Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Some African History from 4000-3000BC

The Battlefield Palette
from Naqada III Period in Egypt, c3200BC
showing defeated soldiers being eaten by beasts
This post is the first in the new series trying to describe the less-studied time periods in history. For this blog we will look at the history of the African continent from the year 4000-3000BC. In some ways this is a very difficult endeavour, as the history of one part of the continent often has almost nothing to do with other parts, but the same could be said for Europe, Asia or the Americas. Africa is more split than most though, with the Sahara creating a large natural barrier that sometimes cut the Mediterranean coast off from the lands south of the desert. But despite these difficulties we shall try our best.

African history is sometimes dismissed as being less interesting than that of other areas and it is true that it is understudied and sometimes suffers from lack of source materials. But Africa is also the birthplace of Egypt, the world’s second oldest civilisation (if not the oldest) and cannot possibly be treated as unimportant. The origins of Egyptian culture are distinctly African and considering that Africa is held to be the original birthplace of humanity and contains not only Egypt but so much more, this continent is fully deserving of historical study. My hope is that the next decades will see great strides in our understanding of African history.

Africa is long held to be the original cradle of the human race so by the year 4000BC humans had been in Africa since time immemorial. Exact dates are not expected at this point in prehistory but by 4000BC agriculture was in the Nile Valley and had spread across much of the northern belt of the rainforests in the centre of the continent.

Skull of a megatherium. These large beasts once roamed
the Saharan lands before going extinct
Around the year 3900BC a major climactic shift occurred in Northern Africa. The Neolithic Subpluvial began to end. The Neolithic Subpluvial was an epoch where nearly all of North Africa was fertile (or more strictly speaking, semi-arid) rather than desert. The lakes were vastly larger than they currently are. Megafauna roamed across the savannahs and were prey to the Neolithic hunters of the region. The Nile and other rivers in the region all carried much more water and were considerably higher than they now are today. The Last Glacial Maximum began to recede but was interrupted by the Younger Dryas period (which saw the warming planet temporarily cooled again) about 10,000BC according to current climate estimates. But the glaciers had now begun to disappear to their current proportions and this caused a change in climate that saw heavy rainfall across Africa, as the currents of the North Atlantic shifted with the changing climate.

This wet Sahara period was ended by what is known to us as the 5.9 Kiloyear Event (as in it happened roughly 5900 years before the present date). This saw the fertile and semi-arid lands of what was then the North African savannah begin to turn to desert. This desertification did not happen overnight but did seem to happen more rapidly than could be entirely attributed to climate. It is a theoretical possibility that human hunting, gathering and subsistence agriculture in the region may have contributed to the creation of a climate loop that created the largest desert known today.

Rock art from Wadi Mathendous in Libya
showing meerkats
The change did not happen overnight, or even over the course of century, but from this time onwards the Sahara would begin to expand. The people in the area would have to migrate outwards, towards the coastlands, to the shrinking grasslands around Lake Chad, to oases such as Nabta Playa, southwards towards the rain belts of central Africa or towards the Nile Valley, which was now the only major river remaining in the region. The inhabitants of the Sahara have left few remnants save for their artworks that were left in caves throughout the region. Here we can see humans interacting with extinct species and animals of the savannah, a memory of a lost landscape in the midst of desolation.

Naqada I sculpture
with lapis lazuli eyes,
evidence of trade
In Egypt, along the Nile Valley, Neolithic settlements had been in place for a long period. In Lower Egypt the Maadi culture flourished around this time. They traded with the Levant and seem to have imported some goods from that region. Even though they had copper workings, their primary tools remained stone. Their culture is not well known as many of their settlements throughout the Nile Delta have been covered by the Nile silt.

In Upper Egypt (higher along the Nile, hence in the south of the country) the Naqada I culture, also known as the Amratian culture, flourished. They traded obsidian, a hard volcanic rock used for tools, and gold, with the Nubian region further to the south. They also began to build in mud-brick, although nothing more than small settlements.

Reconstruction of a stone circle from Nabta Playa
Around this time as well, there seems to have been a civilisation building megalithic structures in Nabta Playa, an oasis in what is now the southern part of Egypt. A stone circle has been interpreted as a potential archeo-astronomical calendar that was possibly able to predict the seasons. Deep wells had also been dug here to access water during dryer periods and there are evidences of a sacrificial cult sacrificing bovines (although these may not have been domesticated). There are a number of relatively complex structures that seem in certain ways more advanced than their contemporaries on the Nile. But the drying of the land forced the abandonment of Nabta Playa over the next centuries.

Postage stamp commemorating
Bouar megaliths
In Central Africa, near Bouar in what is now the Central African Republic, there are a number of megalithic monuments that still stand today. They are clustered in this part of the region and not seen elsewhere, suggesting that the culture that built them was not widely diffused. The dates for the construction of the megaliths are somewhat confused, suggesting that they may be built around 5000-4500, and they were later reused about two millennia before our time, which confuses the dating somewhat. Nevertheless, for the millennia between 4-3000BC we can say with certainty that there was a megalithic culture, contemporary with the Neolithic and presumably having some form of agriculture. This culture has disappeared and left no other traces.

In Egypt, from c.3300BC onwards the Naqada III culture was predominant in both Upper and Lower Egypt. This period is also sometimes referred to as the Protodynastic period, as we know that there were attempts to unify the land of Egypt. This is also the point where Egypt, and by extension, Africa, enters history, as the hieroglyphic writing system was invented around this time.

Gebel-el-arak knife from Naqada III
Egypt. The designs on the hilt are
Mesopotamian c3200BC
It is unclear if the writing was independently invented. There were earlier scripts in use in Mesopotamia at the time but these were quite different from what Egyptian hieroglyphics would become. We know that the Mesopotamians had trade contacts with the Egyptians but it was probably not direct contact. My own theory is that the Egyptian writing was invented by the Egyptians themselves but only after hearing of the existence of the Mesopotamian system. This enabled their script to bypass many of the stages of development that cuneiform had to undergo to become a full-fledged writing system. We will probably never know for sure but considering how seldom writing is invented as a concept (possibly only occurring three or four times in human history) it would be strange that it would be invented nearly simultaneously and independently by two cultures already in contact with each other.

Macehead showing King Scorpion, c.3150BC
The Proto-Dynastic period, or Dynasty 0 as it is sometimes known, saw kingdoms form in Upper and Lower Egypt. In Lower Egypt kings bearing names such as Crocodile and Double Falcon reigned. In Upper Egypt there were three smaller kingdoms, Thinis, Naqada and Nekhen. Thinis was possibly ruled over by an early king called Scorpion. We’re not sure exactly how his name would have sounded but it used the same sound as the early Egyptian word for Scorpion, so he is known to history as Scorpion. It is possible that Scorpion is the first named person known to history, although there are some other contenders from Mesopotamia.

Macehead of Narmer, c.3100BC
The role of kings would grow, as their already elaborate tombs would be expanded. Warfare was a feature of life. While weapons could in theory be made of copper, it is probable that at this stage the warriors probably used stone weapons. Around the year 3100BC a king or tribal chieftain in Thinis would conquer Naqada in Upper Egypt before conquering Lower Egypt. Nekhen would later join the kingdom by either conquest or peaceful assimilation. This king was Narmer and he founded what can be justifiably said to be the first kingdom or state in the world.

Later Egyptian writers would credit the unification of Egypt to a king they called Menes, but this was probably just another name for Narmer, or one of the other Proto-Dynastic kings who was involved in the unification of Egypt. One interesting remnant of this time was the crowns that would be worn by the later Pharaohs. Upper Egyptian rulers wore a tall white crown, while Lower Egyptian rulers wore a low red crown. These were united by Narmer and his descendants into a single crown known as the Double Crown of Egypt.

Palette of Narmer, showing the
king wearing the white crown of
Upper Egypt and smiting a foe
Narmer’s descendants would form what is known as the First Dynasty of Egypt. They continued solidifying the kingdom and were probably worshipped as gods by their subjects. Two generations after Narmer the Egyptian kings were already trying to expand their empire with expeditions into the Sinai. They were buried with great state in a cemetery near Abydos. When they died large numbers of their subjects were sacrificed and placed in their tombs to accompany the dead ruler to the afterlife. This practice was discontinued by the Second Dynasty and those who followed after. Instead of human sacrifices they would leave little statues of human workers, known as ushabtis to follow their master to the afterlife. This connection between early rulers and human sacrifices seems to have also occurred in Mesopotamia and China, as well as in the Americas and the fact that so many of these early cultures practiced human sacrifice should sober us when praising the birth of civilisation.

While Egypt was being unified under Narmer, the civilisation of Egypt was being paralleled in Nubia. This was a region to the south of Egypt, further upstream along the River Nile. From about 3800-3100BC the region had what was known as the A Group culture. While it does not appear that a fully-fledged kingdom emerged here at this point, their grave goods and the artefacts that remain seem to have been culturally very similar to the Egyptian developments and we know that the two regions traded with one another.

Rock art of Laas Geel
Around the Horn of Africa region we have some beautiful cave paintings from around 3000BC in the Laas Geel caves near the present-day city of Hargeisa in Somaliland. Later writings would refer to a wealthy kingdom in this region but this was probably only developed in the following centuries.

I have not mentioned anything so far from the southern part of the vast continent of Africa. The reason for this is that there is not much to say. We know that the area was inhabited with hunter-gatherers who possibly resembled the San peoples in South Africa today and almost certainly spoke different languages to the ones spoken today. These hunter-gatherers, living either in rainforests or arid lands, lacked the resources to erect substantial monuments or leave many material remains. There are cave paintings from the region but they are hard to date, as many of them are much more recent. As agriculture became more significant in the north and west of Africa the pastoralists and farmers would expand southwards, but around 3000BC hunter-gathering was probably the most sensible method of survival in these regions. So, while acknowledging that the area was inhabited, there is sadly not much that we can say with certainty about it at this time.

King Den of Egypt striking an Asian foe, c.3000BC
There is one thing that I have omitted that I would like to clarify before continuing. If one checks online about South African early history there will be a lot of articles about stone circles, which are supposedly aeons old. However, if you research these further you find that these theories and dates are almost all from a single source, a non-archaeologist by the name of Michael Tellinger, who claims that these circles are archeo-astronomical in nature and that they are hundreds of thousands years old. This is almost certainly false. These circles certainly exist but they are probably built within the last millennia by the peoples in the region. Michael Tellinger speaks of aliens and all sorts of other nonsense mostly lifted from the works of Erich von Daniken. It is sad that he is taken so seriously while there are so many other parts of African history that are worth exploring and learning more about.

So, after traversing the thousand years between 4000-3000BC in Africa we have seen the rebirth of the world’s largest desert with associated mass migrations and extinctions of those who fled it. We have looked at what is possibly the world’s oldest ancient astronomical megalithic site as well as the foundation of the world’s first real state known to history, the invention of the world’s second-oldest script and possibly the first names known to history.