Study traces stone-age roots of the Egyptians
and World Science staff
Some 64 centuries years ago, a prehistoric people of obscure origins farmed an area along Egypt's Nile River.
Barely out of the Stone Age, they produced simple but well-made pottery, jewelry and stone tools, and carefully buried their dead with ritual objects in apparent preparation for an afterlife. These items often included doll-like female figurines with exaggerated sexual features, thought to possibly symbolize rebirth.
Despite the simplicity of their possessions, a new study suggests these people, the Badarians, may have ultimately given rise to one of the world's first major civilizations some 14 centuries later: the glittering culture of Egypt.
Indeed, the Egyptians seem to have been basically the same people from the end of the Stone Age through late Roman times, the research found. In the study, Joel Irish of the University of Alaska Fairbanks analyzed similarities among teeth from almost 1,000 people from various eras of Egyptian history and prehistory and found, he wrote, "overall population continuity" over this roughly 5,000-year span.
Irish described the results in a paper in the Dec. 5 online edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. But he noted that while the finding backs up views that some archaeologists have voiced before, it’s partly at odds with some other studies of skeletal remains, so further tests are needed. The different results might stem from different sample sizes or types of data used, he wrote.
To the extent that Irish did find differences among the teeth, they often seemed to characterize samples from upper-class Egyptians, suggesting inbreeding, he wrote.
On the whole, the findings provide a window into a poorly understood question, Irish said: Who were the ancient Egyptians? By providing a glimpse into their possible prehistory, it may help provide answers for how the Egyptians developed their world-renowned culture, including the great pyramids that still stand.
Some studies have also found strong genetic similarities between ancient and modern Egyptians. These results are debated, but if both they and Irish are right, Egypt’s present-day people and their pyramid-building forebears may largely be part of the same family dating back to the Stone Age.
Badarian culture "might have already existed by about 5000 BC but it can only be definitely confirmed to have spanned the period around 4400-4000 BC," according to the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.
The Badarians—and even more so, members of a later culture called Naqada—are widely believed to have been cultural contributors to Egyptian civilization. But it hasn't been clear whether they were the same people, Irish said.
British archaeologists discovered Badarian culture in excavations at the modern town of el-Badari in the 1920s. Other Badarian settlements turned up in surrounding areas later. The Badarians were sophisticated compared to the peoples who came before them, according to the 1999 book The Prehistory of Egypt by Beatrix Midant-Reynes.
With Badarian culture "we unexpectedly plunge straight into a symbolic universe of incredible richness, reflecting an increasingly structured and complex society," she wrote. "This process was to accelerate enormously throughout the fourth millennium BC, eventually contributing significantly to the emergence of 'Egyptian Civilization.'"
Their practice of burying objects with the dead was like that of the later Egyptians, though not nearly as elaborate, archaeologists say. "Each burial was carefully arranged. A mat was placed on the ground to accommodate the contracted body and the head was sometimes laid on a pillow made from straw or rolled-up animal skin."
"Their burial customs indicate a belief in the afterlife wrote Margaret Alice Murray in The Splendor That Was Egypt, a 2004 book. This was not only because the graves included objects presumably for the deceased to use in the afterlife, she explained, but because they customarily laid the corpses facing west. "This, as the cemetery lay to the east of the village, suggests the belief that the dead could watch the living and take part in, or at least know of, all happenings there," she wrote.
The Badarians didn’t mummify their dead, however—as did the later “Egyptians,” whose civilization began around 3,000 B.C. and had far-reaching effects on later civilization, including what some scholars say are major influences on Christianity.
Badarian potters had exceptional skill, wrote Michael Rice in the 2000 book Egypt's Making. "Early Badarian vessels are fired to a hardness which approaches that of metal and they are often eggshell-thin," he wrote.
This technique was unrivaled even by later Egyptian potters, says the Oxford History, which adds that "analysis of Badarian grave goods indicates an unequal distribution of wealth. The wealthier graves tend to be separated in one part of the cemetery. This clearly indicates social stratification, which still seems limited at this point in Egyptian prehistory."
During their time, "metal was known but tools were still made of stone," wrote Murray. The later Naqada culture made wider use of metal, though. Also, while the Badarians’ “artistic sense was not highly developed," Naqada culture had more advanced artistic abilities and a better standard of living, she wrote—putting them on a path to a achievements that, like the pyramids, still stand.
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