Nabta Playa: Source of the Great Egyptian Empire
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Nabta Playa: Source of the Great Egyptian Empire

With the vast majority of public attention and cinematic romance focused around the three pyramids located at Giza (the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure), it is often assumed that the great Egyptian civilization began and ended there. In actuality, the story of this once great empire began much further to the south in an area known as Nabta Playa.

With the vast majority of public fanfare and cinematic romance focused around the three pyramids located at Giza (the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure), it is often assumed that the great Egyptian civilization began and ended there. In actuality, the story of this once spectacular empire began much further to the south in an area known as Nabta Playa.

Nabta Playa, once a large basin in the Nubian Desert, is located approximately 800 kilometers (500 miles), south of modern day Cairo, or about 100 kilometers (62 miles ) west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. A desert region characterized by numerous archaeological sites dating back nearly 10,000 years, Nabta Playa exhibits remarkable stone megaliths--some of which are still standing in their original positions, a small stone circle that predates Stonehenge (believed to be a stone calendar circle), fire hearths, as well as numerous deep, walk-down water wells.

First discovered in 1974 by a team of archaeologists headed by Fred Wendorf, an Anthropology Professor from Southern Methodist University in Texas, Nabta Playa is a self-draining basin susceptible to dramatic climate changes, believed to have served as an important ceremonial center for nomadic tribes nearly 12,000 years ago. (There are noticeable voids in the fossil record that point to non-habitation periods and seasonal migration due to lack of water).

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Located some 60 miles west of the Nile near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, many Egyptologists believe the Nabta culture triggered the development of the society that eventually constructed the first pyramids along the Nile about 4500 years ago, leading to the rise of pharaonic dynastic rule.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Wendorf returned to Nabta Playa several times, determining that human occupation had taken place in the Nabta area for thousands of years. Neolithic herders, who used cattle in their rituals (as the African Massai do today) began coming to Nabta about 9000 BCE, probably from central Africa, suggesting a sub-Saharan migration up until about 4800 years ago.

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Although at present the western Egyptian desert is totally dry and virtually uninhabitable, this was not the case in the distant past. Evidence indicates that there were several wet periods when up to 500 mm (1.64 feet) of rain fell per year, the most recent during the last interglacial and early last glaciation periods between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago.  During this time, Nabta Playa was a savanna that supported numerous exotic animals such as extinct buffalo and giraffes, and varieties of antelope and gazelle. Beginning in the 10th millennium BCE, this region began to receive more rainfall, filling a substantial lake which attracted early nomadic people.

Evidence indicates that between 11,000 and 9300 years ago, Nabta Playa saw its first settlements. These early inhabitants herded cattle, made ceramic vessels, set up seasonal camps, consumed and stored wild sorghum, and adorned their pottery with complicated painted patterns created perhaps by using combs made from fish bone. (The ceramics found from this period are minimal but considered among the oldest in Africa.)

Regarding cattle in much the same way as modern-day West Africans, the blood and milk were considered more significant than the meat, becoming the focus of their ritual and most likely, their societal structure. (In ancient Egypt, cattle were deified and regarded as earthly representatives of the gods, with the first pharaohs said to represent two gods: Horus represented Upper Egypt, and Seth, Lower Egypt.) Although the area was occupied for more then 5000 years, the majority of the stone structures and other artifacts are dated to between 7000 and 6500 BP and thought to represent the height of human occupation at Nabta Playa.

A Recent Hypothesis:

A 2007 article by a team of University archaeoastronomers and archaeologists (three members of which had been involved in the original discovery of the site) proposed that the Nabta Playa area was first used as what they call a “regional ceremonial center” around 6100 to 5600 BCE, with people coming from various locations to gather on a dune on the playa (beach) for communal ritual.

They assert that archaeological evidence indicates large gatherings of people, reflected by atypical quantities of cattle bones. As cattle were normally only killed on important occasions, the team equates the sacrifices with spiritual activity (a common theme of many cultures, worldwide).

Around 5500 BCE, a new, more organized group began to use the site, burying cattle in clay-lined chambers and building other tumuli (grave mound). Then around 4800 BCE, a “cromlech” (stone circle) was constructed, with narrow slabs intentionally aligned with the summer solstice, near the beginning of the rainy season.

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This, they believe, set the stage for larger lithic construction (the first pyramids) and well as organized religion. They conclude their report by saying, "The symbolism embedded in the archaeological record of Nabta Playa in the Fifth Millennium BC is very basic, focused on issues of major practical importance to the nomads: cattle, water, death, earth, sun and stars."


The Megaliths of Nabta Playa, Schild & Wendorf

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Related Articles:

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The Schist Disk

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Akhenaton, the Pharaoh of One God

>  The Egyptian Book of the Dead

>  The Rosetta Stone

>  The Palermo Stone

>  The Wodaabe of Northwest Africa

>   The Dogon of West Africa


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Comments (10)

This is fascinating!

I'm happy that you find it so, Terrie!

Excellent and iteresting presentation.thanks James

Thank you sir, much appreciated.

This is a new information for me. It is really interesting.

Ranked #20 in Archaeology

a very interesting and well-presented piece of history

Thanks for the comments, Bambang and Nobert. Appreciated.

very interesting thank you

I must say, another interesting read.

Glad you found it so, Daniel.