Predynastic Egypt: What Was Egypt Like Before the Pyramids? (7 Facts)

When the Egyptians built the Pyramids, their culture had been developing for centuries. We will take a look at some of the most impressive achievements from Predynastic Egypt.

Jan 20, 2022By Sebastian Maydana, PhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA History
predynastic egypt mummy

 

Although most accounts of the Egyptian civilization concentrate on famous and well-known works of art, all these monuments and paintings had to start somewhere. The era before ancient Egypt became a centralized state spanning the Mediterranean to the First Cataract in Nubia is called the Predynastic Period; it was the setting for many of the developments that made ancient Egyptian society so great and enduring. Here, we will explore the achievements of Predynastic Egyptians.

 

1. Predynastic Egypt Was a Very Violent Period

jebel sahaba battleground ancient egypt
Excavation of the Jebel Sahaba battlegrounds, photograph from the Wendorf Archive, via El Pais

 

Since the 18th century, Westerners have firmly believed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage” theory. This theory states that primitive peoples were essentially peaceful and lived in communion with nature. Cemetery 117 in Jebel Sahaba, in the portion of ancient Egypt that now belongs to Sudan, is the best example of how wrong Rousseau was.

 

Cemetery 117 was discovered in 1964 by Fred Wendorf and his team; it contained 59 skeletons, many of which showed signs of having suffered a violent death. Most of the wounds were produced by projectiles similar to arrows, and this led scientists to believe that they had found the site of the world’s first known battle. In some cases, stone arrowheads were still lodged in the bones of the victims. Jebel Sahaba is dated around 12,000 years ago, and later archaeological evidence proves that violent conflict was part of the northeast African scene for millennia.

 

predynastic egypt painted pottery
Predynastic pottery, Naqada I-II, c. 4000 – 3200 BCE, via the Glencairn Museum

 

Not only do we have iconographic evidence (such as the Narmer Palette for example) showing cruel and violent acts committed by communal leaders, but archaeologists have also found thousands of maceheads, knives, and other kinds of weapons that date to the Predynastic Period. One particular mummy, found at the site of Gebelein, shows signs of having been stabbed in the back.

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All in all, the Predynastic Period was a very violent time filled with very violent people, and conflict was everywhere from interpersonal relations to wars between factions and communities. For example, a kingdom in Upper Egypt completely obliterated the culture known as the A-Group, which had flourished during the 4th millennium BCE in Lower Nubia, and which had disappeared from existence by the end of Naqada III (c. 3000 BCE).

 

2. Predynastic Peoples Opened Many Long Distance Trade Routes

bone figurine predynastic egypt
Bone figurine with inlaid eyes of lapis lazuli, photograph by Jon Bodsworth, Naqada I Period, via the British Museum

 

Contrary to what one might believe, the Predynastic Egyptians did not just stay in their small walled villages. They traveled the land, eventually developing an extensive network of long-distance trade routes. Ancient Egyptian merchants and their products circulated around a wide area that spanned from the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to Anatolia, Lebanon, and further East to Afghanistan. Here, they exchanged beer and honey for precious lapis lazuli, a stone that was highly valued in Predynastic Egypt. They also exchanged goods with nomadic peoples from the Sahara Desert and exported beer and pottery to their southern neighbors, the A-Groups and C-Groups in Nubia. In exchange, they received gold, ivory, and pelts. Several wine jars were also found in Umm el-Qaab, in Upper Egypt, which provides clear evidence of contacts with the Mediterranean region. Just as beer (the commonest of drinks in ancient Egypt) was a delicacy in Nubia, wine could only be afforded and enjoyed by the upper classes in Predynastic villages.

 

To be able to obtain exotic products was a prerogative of the elite, so whoever held uncommon possessions was regarded as an affluent member of society. Bone and ivory cylinder seals from Mesopotamia are sometimes found in elite Egyptian burials. These seals were used by Mesopotamian officials to label export goods, as a means of keeping track of commerce. In Egypt, these cylinder seals were not used but they were displayed as proof of the ties between the local elites and wealthy people from foreign lands.

 

3. The First Zoo in History Was Located in Predynastic Egypt

skeleton baboon excavation
Excavating the skeleton of a baboon, photograph by Renée Friedman, via the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

 

One of the most important settlements in Predynastic Egypt was ancient Nekhen, later named Hierakonpolis by the Greeks. Hierakonpolis literally means “city of the hawk”, and this is an apt name as the cult of the falcon god Horus probably started there. It is located in Upper Egypt, a few kilometers from the Nile. In 2009, a team led by Renée Friedman from Oxford University made an impressive discovery in a location named HK6, finding a great number of exotic animal bones. More impressive than the number of animals and the unusual species uncovered was the osteological evidence that indicated they had been bound by ropes. Some of these bounds caused fractures to the leg bones of a hippopotamus and an elephant, and both wounds were healed, implying that these animals were kept in captivity for a long period of time. Immediately, the team broke the news to the press: they had discovered the world’s first zoo in history.

 

Among the animals found in HK6, as well as the most common domestic animals, were baboons, wild asses, a leopard, crocodiles, elephants, ostriches, gazelles, hartebeest, and hippopotami. Most of these animals were extremely dangerous and could not be tamed, so it quickly became clear to scientists that they were used exclusively as a display of power for the ruling elite of Hierakonpolis.

 

Not only were these leaders able to capture wild animals that could easily kill normal human beings, but they were also able to transport them from far away lands. For example, leopards at that time were only found in Nubia, which was at least 500 kilometers (310 miles) upstream. Moreover, having wealth enough to feed the animals (an elephant alone can eat some 300 pounds/136 kg of food daily) is patent proof of the ruler’s power.

 

4. And Also the First Observatory

nabta playa stone circle ancient egypt
Reconstruction of a circle of stones at Nabta Playa, photograph by M. Jórdeczka, 2015, via the University of Heidelberg

 

Predynastic Egyptians not only excelled in hunting and fighting, but they also developed the arts and technologies that would make ancient Egypt the greatest civilization of their time. An impressive discovery was made in 1973 at a site known as Nabta Playa, located deep in the Western Desert of Egypt. Along with bone and pottery remains, excavators Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild found a series of heavy stones, some of them still standing after 8,000 years, set in a circle in the middle of the desert. Judging by the number and placement of the stones, Wendorf and Schild suspected they represented some kind of astronomical alignment.

 

Unfortunately, they lacked the knowledge and technology to prove or disprove this hypothesis. More recently, the team reassembled and joined astrophysicists from the University of Colorado to make precise measurements of the rocks’ positions, taking into account the shift in the stars since the time the rocks were originally placed. Apparently, their astronomical observations had been very accurate. But why was it so important for ancient Egyptians to observe the positions of the stars? Scientists have concluded that such observations were pointed at helping the local inhabitants plan ahead in their nomadic activities: herding cattle, finding water, predicting the full moons, and orienting themselves through the position of the stars.

 

5. The Royal Attributes of Ancient Egypt’s Kings Developed During This Period

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Detail from the Narmer Palette, c. 3050 BCE, via mythsandhistory.com

 

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were gods on earth: powerful, untouchable, almighty. They made the Nile flood the plain, the crops grow, and the sun rise and set every day. Most of their identifying attributes were born from the Nile river, in the small villages of Upper Predynastic Egypt. If we look at the Narmer Palette, one of the earliest accounts of an Egyptian king, we immediately recognize many attributes of later pharaohs. The double crown (red for Lower Egypt, white for Upper Egypt), the mace, the shendyt kilt worn exclusively by the pharaoh, and the fake bull tail. Although later pharaohs stopped using the tail except for very special occasions, the rest of these features continued untouched for millennia.

 

It was not only pharaonic fashion that started in Predynastic Egypt. Some iconographic sources show that a well-known festival, the Heb Sed, was first performed by a Predynastic king. The visual theme of the king massacring his enemies was featured in many Predynastic sources. Also, the portrayal of the king as a youthful, fit individual was a hallmark of Predynastic kings as well as ancient Egyptian pharaohs of later periods. Finally, a telling detail in the Narmer Palette is the inclusion of a royal aide behind the king, carrying his sandals. Sandals were the most powerful piece of pharaonic attire, for they represented the only point of contact between the godly pharaoh and the earthly realm of men. So it can be argued that it was in Predynastic Egypt when the king began to be seen, not as the foremost of men, but indeed as a god on earth.

 

6. Burials Were Complex and Elaborate

predynastic egypt burial reconstruction
Reconstruction of a Predynastic burial, via the Glencairn Museum

 

Most of what we know about ancient Egypt comes from its tombs. This is mainly because of the perishable nature of the materials they used to build most structures. From impressive pyramids to huge mortuary temples carved directly into the side of mountains, burial customs in ancient Egypt are among the most recognizable in the world. Taking these examples into account, the relatively small pits on the ground that most Predynastic Egypt tombs were may seem petty in comparison. Except they are anything but petty. We have discussed the animal burials in HK6 cemetery at Hierakonpolis, many of which were related to human burials of communal leaders. But looking at the Predynastic tombs as a group, we see a clear trend over time towards greater complexity in mortuary facilities and rituals, as well as signs of experimentation in the treatment of bodies.

 

Also, an increasing disparity is attested between the burials of commoners and those of elite members, who would be buried in huge square pits along with many works of art and exotic goods. Most Predynastic Egyptian men and women were buried in the fetal position, on the Western bank of the Nile and facing West. This is commonly interpreted as a means of being closer to the land of the setting sun, where the entrance to the Afterlife was located.

 

7. Life in Predynastic Egypt

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Excavating a Predynastic brewery at Hierakonpolis, photograph by Renée Friedman, via the American Research Center in Egypt

 

It is difficult to give an unbiased account of daily life in Predynastic Egypt because most of the surviving artifacts and archaeological remains belong to the upper classes and are in funerary settings. But a few discoveries, most of them fairly recent, give us a glimpse of what life could have been like in the 4th millennium BCE. For example, some beer breweries have been discovered that could produce up to 100 gallons or 378 liters a day. Beer (which was closer to a nutritious paste than the alcoholic beverage it is today) and bread were the main foods in ancient Egypt. And while the latter was most likely baked daily by each household, beer required a more elaborate infrastructure. Accordingly, it seems to have been produced industrially in order to provide nourishment to the whole community.

 

Most Predynastic Egyptians had their own small herds of cattle, mainly consisting of goats, sheep and pigs, and occasionally cows. Oxen were used to plow the fertile soil along the Nile where barley and wheat were planted, while houses were built right on the border between the fertile land and the desert.

 

Houses were ample and usually had a big unroofed front courtyard where they cooked and held social gatherings. As rain was uncommon, ancient Egyptians considered the rooftop as just another room, and they used to sleep there. Villages usually consisted of a few dozen houses, but towards the end of the Predynastic Period, a few cities started to develop, mainly around a zone in Upper Egypt known as the Qena Bend. There, people from different parts of Egypt started gathering in large communities. These would eventually grow to be the first proto-kingdoms in Upper Egypt: Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Naqada. The rest is history.



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By Sebastian MaydanaPhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA HistorySebastian F. Maydana holds a PhD in History from the University of Buenos Aires, and is an assistant teacher at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern History (UBA). His main interests are early Egyptian mythology and visual culture, especially petroglyphs and other forms of art. He has participated in fieldwork in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Sebastian is also interested in the different forms in which myths and symbols from the past are received and repurposed by our modern-age societies, for instance in film and science fiction.