|Lower Paleolithic: c. 2 Mil. - 100,000 BC
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 (humanlike 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
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
australopithecine 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
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.