Ancient Nubia

Linkages between Nubia, Egypt, the Sahara and the Sudan

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The Nabata Playa and climate-driven migration into the Nile ValleyEdit

The once fertile Sahara stretches in a belt from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. As noted above, fluctuating climate cycles acted as a "pump", pushing people from the south up towards the wetter, more fertile Nile Valley, or down, to zones of similar likeness. The Nabta Playa (lake) Basin is on the edge of the Western Desert of Egypt is also another source of Nile Valley peopling. Nabta Playa os located some 62 miles from Abu Simbel and some 60 miles west of the Nile, near the Sudanese border. The basin shows evidence of a culture marked by growing sophiscation, including deep wells for water access, and "the emergence of a regional ceremonial center with megalithic alignments, stone circles, cattle burials, and other large-scale constructions."[1]

Such constructions included carved megaliths tied to religious motifs around 5000 BC. Climate change made the area arid again and some scholars hold that this forced peoples of the region to migrate to the wetter Nile Valley, with subsequent effects on the development of Egyptian civilization.[2]

Influence of the Saharan peoples on later Egyptian religion and artEdit

According to archaeologist F. Wendorf, who excavated the region, the legacy of the ancient peoples "is seen in the "prominence of cattle in the religious belief system of Pre-dynastic Egypt continuing into the Old Kingdom." Wendorf argues that the presence of domesticated cattle is likely an indigenous development based on mtDNA analysis of wild stocks, and that the excavation of indigenous grains- sorghums and millets, along with other plants, along with the absence of Southwest Asian domesticates, indicates a measure of indigenous development in place. The climate driven move into Egypt by these ancient desert dwellers, it is held, may have been "a critical factor in the rise of social complexity and the subsequent emergence of the Egyptian state in Upper Egypt (Hoffman 1979; Hassan 1988). If so, Egypt owes a major debt to those early pastoral groups in the Sahara; they may have provided Egypt with many of those features that still distinguish it from its neighbors to the east."

Wendorf holds that a Saharan origin must be balanced with caution since there are a number of the unique elements which did not carryover to the Nile Valley, including extensive megaliths. Nevertheless he maintains, "One of the fascinating aspects of the evidence for the working of large stones is that it seems to anticipate later Egyptian developments." [3]

Evidence of early cultural practices in the Saharan zone: MummificationEdit

The Libyan desert area, particularly around the Fezzan, also shows a range of physical types. Of note is the mummified form of a Negro child, dated to around 3000 B.C, discovered at the Uan Muhuggiag rock shelter by a team of Italian archaeologists. What makes this skeleton interesting is that it is so well preserved that it challenges the notion that the Egyptians were the original pioneers of mummification. The Italian excavation suggests that many practices associated with Egypt, may have already been established on an indigenous basis in the areas adjoining the Nile Valley, prior to the rise of the Egyptian dynasties. [4] This finding is consistent with the general pattern noted above- the appearance of long-standing cultural and skeletal elements from a variety of indigenous peoples, in the areas close to Egypt. It is also consistent with a movement of peoples, up from the Saharan Zone into the Nile Valley, as noted by Afrocentric critic Mary Leftkowitz. The presence of numerous artistic motifs from Saharan rock art, found in later Egyptian iconography and use, (Wilkinson 1999) also lends support to the long-standing cultural sharing and linkages between Egypt and the surrounding Saharan cultures.[5]

Nile Valley religions and linkages with the Sudan and SaharaEdit

Southern affinities of some Egyptian religion. Various cultural and religious practices in particular seem to show greater affinity with that of the peoples or northeast Africa, rather than the Mediterranean or Mesopotamia. These include numerous animal gods, the king as chief ritualist, the king's mother, ritual/ceremonial dresses, and regicide.

Encyclopedia Britannica 1984 ed. Macropedia Article, Vol 6: "Egyptian Religion" , pg 506-508
"A large number of gods go back to prehistoric times. The images of a cow and star goddess (Hathor), the falcon (Horus), and the human-shaped figures of the fertility god (Min) can be traced back to that period. Some rites, such as the "running of the Apil-bull," the "hoeing of the ground," and other fertility and hunting rites (e.g., the hippopotamus hunt) presumably date from early times.. Connections with the religions in southwest Asia cannot be traced with certainty."
"It is doubtful whether Osiris can be regarded as equal to Tammuz or Adonis, or whether Hathor is related to the "Great Mother." There are closer relations with northeast African religions. The numerous animal cults (especially bovine cults and panther gods) and details of ritual dresses (animal tails, masks, grass aprons, etc) probably are of African origin. The kinship in particular shows some African elements, such as the king as the head ritualist (i.e., medicine man), the limitations and renewal of the reign (jubilees, regicide), and the position of the king's mother (a matriarchal element). Some of them can be found among the Ethiopians in Napata and Meroe, others among the Prenilotic tribes (Shilluk)."[6]

Egyptian religion and an African substratum involving cattle. Frankfort (1978) in his study of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions and political systems argued that the Egyptian belief system arose from an East African substratum and was not introduced from Mesopotamia.[7] Central to indigenous development was cattle as one central focus of the beleif systems of the Old Kingdom. Concepts such as defication of cattle, a cow as the "mother of the sun" or the Egyptian pharaoh as a god (rather than an intermediary to the gods as in Mesopotamia), suggest strong native roots in the Nile Valley and East Africa rather than an outside influx. The pharoah as sons of Horus, who was in turn son of Hathor the cow goddess, dpictionso f Horus as a strong bull, the images of bulls in many depictions of the stars, dead pharaohs sometimes being described as 'the Bull of Heaven' and the Old Kingdom concept of Min, the god of rain, who is associated with a whitle bull and to whom the annual harvest is dedicated all indicate connections with indigenous predynastic cultures, with little significant need for outside influence from Mesopotamia or elsewhere to shape their development. [8]

Ethnicity and the NubiansEdit

Like the rest of the Nile Valley peoples, Nubians show a range of physical variability that make it problematic to carve them up into racially assigned zones. According to mainstream archaeologist and anthropologist Bruce Trigger:

"The people of Nubia are an indigenous African population, whose physical characteristics are part of a continuum of physical variation in the Nile Valley. This population has occupied the middle portion of the Nile Valley throughout recorded history and probably for much longer. There is no evidence to suggest that it is as a result of a mixing of different racial stocks." [9]

Linkages between Nubia, the Sudan, the Sahara and EgyptEdit

Mainstream anthropologist and DNA researcher S. Keita sums up much of the older evidence showing the linkages between Egypt and 'black' Africa, noting that contrary to discredited white civilizer theories and their variants, many of the cultural elements associated with Egypt originated in the Sudanic-Saharan areas of said 'black' Africa. Much of this evidence appears in older scholarship, long before Afrocentrism became popular or widely controversial, and is confirmed in modern re-analyses. The data are summarized below:[10]:

  • Specific central African tool designs found at the well known Naqada, Badari and Fayum archaeological sites in Egypt (de Heinzelin 1962, Arkell and Ucko, 1956 et al). Shaw (1976) states that "the early cultures of Merimde, the Fayum, Badari Naqada I and II are essentially African and early African social customs and religious beliefs were the root and foundation of the ancient Egyptian way of life."
  • Pottery evidence first seen in the Saharan Highlands then spreading to the Nile Valley (Flight 1973).
  • Art motifs of Saharan rock paintings showing similarities to those in pharaonic art. A number of scholars suggest that these earlier artistic styles influenced later pharaonic art via Saharans leaving drier areas and moving into the Nile Valley taking their art styles with them (Mori 1964, Blanc 1964, et al)
  • Earlier pioneering mummification outside Egypt. The oldest mummy in Africa is of a black Saharan child (Donadoni 1964, Blanc 1964) Frankfort (1956) suggests that it is thus possible to understand the pharaonic worldview by reference to the religious beliefs of these earlier African precursors. Attempts to suggest the root of such practices are due to Caucasoid civilizers from elsewhere are thus contradicted by the data on the ground.
  • Several cultural practices of Egypt show strong similarities to an African totemic clan base. Childe (1969, 1978), Aldred (1978) and Strouhal (1971) demonstrate linkages with several African practices such as divine kingship and the king as divine rainmaker.
  • Physical similarities of the early Nile valley populations with that of tropical Africans. Such connections are demonstrated in the work of numerous scholars such as Thompson and Randall Mclver 1905, Falkenburger 1947, and Strouhal 1971. The distance diagrams of Mukherjee, Rao and Trevor (1955) place the ancient Badarians genetically near 'black' tribes such as the Ashanti and the Taita. See also the "Issues of lumping under Mediterranean clusters" section above for similar older analyses.
  • Serological (blood) evidence of genetic linkages. Paoli 1972 for example found a significant resemblance between ABO frequencies of dynastic Egyptians and the black northern Haratin who are held to be the probable descendants of the original Saharans (Hiernaux, 1975).
  • Language similarities which include several hundred roots ascribable to African elements (UNESCO 1974)
  • Ancient Egyptian origin stories ascribing origins of the gods and their ancestors to African locations to the south and west of Egypt (Davidson 1959)
  • Advanced state building and political unity in Nubia, including writing, administrative apparatus and insignia some 300 years before dynastic Egypt, and the long demonstrated interchange between Nubia and Egypt (Williams 1980)

Newer studies (Wendorf 2001, Wilkinson 1999, et al.) confirm these older analyses. Excavations from Nabta Playa, located about 100km west of Abu Simbel for example, suggest that the Neolithic inhabitants of the region were migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, based on cultural similarities and social complexity which is thought to be reflective of Egypt's Old Kingdom[11]Other scholars (Wilkinson 1999) present similar material and cultural evidence- including similarities between predynastic Egypt and traditional African cattle-culture, typical of Southern Sudanese and East African pastoralists of today, and various cultural and artistic data such as iconography on rock art found in both Egypt and in the Sudan.[12]

Recent data from other research suggests numerous trade contacts between the Nile Valley peoples from early times. The excavations of German archaeologist Gunter Dreyer (1999) at Predynastic Abydos for example unearthed obsidian bowls, a material traced to the nearby Sudan or Ethiopia. Excavations at Hierakonpolis by archaeologist Renee Friedman (1998) also demonstrates ritual masks similar to those used further south of Egypt, and significant amounts of obsidian, also traced to Ethiopian quarry sites.[13]. As regards population types and origins, one contemporary review of older evidence acknowledges that "the ancient Egyptians, especially southern Egyptians, exhibited physical characteristics that are within the range of variation for ancient and modern indigenous peoples of the Sahara and tropical Africa."[14]


  1. . ^ Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17, 97-123 (1998), "Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory," Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild
  2. . ^ Wendorf, op. cit
  3. . ^ Wendorf, op. cit
  4. . ^ Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara. Volume 1: The Archaeology of Nabta Playa.By Fred Wendorf, Romauld Schild, and Associates. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York (ISBN 0-306-46612-0 2001) 2001
  5. . ^ Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, Routledge, 1999, pp. 45-182
  6. . ^ :Encyclopedia Britannica 1984 ed. Macropedia Article, Vol 6: "Egyptian Religion" , pg 506-508
  7. . ^ Frankfort, H. 1978 "Kingship and the gods. A study of ancient Near Eastern religion as the integration of society and nature." Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. . ^ J. McKim Malville, Fred Wendorf, Ali A Mazar and Romauld Schild 'Megaliths and Neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt', Nature (Vol. 392, no. 2, April 1998). See also: Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17, 97-123 (1998), "Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory," Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild
  9. . ^ Bruce Trigger, 'Nubian, Negro, Black, Nilotic?', in Sylvia Hochfield and Elizabeth Riefstahl (eds), Africa in Antiquity: the arts of Nubia and the Sudan, Vol. 1 (New York, Brooklyn Museum, 1978)
  10. . ^ S.O.Y Keita, 'Royal incest and Diffusion in Africa," American Ethnologist > Vol. 8, No. 2 (May, 1981), pp. 392-393
  11. . ^ Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild, Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara: Volume 1: The Archaeology of Nabta Playa, (Springer: 2001)
  12. . ^ Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, Routledge, 1999, pp. 45-182
  13. . ^ John Gledhill, Barbara Bender, Mogens Trolle Larsen, (eds), State and Society: The Emergence and Development of Social Hierarchy and political centralization, (London: Taylor and Francis Group: 1998), pp. 192-214; see also Vivian Davies and Renee Friedman, Egypt Uncovered, (Stewart Tabori & Chang: 1998), pp. 5-87
  14. . ^ Nancy C. Lovell, " Egyptians, physical anthropology of," in Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, ed. Kathryn A. Bard and Steven Blake Shubert, ( London and New York: Routledge, 1999) pp 328-332

See alsoEdit

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