Egyptian Prehistory
The Great Desert



   Seven or eight thousand years ago, at the farthest reaches of human memory, before there was Egypt or the pyramids, North Africa was a lush and green place. There were vast grasslands and green forests stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Over this enormous green area, humans wandered in small groups; eventually, about eight thousand or so years ago, some of these small groups began to plant and cultivate their food. You might say that this change, which happened so slowly that it probably took a millenium to take place, was the single most important event in human history. For it turned humans into agriculturalists. As farmers, these wandering human groups settled down in one place, and human culture, confined now to villages, radically changed shape.

   This revolution, so vital to everything that follows, took shape so slowly that at least one quarter of written human history can be contained in the period of time that it took for humans to become agriculturalists. While this revolution happened all around the world, North Africa was a special case. For about the time humans slowly transformed into farmers, North Africa started to die. It died slowly and imperceptibly, but generation after generation began to notice that it was raining less frequently and that there were fewer plants. The death of the grasslands and forests slowly gave way to sand; in a few thousand years, North Africa became "The Desert" ("Sahara" means "desert" in Arabic). Humans were pushed relentlessly by the encroaching dry and sand. They were pushed south (they are still being pushed south as the Sahara continues to grow), some were pushed north into the Middle East, and some were pushed towards the Nile River. Like a solitary giant, the Nile loomed as the only source of water in the growing desert; in a sea of sand, the Nile was a thin sliver of green, growth, and life.

The Nile Civilizations





   This is where the great Nile civilizations were fostered and grew: Egypt, Nubia, Meroe. From the desperate human communities forced by the growing desert to live on the banks of the Nile grew one of the first great urban cultures of human history. However, we know almost nothing of these early pre-Egyptian communities. What did they think? What gods did they worship? How did these communities evolve into the great urban centers of the Nilotic kingdoms? Like the grass and trees swallowed by the desert, we'll never know, for they left only graves, tools, knives, pots, and garbage. No words and no speech. We do know that around 5000 BC, people began to live in villages up and down the Nile Valley, and one thousand years later these people were burying their dead with great care and ornamentation (belief in an afterlife?). Around 3800 BC, Nile culture began to flourish. Egyptians discovered the world and began to interact and trade with other cultures as far away as Mesopotamia. Egyptians became master craftspeople; they buried their dead in coffins in lavishly equipped graves; they began to develop sophisticated technologies.

   This was the template on which Egyptian civilization would emerge, for out of this crucible would rise The Two Lands, the first states in human history.


Next . . .
The Two Lands: The Archaic Period, 3100-2650 BC


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-27-97