Egypt: Tour Egypt Monthly: The Ecological Context of Ancient Egyptian Predynastic Settlements

Feature Article

The Ecological Context of Ancient Egyptian Predynastic Settlements

by Michael Brass

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.

If indeed such a para-agricultural mode of life existed in the Fayum, a symbiotic relationship may also have existed with the more fully agricultural communities in the Valley and the Delta. The tentative steps towards the beginning of agricultural life at Kom W, and indeed the Fayum as a whole, could well have been hindered by the pitfalls of pursuing agriculture along the Fayum lake shores. Coupled with this was the high productivity and stability of the marsh fauna and flora that would have attracted the inhabitants towards fishing, hunting and gathering.


Approximately contemporary with Merimda's final occupation (c. 4300 BC) is an assemblage of habitation sites and cemeteries, collectively termed El-Omari, and which survive down into early Dynastic times. These assemblages are situated nearby and in the mouth of the Wadi Hof (between Cairo and Helwan), most likely cultivable land then.

The main settlement is situated on a gravel terrace that slopes down to the Wadi Hof estuary. A smaller site, contemporary with the estuary community, has been discovered near two natural rain catchments on one of Jebel Hof's tallest terraces. It is hypothesised that the latter, and other high settlements, were established as naturally defended outpost of the former and other lower habitations.

The Merimda, Fayum and El-Omari occupations thus provide clear evidence of functional cultural settlements in Lower Egypt before 4000 BC. Yet there are few sites (apart from El-Omari) spanning 4000 - 3700 BC, a period when large and functionally complex societies were flourishing in Upper Egypt, the most important being at Hierakonpolis.

The Upper Egyptian Cultural-Ecological Sequence

Throughout Ancient Egyptian history, the majority of settlements were located on the Nile floodplain while the Upper Egyptian cemeteries were often positioned slightly beyond the edge of the cultivated land, in the desert margins. As a consequence, many settlement sites (with the exception of those constructed on reasonably high ground or, in the example of Kom Ombo, on tells - the residential debris of previous sedentary communities) have either been covered by silt or simply washed away as the river changed course, thus providing an explanation for the low ratio of Upper Egyptian Predynastic living-sites in relation to their known cemeteries. Another reason is probably due in part to earlier excavators priorities. The Predynastic cemeteries, containing much grave goods (some of which were made from exotic materials), attracted greater interest to excavate than habitation sites either disturbed by digging for sebakh (organic remains utilized as fertilizer) or else wiped out by the more recent expanding floodplain agriculture.

The Nile floodplain was lower between c. 8 000 - 5 000 BC than it is in modern times and this, coupled with the valley also being narrower then (averaging c. 2km in many areas), has resulted in even the cemeteries positioned along the then flooded land margins having been buried under more recent alluvium deposits.

Until the early 1960s, Middle Egypt (to the north of Badari and south of Memphis) was believed to have been uninhabited in Predynastic times. However, work conducted by the geologist Karl Butzer has revealed that cemeteries dating to this period in time were probably either wiped out by shifts in the channel of the Nile or are buried beneath substantial sand and alluvium deposits. Those surviving Predynastic living-sites are all positioned on embankments that are several metres above the modern alluvium level. Their survival is therefore fortuitous. Butzer further hypothesizes that the low settlement density in the region between Memphis and the Upper Egyptian sites may also have been the result of the large natural Middle Egyptian flood basins that "would have required massive labour to bring under control". By contrast, the flood basins from Abydos southwards, in Upper Egypt, were smaller and thereby more easily controllable than those from further north and the Delta.

Interpretations differ concerning the exact nature of these first complex societies. Kemp hypothesizes that a "primate" settlement pattern existed, i.e. the majority of the population lived in the towns, thus leading to functional changes towards rapid centralization and economic functional differential. The same data, however, has been analyzed by Hassan who has proposed a "rank" system, i.e. economic and socio-political systems with comparatively little authoritative or administrative centralization, and which were first and foremost symbolic of a new order of life as well as centres for the sacred shrine and deities. The "rank" system, whereby settlements were strategically placed in order to maximize control over the valley inhabitants, came into being as a result of the linearity and narrowness of the floodplain that limited the available cultivable land and thereby also the potential for the growth of pre-industrial settlements in a way that, by comparison, the Mesopotamian settlements were not.

It seems at first glance an ecological paradox that Upper Egypt was the initial heartland of cultural complexity and not Lower Egypt with its wide fertile lands and richer diversity in resources due to its contact with the Mediterranean lands. Yet the Upper Egyptian flood basins were smaller in size and therefore easier to control for agricultural purposes. The early state formation model of Carneiro could well thus be relevant in this context, as he hypothesizes that a sharp population rise in restricted agricultural environments leads to pressure on the available resources and military competition over land ensues.

The Badari

The Badari area is located on the Nile east bank, roughly 30km to the south of Assyut, where Badarian (4800 - 4000 BC) settlements and graves extend 33 km southwards in the Mostagedda and Matmar region. There are 41 cemeteries and 40 settlement locations in the low desert that overlooks the floodplain beneath the high desert limestone plateau cliffs. The dwellings of the Badarians were similar to those Lower Egyptian sites mentioned.

A connection can be seen between the cemeteries, and the floodplain and desert-edged settlements that suggests the Badarians were seasonal occupiers of the plain. The Badarian settlement areas are modest and deposits are thin, which suggests that villages did not exist for long periods on the same site. The 40 habitation site strip from Badari-Mostagedda can be subdivided up into three subregional settlement clusters and various subclusters. The fact that these sites were short-lived suggests lively inter-action between ecological and social influences. The floodplain narrows here and this would have stinted the development of large individual settlement. This would have coupled with the stochastic fluctuations small populations are subjected to - the inhabitants of a community joining that of another community when their settlement population numbers decline.


The settlements at Hierakonpolis differ from the usual Predynastic communities, settled mostly on the low desert escarpments paralleling the floodplain, by extending both parallel and perpendicular to the river banks.

Hierakonpolis contains the entire Nagada I - III cultural sequence (c. 4000 - 3100 BC), stretching back to the end of the Badarian. Excavations by Hoffman have led him to conclude that the initial settlement at Hierakonpolis was by colonists from more northern unspecified sectors of Upper Egypt. Hoffman also hypothesizes that there was a "population explosion" between 3800 and 3400 BC, with the central sector of the settlement supporting between 5000 - 10 000 inhabitants. The growth he attributes to the regions ecological diversity and incredible agricultural potential. This Nagada Ic - IIa period was also one of regional expansion, with clustered rectangular house settlements and Hierakonpolis becoming a centre for pottery production.

The Neolithic Subpluvial (resulting from the southward shift of the Mediterranean rainbelts) lasted from c. 7000 - 3000 BC, the rainfall estimates for the Hierakonpolis region ranging from 5cm to 25cm per year. Even 5cm of rainfall would have resulted in a regular seasonal runoff from the surrounding highlands for the Great Wadi at Hierakonpolis, enriching the surrounding environment enabling plant and animal life to prosper in this semi-desert.

The rainfall would have been between January and February, meaning that the inhabitants of the district of Hierakonpolis practiced two different agricultural regimes: "dry" farming in the Wadi and basin irrigation on the floodplain. As the floodplain and the Wadi are separated by a substantial distance, and taking into account that each regime requires its own special cultivation technique as well as the cultivation taking place in both places at the same time (late March and early April being the harvesting period), the local predynastic society was most likely divided into two units - one living in the desert borderlands of the Wadi by a combination of farming, hunting and herding, and the other existing either on or nearby the floodplain in areas like the Nagada II town practicing basin irrigation agriculture (which began during this period) as well as fishing and plying their trade along the Nile.

The decline in rainfall at the end of the Neolithic Subpluvial signified the end of the wadi-based constituent of the Hierakonpolis regional subsistence economy between c. 3300 - 3100 BC. This increasing desiccation led to a settlement shift of the desert regional inhabitants that boosted the floodplain population density and thus the numbers of the available labour force and the base through which local big-men could increase in importance (similar to Carneiro's state-formation model previously mentioned). This increase in hierarchical power could have been achieved by a number of different variants, likely acting in tandem with one another - providing Nile transportation for trade goods; as intermediaries for local and regional trade exchanges; acting as judges in cases involving land, water and dower disputes; able military leadership; and resources for religious and elite secular building constructions.

Apart from the socio-economic consequences, resulting in the quickening emergence of an elite, the Saharan pastures were effectively eliminated to a great extent with the desiccation which rendered the remainder of the Nile floodplain and the Delta attractive inducements for military expeditions, conquest and thereby the expansion of the city-state of Hierakonpolis - during a time of low Nile floods - into one of the world's first nation-states, Ancient Egypt.


The currently known distributions of Predynastic settlements are determined by geological rather than by cultural factors. The ecology of the Nile Valley and Delta also determined the placement of sites within a particular region, like Merimda on a terrace or the divided Hierakonpolis society in its formative stages. Yet the unparalleled transport navigability of the Nile, with each settlement located within a few kilometres of one another, also provides an explanation for most of Ancient Egypt's political and religious Dynastic unity.

However, it is in this lead-up to the unification of the Nile city-states under Hierakonpolis that the environment plays one of its most important roles. The end of the Neolithic Subpluvial (thus ruling out expansion into the desert) and the pressure brought to bear by the decreased Nile floods (thereby putting strain on agricultural production), in tandem with the increased population, made the rest of the Valley and the Delta look increasingly attractive for various means of expansion.


Bard, K. A.; The Egyptian Predynastic: A Review of the Evidence; Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1994

Brewer, D. J. & Wenke, R. J.; Transitional Late Predynastic - Early Dynastic Occupations at Mendes: A Preliminary Report. In Van den Brink, D.; The Nile Delta in Transition: 4th-3rd Mill. BC; Proceedings of Seminar held in Cairo Oct. 1990; IES 1992

Carneiro, R. L.; A Theory of the Origin of the State; Science, Vol. 169, 1970

Grimal. N.; A History of Ancient Egypt; Oxford: Blackwell

Hassan, F. A.; The Predynastic of Egypt; Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1988

Hoffman, M. A.; Egypt Before the Pharaohs; New York: Barnes & Noble

Shaw, I. & Nicholson, P.; British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt; London: British Museum Press

Trigger, B. G. et al.; Ancient Egypt: A Social History; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wenke, R. J.; Egypt: Origins of Complex Societies; Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18, 1989

Wenke, R. J.; The Evolution of Early Egyptian Civilization: Issues and Evidence; Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1991

Michael Brass is teaching a course on human evolution, which will be conducted over the internet. The course runs from 1 April 1 June 2001. The cost is 30 or $50(US). This web-based course will consist of the following four highly intensive and university-standard lessons: 1. Introduction to archaeology: its emergence, theory and dating techniques 2. Our early hominid ancestors, Homo and its dispersals 3. Trends towards food production and early state formation 4. The late prehistoric and early historic periods of the Near East, India, China, the Americas and Africa. Course materials are provided and the course is open to everyone. For further details on how to register for the course, e-mail

About Michael Brass,

Archaeology BsocSci(Hons) & History BA degrees from the University of Cape Town. "Ancient Egypt and World Prehistory"