In this post we will take a more in-depth look at the prehistory of ancient Egypt. According to modern historians, the earliest dynasty of Egypt began with the reigns of the proto-dynastic pharaoh Narmer or perhaps his predecessor King Scorpion who united the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3,100 BCE. The ancient Egyptians, however, saw their origins in the mythic Tep Zepi—the “first time”—believed to be the golden age when the gods lived upon the earth. Was the Tep Zepi a distant memory of their prehistoric ancestry?
Alternative historian Robert Bauval in his book Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt argues that Egypt grew out of a sophisticated African civilization that existed for millennia prior to the civilization of the pharaohs. This theory is not new—it was first proposed by 19th century European explorers as well as the eminent Egyptologist Sir Wallis-Budge in 1911 who wrote that the religion of ancient Egypt was derived from the indigenous peoples of Northeastern and Central Africa.
Budge found numerous similarities between ancient Egyptian and modern African religion and magic: ancestor worship, veneration of animals and cattle, funerary customs, pantheons of gods, use of fetishes, etc. He reasoned that since many of the African tribes he surveyed had probably never had contacts with the Egyptians, cultural influences must have originated with them and spread north up the Nile. Budge’s colleagues dismissed his theory as impossible, instead espousing the theory that invading Caucasoids conquered Egypt and founded the first dynasties.
Likewise, Bauval’s critics, mostly mainstream archaeologists and Egyptologists, also reject his theory—having their own academic turf to defend. In my opinion evidence of the African origins of ancient Egyptian culture is compelling.
Bauval hypothesizes that prehistoric hunter-gatherers from sub-Saharan Africa were forced northward by a warming climate and vanishing game to became pastoral herdsmen in the Sahara during the Holocene Wet Phase (7,500-3,000 BCE) when the rainy climate supported savannah grasslands. These people gradually developed a more settled lifestyle based on animal domestication, agriculture, sign writing, and timekeeping using the sun and stars. During the Middle and Later Neolithic periods around 6600-5100 BCE they began to build large organized settlements and structures.
The most remarkable of these is the megalithic monument of Nabta Playa in the southwestern desert of Egypt, near Abu Simbel. Nabta Playa is a circle of upright monoliths—standing stones—arranged according to sophisticated astronomical alignments. Built around 4,500-4,000 BCE, it predates Stonehenge by one thousand years and is one of the earliest examples of megalithic monument building that would spread around the world during the Neolithic.
Astroarchaeologist J. McKim Malville proposes Nabta Playa was a ceremonial center, a place where geographically dispersed peoples gathered periodically to conduct religious ceremonies. It was originally built on the shoreline of an ancient lake which has since evaporated and become desert. The structure consists of ten large stones and a circle of upright slabs, some of which are nine feet tall. There are also two slab covered tumuli, one found to contain the remains of a long-horned bull, suggesting it was part of a religious ritual. The twelve foot diameter stone circle contains four sets of vertical stones—two sets of which were aligned north-south, while the other pair is directed toward the summer solstice horizon. Alignments have also been found to the brightest stars in the night sky during the 5th millennium BCE: Arcturus, Sirius, Alpha Centauri, and Alnilam—one of three stars in the belt of the constellation of Orion.
Many of the megaliths at Nabta Playa are sculpted and seem to have anthropomorphic form, suggesting they represented the dead. Elaborate burials have been found nearby, and the site seems to be a “necropolis” or ancient cemetery. Malville notes the shaped stones and human and cattle burials face the northern region of the sky, revealing an early symbolic connection to the heavens. He points out that the northern circumpolar region of the sky was associated with eternal life in later pharaonic Egypt. During the summer and autumn seasons the stones would have been partially submerged in the lake, serving as ritual markers for the onset of the rainy season. Malville believes these objects created a symbolic geometry that integrated concepts of death, water, cattle, sun, and stars.
Malville, Bauval and other researchers propose the astronomical symbolism of the Neolithic Nabta Culture contributed to the development of the culture of pharaonic Egypt that built the first pyramids over a thousand years later. The Egyptians practiced an astral religion, and in common with Nabta Playa they venerated the constellation Orion, Sirius, and the circumpolar stars in pharaonic burial rituals. Cattle worship discovered at Nabta Playa was perpetuated in Egyptian deities such as the cow-headed Hathor and the Apis Bull.
Some form of shamanic ceremonialism was practiced by these nomadic peoples according to Bauval who visited numerous caves on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan where he found rock paintings left by Neolithic herders. He reports seeing images depicting humans merging with or “morphing” into animals—typical of shamanic art. He also found paintings of humans with cow-like heads eerily reminiscent of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, as well as images he claims bear a striking resemblance to the god Set, an Egyptian god of desert regions.
Egyptologist Miroslav Barta has studied the cryptic Neolithic rock art of the remote “Cave of the Swimmers” and the “Cave of the Beasts” in Southwest Egypt. He claims the paintings there portray deities who are precursors of the Egyptian pharaonic divinities, as well as primordial versions of Egyptian iconography and mythological concepts. Most strikingly, Barta identifies a painting of a large arched female figure, beneath whom stand two smaller male figures. He proposes this painting is an archaic version of the well known motif of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut arched over the earth, accompanied by the male gods Shu and Geb who are usually shown standing beneath her.
Bauval claims the Neolithic nomadic peoples who painted these scenes and built Nabta Playa were forced by an increasingly arid climate to migrate north again, this time into the fertile Nile Valley. There they settled to become the progenitors of ancient Egyptian civilization.
There were likely other cultural influences on the early Egyptians–most notably Mesopotamian architecture, pottery and artistic motifs. But these were later additions to the prehistoric African heritage of myths, religious iconography, astro-ceremonialism and shamanic practices.