Ecological Context of Ancient Egyptian Predynastic Settlements
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.
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
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