The Red Lands and the Black: Origins of Upper Egyptian Culture

The Nile river valley was known to its early inhabitants as Kemet, the Black Land, a reference to its fertile, black soil. In contrast to this, the arid regions to the east and west of the Nile were known as the Red Lands, or Deshret, named for the red sandstone hills of the region (McDermott 2001: 126). Before the formation of the Egyptian State near 5000 BP, there was considerable mixture between these two areas, with each contributing technologies and cultural ideologies that would survive throughout Dynastic Egypt.

The histories of these people are closely tied to changes in the area’s climate. Rainy periods brought grass to the desert, and extensive flooding to the river valley. Drought consolidated the desert people around oases and encouraged migration to the banks of the Nile (Bard 1994). Around 9500 - 9000 BP the Neolithic Subpluvial period began, which ended a twenty thousand year period of aridity. The first two thousand years of the Neolithic Subpluvial experienced the highest levels of moisture, and during this time the land supported a wide variety of plants and animals, including gazelle, wild cattle, elephant, giraffe, and possibly even crocodile. The end of this period, around 5500-5000 BP, brought about a return to the familiar aridity of the modern era.

Approximately 15 kya, the Qadan culture took root in the southernmost areas of the Nile river valley. The Qadan were mainly hunters, traveling between valley floor and the nearby savanna as evidenced by the wide variety of animal remains found in their settlements. They also relied on wild or semi-domesticated grains, and at Tushka have left behind grinding stones as well as barley pollen (Hoffman 1979: 88-89). By 14 kya the Isnan culture began their first experiments in agriculture, as well as creating the first truly permanent settlements. Corresponding to this new use of grains, the river valley saw a population explosion beginning 15 kya and lasting until about 12.5 kya when the use of grains ceased in the valley. Although the exact reason is uncertain, “About 12,500 BP the increased rainfall in the Nile’s headwaters resulted in a series of exceptionally high floods in Egypt, followed by downcutting and a change in the river’s morphology from numerous small braided channels to the single large channel that is seen today (Bard 1999: 14).” The people of the Black Land returned to hunting the animals of the Nile and the tools associated with grain use disappear at this time.

There is very little evidence in the archaeological record for the desert regions until the Neolithic Sub-pluvian period began around 9500 BP. Nabta playa, located in the far south, is one of the larger population concentrations in the Egyptian desert during that time period. Here, the inhabitants hunted the large game of the newly watered savannas until the rains diminished and the largest animals left were the wild cattle. At around 8600 BP, the people of Nabta made a dramatic switch from hunting wild game to domesticating cattle and then settling down to practice agriculture (Hoffman 1979: 218). By 6800 BP, they had built a stone circle that served as a calendar which marks the summer solstice and the return of the summer rains, necessary to survival in the increasingly arid environment (Wilkinson 2003: 165-166). Certain cultural practices in Nabta bear a marked resemblance to later Egyptian customs, including the ceremonial burial of cattle and the decoration of pottery with a combed design etched into the side before firing (Wendorf and Schild 1998: 100, 108-109).

At the time when the desert was again becoming uninhabitable, around 6500 BP, a new culture, named the Badari, appeared in the Nile river valley, bringing with it the rebirth of Egyptian agriculture. The Badari culture was originally identified by their distinctive combed pottery and by the introduction of cosmetic palettes. The Bardari began as a semi-nomadic culture, moving between savanna and river throughout the year. Perhaps they practiced farming during part of the year, and hunting and herding in the desert when the river made farming impossible. In later times, Egyptian farmers would be assigned to public works during these same seasons when farming halted. Evidence for the Badarian’s semi-nomadic, pastoral lifestyle comes from the layers of artifacts and large amounts of animal feces interspersed with layers of silt found in their settlements (Wilkinson 2003: 104). The cosmetic palettes used by the Badari were simply fashioned and made from black siltstone found in the Black Mountains of the eastern desert (Wilkinson 2003: 91). The materials used for cosmetics (red ocher, malachite or copper, and lead) were all found in the desert areas east of the Nile.

These semi-nomads soon gave way to the Naqada culture (6000-5000 BP) which was more settled. They began the first large, permanent villages near where the Wadi Hammammat meets the Nile, a popular and well traveled route into the eastern desert. The cosmetic palettes created in this time period became more elaborate, and were fashioned in the form of both river and desert animals including hippo, fish, elephant, ibex, and cattle. Pictures carved into the red rocks of the desert regions to the east and west of the river valley show images of river dwelling animals such as hippos and crocodiles as well as numerous ships indicate that these people were also familiar with the Nile valley (Wilkinson 2003: 92-93).

The Naqada are known for their elaborate tombs which contained household goods and food supplied for the dead. They created separate cemeteries for the richer classes of citizen and these tombs became extraordinarily extravagant. This also introduced what has been called Egypt’s pastime: grave robbing. Artifacts dropped by grave robbers shortly after entombment suggests that the grave robbers were members of the same community. The human remains discovered in these desert graves show remarkable preservation, a form of natural mummification. Perhaps these early grave robbers influenced the need for the later practices of chemical mummification. The Naqada also buried cattle in their cemeteries the same way they would a human: wrapped in a reed mat and facing west (Wilkinson 2003: 101), which echoes the cattle burials found in Nabta.

Another iconic feature of Egyptian culture is the use of their extensive hieroglyphic writing system. The earliest hieroglyphs have been discovered in tomb U-j of Abyos and is a part of the Naqada III culture. The glyphs were written on small tiles with small holes in the top. They could have been used to mark the contents of jars of grave goods. The next use of hieroglyphs were on the Narmer Palette which shows the triumphant king Narmer prevailing over the northern kingdom of Lower Egypt.

It was during the Naqada culture that Egypt developed (by 5000 BP) from a scattering of separate communities into a unified state-based civilization. Precisely how this change came about is a matter of argument, and until more evidence is unearthed, likely to remain so. A prevailing theory involves the slow merging of neighboring villages into small chiefdoms, and then those chiefdoms into larger conglomerates and small kingdoms called Nomes until finally the whole of Egypt was unified by Narmer, the first Egyptian Pharaoh, near 5000 BP (Fagan 2010: 349).

References Cited

Bard, Kathryn. 1994. The Egyptian Predynastic: A Review of the Evidence. Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol 21, Issue 3. Boston: Boston University.
Bard, Kathryn. 1999. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge.
Fagan, Brian M. 2010. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Prentice Hall.
Hoffman, Michael A. 1979. Egypt Before The Pharaohs. New York: Knopf.
McDermott, Bridget. 2001. Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Wendorf, Fred, and Romuland Schild. 1998. Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol 17. Massachusetts: Academic Press.
Wilkinson, Toby. 2003. Genesis of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson.