Egypt: History - The Lower Paleolithic

Lower Paleolithic: c. 2 Mil. - 100,000 BC

As hard as may be to believe, there was an Egypt before the Pharaohs. Over a century ago, Charles Darwin, without any real evidence to back up his theory, set forth the statement that Africa might have been the cradle of the human race. Today, we still have no conclusive proof, but many signs point to one of the first civilizations created by human-like beings might have been in the Nile Valley around 700,000 years ago, if not earlier. Possible evidence to push the date back much earlier was found at Olduvai.

The Olduvai Gorge site in Tanzania is the oldest archaeological site in the world. Discovered by Dr. Mary D. Leakey and her husband, Louis Leakey, it contains the remains of large hominids (human-like creatures) almost two million years old, which they labeled as Zinjanthropus boisei. But even more important than the remains themselves was the large amount of animal bones and crude stone tools found with them, evidence that these were intelligent beings. The existence of these stone tools prompted archaeologists to label them the "Olduwan Industry."

Remains of boisei and similar hominids, as well as the shelters they built and tools they used have been found in many places in Africa, from Lake Rudolph in eastern Africa, to South Africa, to the Afar and Omo river valleys in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, to date, no remains of boisei or even of Australopithecus africanus and Homo habilis (two species of advanced hominids believed to be our ancestors) have been found in the Lower Nile Valley, but if human-like creatures were already roaming over Africa nearly two million years ago, it seems very likely they could have migrated to the Nile Valley. Many archaeologists now believe, based on what has already been found at Olduvai and similar sites, that it is only a matter of time before remains of early hominids are found in Egypt. There is a strong case for this, but until the discovery of Australopithecus remains there, the evidence is still only circumstantial.

For nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers, as some anthropologists believe our ancestors were, the fertile Nile Valley, with its readily available water, game, and arable land, must have looked inviting indeed. Additionally, this period is believed to have been much more temperate and rainy than the Nile Valley of today, and so one must imagine this area to be filled with wide expanses of grasslands, teeming with life, similar to the savannas of southern and eastern Africa. These savannas may even have extended well into what is today the Sahara Desert, and oases such as the Karga Oasis and the Dungul Oasis are all that is left of these vast ranges of vegetation. The Nile may even have served as a migration route for early civilizations to make their way up through Africa and into Europe, beginning the spreading of the human race throughout the world.

At the very least, we can say early humans were in Egypt 700,000 years ago for certain. To date, the oldest tools found in the lower Nile Valley have been found in and near the cliffs of Abu Simbel, just across the river from where, millennia later, the descendants of these people would build the temple of Rameses II. Geological evidence indicates they are around 700,000 years old, giving a fairly good estimate as to when a Stone Age people was living in the area. "Slightly" later, dating to approximately 500,000 years ago, are various finds of stone tools, including the stone axes that the Lower Paleolithic is noted for. Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardner report industry in the Achulean Period (c. 250,000 - 90,000 BC) of the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Paleolithic sites are most often found near dried-up springs or lakes, or in areas where materials to make stone tools are plentiful.

One of the most important finds from the Achulean Period is known as Arkin 8, discovered by Polish archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski near the the Nile Valley town of Wadi Halfa. Arkin 8, unlike many Paleolithic sites in Egypt, was not only remarkably well-preserved, but astonishingly rich. Arkin 8 boasts the earliest known house-like structures in Egypt and the Sudan, some of the oldest buildings in the world. The structures are oval depressions around 30 cm deep and 1.8 x 1.2 meters across, many lined with flat sandstone slabs. Most likely these are what are known as "tent rings," in which a dome-like shelter of skins or brush was held down by heavy rocks lain in a circle. This type of dwelling provides a permanent place to live, but if necessary, can be taken down easily and moved. They are the dwelling that seems to be most favored by nomadic tribes making the transition from hunter-gatherer to semi-permanent settlement and similar structures are still built by modern hunter-gatherer tribes all over the world. Another striking detail of the Arkin 8 site is the concentration of artifacts in small areas of the "village," implying that these were areas where groups of people gathered to work on stone artifacts together. Arkin 8 paints a vivid picture of emerging human society.

Another important site is the site labeled BS-14, in the Libyan Desert's Bir Sahara depression. Today this area is dry and parched, but during the Achulean Period it was nourished by the frequent rainfall. As was mentioned before, Egypt and the surrounding area of this period was subject to much more rainfall than it is now. The Abbassia Pluvial prevailed during the late Achulean Period, lasting around 30,000 years. During this time, according to the artifacts and remains found at BS-14, the hunter-gatherer culture became more stationary around the permanent water holes. Women, children, and young men browsed for the bulk of the tribe's food near the water hole, while the older men would go out and hunt on the grasslands.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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