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The Ecological Context of Ancient Egyptian Predynastic Settlements

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Predynastic Ancient Egypt was a contrast of mixed ecologies. These ranged from the borderland deserts both to the east and to the west of the floodplains, to the contrast between the Middle and Upper Egyptian floodplains itself and the Nile Delta. The differing environments affected not only settlement regions, but also site positions within those regions as well as the cultural composition of the inhabitants.

The Lower Egyptian Cultural-Ecological Sequence

In c. 5 000 BC there was a dip in the level of the Nile floods, which probably exerted an adverse effect on the subsistence fishing practices of the Nile Valley inhabitants. This mid-Holocene ecological crisis effect would also have extended to the plant and animal resources available on the low desert adjacent to the floodplain, most likely leading to a readiness on the part of the native Valley inhabitants to experiment with new social and economic forms. It was a period when desert groups migrated into the Valley, a consequence of the desert desiccation, and subsequent cultural and demographic mergers occurred with the Nilotes. These mergers are evident in the archaeological record by both artifact and faunal remains.

It is unfortunate that until fairly recently the archaeology of the Delta has largely been disregarded, an error primarily due not only to the mistaken early impression that it was unimportant in Egypt's formative periods, but also because of the difficulties of conducting archaeological excavations there. Knowledge about Predynastic settlement patterns in Lower Egypt (the Delta) is limited, due to the low numbers of sites that have been found and excavated.

The inner Delta, which is a vital area as it is possible that it was the key area of northern Predynastic Egyptian settlement (which it was in later Dynastic periods), has yet to yield a Predynastic site. Nearly all the sites are covered either by the watertable (for which special archaeological water-logged excavation techniques are currently being developed) or by more modern communities. Sites excavated at the Delta apex and its margins reveal a different Predynastic cultural pattern to that existing in Upper Egypt, yet they are too few to be able to determine between geographical and temporal cultural variations.





Those surviving habitation sites in the Nile Delta built up over time on the higher sections of gerizas (sand gravel mound formations produced by the Nile floods). As few pottery sherds have been excavated from the tops of geriza, groups of people most likely only took refuge on the top during extra-ordinarily high Nile floods; the tops were also too distant from the areas of cultivation for permanent settlement.

Merimda Beni Salama

The earliest known Neolithic settlement in either the Nile Valley or Delta is that of Merimda on the western Delta margin of the desert, whose beginnings date from between c. 5 000 - 4 800 BC and are represented in the basal layers of the 180 000 sq. m. site. The site, with a 2m cultural deposit, is situated on a low rise above the modern floodplain, thereby overlooking the Delta floodplain, and is set against low hills of a sandy Pleistocene 60m terrace.The early inhabitants possessed a similar way to life to their Fayum counterparts (described below), with a mixed hunting, fishing and cultivation economy. The settlements were composed of scattered shelters, with the middle occupation yielding similar postholes to that of the Fayum and more substantial subterranean homes only appearing in the uppermost levels that date to c. 4 300 BC. The granaries had also been integrated within the village by c. 4 300, leading to the belief that a differential formal organization of houses had occurred.

The Fayum

The Fayum is another excellent example of a Lower Egyptian settlement region displaying good evidence of a "Neolithicized" community. The largest Fayum Neolithic site is Kom W (c. 4 700 BC), whose bone and animal remains indicate a highly diverse diet which included fish, and cattle and hartebeest meat. The cereal grains are from emmer wheat and two-rowed barley. No permanent housing structures have been detected (but with there being post-holes, suggesting that their structures were of oval shape with the poles overlain with mats or reeds), although there are hundreds of hearths, granary pits, potsherds and lithic debris. The settlements' communal underground granaries were strategically positioned in higher ground slightly away from the habitation in order to avoid spoiling from ground water. These factors indicate that the inhabitants possessed a mixed pattern of subsistence and residential mobility, a combination of fully agricultural sedentary communities, nomadic herders and hunter-gatherers.

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By Michael Brass

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