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Research in recent decades has gradually given us a picture of how the historical Egyptian state system came to be, and possibly even how the extraordinary notion came to prevail that the Pharaoh was a god rather than a human. It is to these questions that we turn now.
Climatic Shifts. Egypt was not always a river valley flowing through a desert. Or more exactly, in pre-Egyptian times, the Sahara was not always a desert. In Late Paleolithic times, roughly 12,000 to 6,000 BC, the Sahara was a wide grassland, somewhat similar to the lands known as the Sahel that lie just south of the Sahara today. What was to become Egypt included wooded and savannah areas. The river was wider and slower, and its great floods tended to spread more broadly over the land and flowed with less force. The Delta, once a gigantic bay, was only beginning to fill with fertile silt.
We know little of the peoples who lived on the broad Sahara plains, but such artifacts as have been found are quite similar across the whole area, and indeed closely resemble late Paleolithic artifacts from the Mediterranean coast of Africa or even from southern Europe.
As the climate changed with the end of the Pleistocene, and northern Africa got warmer, desertification gradually set in (with occasional reversals). Animals tended to move away from the dryer areas, and humans tended to follow them. There is very little archaeological evidence from the truly desert parts of the great Sahara plains, but study of fossilized pollens in sediments from Lake Yoa, in northeastern Chad, published in 2008, suggest a relatively slow change. As the forests gave way to savannah and the savannah to desert, there was a gradual migration and consolidation of some of this population into the Nile valley, and with it the beginnings of dependency on agriculture, but the details are not very clear.
One scholar sums it up this way:
… From around 9000 to 4000 BC, conditions were much wetter than today. Lakes, rivers, springs, and vast expanses of savannah grassland supported a diversity of wild animals. As the climate became increasingly arid after 4000 BC, surface water resources gradually dried up and many animal species disappeared. By the 1st millennium BC, virtually the entire region was desert.
What do we know of the people that inhabited the Sahara during this [late prehistoric] period? For several millennia before 6000 BC, the region was home to forager-fisher communities living in large seasonal settlements, and using pottery, grinding stones, and bone harpoons. There is no unequivocal evidence for domestic animals until about 6000 BC, when cattle, sheep, and goats begin to appear in archaeological deposits. This heralds the start of a long episode of mobile pastoralism, initially centered on cattle and then, as the landscape became drier, on sheep and goats. … (Barnett 2019:18)
Many scholars have come to the conclusion that plant and animal domestication spread from the Near East into northern Africa about 6000 BC, give or take as much as a thousand years.
Population Movement. Many people moved into the Egyptian portion of the Nile valley, but just how different they were, either from each other or from earlier valley dwellers, is unclear. Physically, the bodies which have survived from prehistoric and historic times seem to be a single, largely unvarying population. Whether they may have spoken widely differing languages, however, we may never know. As foragers they would have hunted various animals in the surrounding countryside (deer, rodents, etc.), as well as the creatures of the river ecology: fish, shellfish, turtles, waterfowl, and occasional larger river animals such as hippopotami or crocodiles. Among the wild plants in the valley were river rushes (including papyrus), as well as wild wheat.
By about 5000 BC we can see clearly the beginnings of Neolithic, farming life, although still with some foraging mixed in, both in the river valley itself and in the river delta to the north.
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