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Study traces Egyptians’ stone-age roots

Dec. 17, 2005
Special to World Science

Some 64 centuries 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.

(Click here to enlarge)

Details from a tomb painting from Hierakonpolis, from prehistoric Egypt's Naqada culture. A new study suggests the Naqada people, the earlier Badarians and the later Egyptians were essentially the same group. The painting shows a procession of boats, one of which has an awning "sheltering a figure who is probably the ruler and the person for whom the tomb was built," writes Toby Wilkinson in the book Predynastic Egypt. The artwork shows "the ruler engaged in various activities—including a ritual water-borne procession, perhaps an ancestor of some of the later festivals of kingship," Wilkinson writes, and "sought to express the multiple roles of the king in relation to his people and the supernatural." Remarkable, he adds, "is the number of features characteristic of classic Egyptian art," present already 300 years before pharaohs inaugurated classic Egyptian civilization by unifying the land around 3,100 B.C.  A man holding apart two wild animals in the lower left is a type of "hero" or "master of the beasts" figure found in other artworks of its time, Wilkinson adds.
 

This detail from the same painting seems to show the ruler smiting bound captives, scholars say, a frequent theme in later Egyptian art. The use of a line underneath a row of figures to organize them is also typical of later Egyptian art, Wilkinson asserts, and the number three becomes important in hieroglyphics. Although the objects in the whole painting seem scattered haphazardly, one private scholar has even claimed they're arranged to represent the constellations (The captives being smitten would represent Vela.)

 

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 found variations among the teeth, he wrote, many of those that differered most from the norm came from upper-class tombs. That, he added, suggests these nobles had become genetically somewhat apart, perhaps through inbreeding.

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, he said, the study may help explain how the Egyptians developed their world-renowned culture, including the great pyramids that still stand.

Some studies have also found 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 2003 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.

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,” Midant-Reynes wrote. “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 1931 book. This was not only because the graves included objects presumably for the deceased to use in the afterlife, she explained, but because the corpses were usually laid 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, said 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.”

Among the Badarians, “metal was known but tools were still made of stone,” wrote Murray. The later Naqada culture made wider use of metal. 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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