriculture a somewhat marginal improvement, but also probably because annual floods made the lake shore a less attractive farming area than the flood basins along the Nile itself.

Although the shift to agriculture quickly resulted in a majority of food being produced from cereals and domesticated animals, Egyptians continued to rely heavily on fish. In fact, fish bones are a common component of nearly every ancient Egyptian archaeological site from the Neolithic period to the recent past. Animals in the Nile and the desert margins also continued to be hunted throughout antiquity, although eventually hunting hippopotami, lions, gazelles and other animals became more of a royal sport than a subsistence activity. Wild fowl, especially ducks and geese, were an important element in ancient Egyptian diets, and early in Egyptian antiquity ducks and geese were penned and kept both for eating and for their eggs (domesticated fowl was not introduced to Egypt until Roman times).

By 4000 BC there were farming communities at el-Badari, Merimde Beni-salame and probably hundreds of other places as well. These early communities seem at first to have been made up of simple round or oval pit-houses made of wood, thatch and mud, but soon rectangular buildings made of mudbrick and sharing common walls—the classic Middle Eastern architectural form—appeared, and within a few centuries most of Egypt’s people lived in such communities. This type of farming community has shown great stability and continuity of form and function. The remains of farming communities of 2000 BC greatly resemble those of AD 1000, and even into modern times the Egyptian farming village shows strong resemblances to ancient communities.

If, as seems likely, ancient Neolithic Egyptian communities resembled those that are known from their earliest representatives, they were small clusters of reed huts or, later, mudbrick houses that were probably occupied by members of several extended families, with a total community population of a few hundred at most. The similarity of styles of artifacts suggests cultural connections among these communities but there were probably no political or economic authorities or institutions—that is, no "chiefs" or other hereditary rulers—until after 4000 BC. The natural richness of the Nile Valley would have allowed these Neolithic communities to subsist without much exchange of foodstuffs among them.

As in later Egyptian history, the core of the Neolithic diet was probably bread and beer. Later texts show that beer was, of course, drunk in part for its intoxicating properties, but the beer made in ancient Egypt was also a good nutritional complement to the diet. Beer was made from bread that was crumbled into water, mixed with yeast and perhaps a few other substances, and then simply allowed to ferment; once fermented, it was strained. Thus beer making was an efficient way to use stale bread and surplus grain.

It is difficult to define either a beginning or an ending to the "Neolithic" period, since at least a few Egyptians appear to have been domesticating plants and animals and doing some minor agriculture as early as 10,000 years ago, and in a sense the "Neolithic" economy of mixed grain farming and livestock raising that was well established by 5000 BC was not basically changed until the Romans introduced many new crops and farming techniques 5,000 years later. Research on Egypt’s agricultural origins continues, and in the future there is hope that some of the major questions can be resolved. Studies of the DNA of ancient Egyptian cereals may show precisely from what strains of southwest Asian variants they were derived.

Understanding the origins of Egyptian agriculture is just one piece of a much larger puzzle, of course, for at the same time cereals and herd animals were being domesticated in southwest Asia and introduced to North Africa, many other animals and plants were being domesticated in south and southeast Asia, and in North and South America. Certainly the climatic changes that occurred worldwide at the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, may have been directly or indirectly involved in agricultural origins, but in each case a somewhat different combination of climatic change, population growth, evolving tool technologies and other factors seems to have been the basis for this momentous transition in human history.

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