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The Battlefield Palette, a predynastic artifact, showing the king as a lion, trampling his enemies.

The Predynastic Period or prehistoric period of egypt is the period that begins with the earliest record of human civilization in Egypt c. 5500[1], to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period c. 3100. However, the dates of the predynastic period were first defined before widespread archaeological excavation of Egypt had taken place, and recent finds which show the course of predynastic development to have been very gradual have caused scholars to argue about when exactly the predynastic period ended. Thus, the term "protodynastic period," sometimes called "Dynasty 0," has been used by scholars to name the part of the period which might be characterized as predynastic by some and dynastic by others. The predynastic period is generally divided into cultural periods named after the places where a certain type of Egyptian settlement was first located. However, it should be noted that the same gradual development that characterizes the protodynastic period is present throughout the entire predynastic period, and individual "cultures" must not be interpreted as separate entities but as largely subjective divisions used to facilitate easier study of the entire period.

Precursors to the Predynastic

Most archaeological sites in Egypt have been excavated only in Upper Egypt, because the silt of the Nile River was more heavily deposited at the delta region, and most delta sites from the predynastic period have since been totally buried.[2] Although Lower Egypt seems to have had a significantly different culture, its nature is still unknown.[2]

Qadan and Sebilian Cultures (Late Paleolithic)

Twenty some archaeological sites in upper Nubia evidence a grain-grinding Neolithic culture called the Qadan culture, which practiced farming along the Nile during the beginning of the Sahaba Daru nile phase, when desiccation in the Sahara caused residents of the Lybian oases to retreat into the Nile valley.[3] In Egypt, analyses of pollen found at archaeological sites indicates that the Sebilian culture (also known as Esna) may have also been farming wheat and barley. At the very least, wild specimens of the modern plants were found at that time.[3] It has been hypothesized that the sedentary lifestyle used by farmers led to increased warfare, which was detrimental to farming and brought this period to an end.[3] Another culture of hunters, fishers and gathering peoples using stone tools replaced them.[citation needed]

Faiyum A Culture (Neolithic)

Continued desiccation forced the early ancestors of the Egyptians to settle around the Nile more permanently and forced them to adapt a more sedentary lifestyle. However, the period from 9,000 to 6,000 BC has left very little in the way of archaeological evidence. However, around 6,000 BC neolithic settlements have been found all over Egypt.[4] Weaving is evidenced for the first time during the Faiyum A Period, but unlike latter Egyptian settlements, their dead were buried very close to and sometimes inside their own settlements.[5] Although archaeological sites reveal very little about this time, an examination of the many Egyptian words for city can provide a hypothetical list of reasons for why the Egyptians settled. In Upper Egypt, the words for city indicate that they functioned for trade and protection of livestock, and protection from the flood on high ground, or as sacred sites for gods.[6]

Tasian Culture

The Tasian Culture was the next to begin in Upper Egypt. The culture group is named for the burials found at Der Tasa, a site on the east bank of the Nile between Asyut and Akhmim. The Tasian culture group is notable for producing the earliest blacktop-ware, a type of red and brown pottery which has been painted black on its top and interior.[5] This pottery is vital to the dating of predynastic Egypt. Because all dates for the predynastic period are tenuous at best, WMF Petrie developed a system called Sequence Dating by which the relative date, if not the absolute date, of any given predynastic site can be ascertained by examining the handles on pottery. As the predynastic period progressed, the handles on pottery moved from functional to ornamental, and the degree to which any given archaeological site has functional or ornamental pottery can be used to determine the relative date of the site. Since there is little difference between Tasian and Badarian pottery, the Tasian Culture overlaps the Badarian place on the scale between S.D. 21 and 29 significantly.[7] From the Tasian period onward, it appears that Upper Egypt was influenced strongly by the culture of Lower Egypt.[8]

Badarian Culture

The Badarian Culture, named for the Badari site near Der Tasa, followed the Tasian culture, however similarities between the two have lead very many to not differentiate between them at all. The Badarian Culture continued to produce the kind of pottery called Blacktop-ware (although its quality was much improved over previous specimens), and was assigned the Sequence Dating numbers between 21 and 29.[7] The significant difference, however, between the Tasian and Badarian culture groups which prevents scholars from completely merging the two together is that Badarian sites use copper in addition to stone, and thus are chalcolithic settlements, while the Tasian sites are still neolithic, and are considered technically part of the Stone Age.[7] Badarian flint tools continued to develop into sharper and more shapely blades, and the first faience and more was developed.[9] Distinctly Badarian sites have been located from Nekhen to a little north of Abydos.[10] It appears that the Fayum A culture and the Badarian and Tasian Periods overlapped significantly, however the Fayum A culture was considerably less agricultural, and was still neolithic in nature.[9]

Amratian (Naqada I) Culture

The Amratian Culture is named after the site of el-Amra, about 120 km south of Badari. El-Amra was the first site where this culture group was found unmingled with the later Gerzean culture group, however this period is better attested at the Naqada site, thus it is referred to also as the Naqada I culture.[9] Black-topped ware continues to be produced, but white cross-line ware, a type of pottery which has been decorated by close parallel white lines being crossed by another set of close parallel white lines, begins to be produced during this time. The Amratian period falls between S.D. 30 and 39 in Petrie's Sequence Dating system.[11] Trade between Upper and Lower Egypt is attested at this time, as new excavated objects attest. A stone vase from the north has been found at el-Amra, and copper, which is not present in Egypt, was apparently imported from the Sinai, or perhaps from Nubia. Obsidian[12] and an extremely small amount of Gold[11] were both definitively imported from Nubia during this time. Trade with the oases was also likely.[12] New innovations like mudbrick buildings for which the Gerzean period is well known also begin during this time, attesting to cultural continuity, however they did not reach nearly the widespread use that they were known for in later times.[13] Additionally, oval and theriomorphic cosmetic pallets appear to be used in this period, however the workmanship is still very rudimentary and the relief artwork for which they were later known is not yet present.[14]

Gerzean (Naqada II) Culture

The Gerzean Culture, named after the site of Gerza, was the next stage in Egyptian cultural development, and it was during this time that the foundation for Dynastic Egypt was laid. Gerzean culture is largely an unbroken development out of Amratian Culture, starting in the delta and moving south through upper Egypt, however failing to dislodge Amratian Culture in Nubia.[15] Gerzean sites are identified by the presence of pottery which is assigned values from S.D. 40 through 62, and is distinctly different from Amratian white cross-lined wares or black-topped ware.[11] Gerzean pottery was painted mostly in dark red with pictures of animals, people, and ships, as well as geometric symbols which appear to derive from pictures of animals.[15] Furthermore, the handles became "wavy" and reached a nearly totally decorative phase (although technically wavy handles can be found as early as S.D. 35).[11] Gerzean culture coincided with a significant drop in rainfall,[16] and farming produced the vast majority of food,[15] although paintings from this time indicate that hunting was not entirely forgone. With increased food supplies, Egyptians adopted a greatly more sedentary lifestyle, and larger settlements grew to cities with about 5,000 residents.[15] It was in this time that Egyptian city dwellers stopped building out of reeds, and used the mudbrick, which was developed in the Amratian Period, en masse to build their cities.[15] Egyptian stone tools, while still in use, moved from bifacial construction to ripple-flaked construction, copper was used to make all kinds of tools as well,[15] and also for the first time, copper weaponry turns up.[10] Silver, gold, lapis, and faience were used ornamentally,[15] and the grinding palettes used for eye-paint since the Badarian period began to be adorned with relief carvings.[10] Tombs also begin to be constructed in classic Egyptian style, being modeled like normal houses, and sometimes composed of multiple rooms.[12] Although excavations in the delta have still to be meticulously undertaken, these traits are interpreted as having come largely from the north, and are probably not indigenous to Upper Egypt.[12]

Foreign Contact

Although the Gerzean Culture is now clearly identified as being the continuation of the Amratian period, significant amounts of mesopotamian influences worked their way into Egypt during the Gerzean which were interpreted in previous years as evidence of a mesopotamian ruling class, the so called Dynastic Race, coming to power over Upper Egypt. In recent years however, this theory has been discounted. Nonetheless, distinctly foreign objects and art forms entered Egypt during this period which are indicative of trade contacts with several parts of Asia. Objects such as the Gebel el-Arak knife handle, which has patently mesopotamian relief carvings on it, have been found in Egypt,[17] and the silver which appears in this period can only be obtained from Asia Minor.[15] In addition, Egyptian objects are created which are clearly mimicking Mesopotamian forms, although not slavishly.[18] Cylinder seals appear in Egypt, as well as recessed paneling architecture, the Egyptian reliefs on cosmetic palettes are clearly made in the same style as the contemporary mesopotamian Uruk culture, and the ceremonial maceheads which turn up from the late Gerzean and early Semainean are crafted in the mesopotamian "pear-shaped" style, instead of the Egyptian native style.[16]

Pear-Shaped Mace
in Hieroglyphs

The route of this trade is difficult to determine, but contact with Canaan does not predate the early dynastic, so it is usually assumed to have been by water.[19] During the time when the Dynastic Race Theory was still popular, it was theorized that Uruk sailors circumnavigated Arabia, but a Mediterranean route, probably by middlemen through Byblos is more likely, as evidenced by the presence of Byblian objects in Egypt.[19] Nonetheless, the fact that so many Gerzean sites are at the mouths of Wadys which lead to the Red Sea is indicative of some amount of trade via the Red Sea (though Byblian trade could potentially cross the Sinai and resume sea travel as well).[20] Also, it is considered unlikely that something as complicated as recessed panel architecture could have worked its way into Egypt by proxy, and at least a small contingent of migrants is often suspected.[19] Nonetheless, Egyptologists usually take great pains to note that the Gerzean Culture is still by far predominantly indigenous to Egypt.


(All dates are approximate)
  • Neolithic, from 10th millennium BC
    • ca. 9500 BC: Farming along the Nile, grain-grinding culture creates world's earliest stone sickle blades
    • ca. 8000 BC: Herding world's earliest domesticated cattle, seasonal camps established in Nabta Playa; painted ceramics using combs. Analysis of human remains in Nabta Playa provides evidence of migration from sub-Saharan Africa [1].
    • ca. 8000 BC: Migration of peoples to the Nile, developing a more centralized society and settled agricultural economy
  • Shipping and Agriculture, from 8th millennium BC
    • ca. 7500 BC: Importing animals from Asia to Sahara
    • ca. 7000 BC: Agriculture -- animal and cereal -- in East Sahara
    • ca. 7000 BC: in Nabta Playa deep year-round water wells dug, and large organized settlements designed in pre-planned arrangements
    • ca. 6000 BC: Rudimentary ships (rowed, single-sailed) depicted in Egyptian rock art
  • Copper Age and large-scale Stone Construction, from 6th millennium BC
    • ca. 6th millennium BC: Metal replacing stone -- farming/hunting equipment, jewelry; tanning animal skins; intricate basket-weaving
    • ca. 6th millennium BC: possible early Alchemy as evidenced by common knowledge of animal-skin tanning [2]
    • ca. 5500 BC: Stone-roofed subterranean chambers and other subterranean complexes in Nabta Playa containing buried sacrificed cattle prelude Hathor belief in Ancient Egypt
    • ca. 5000 BC: Archaeoastronomical stone megalith in Nabta Playa, world's earliest known astronomy [3]
    • ca. 5000 BC: Badarian contacts with Syria; furniture, tableware, models of rectangular houses, pots, dishes, cups, bowls, vases, figurines, combs
    • ca. 4500 BC: Geometric spatial designs adorning Naqada pottery [4]
    • ca. 4400 BC: finely woven linen fragment [5]
    • ca. 4300 BC: Beaker culture pottery, world's earliest known [6]
  • Inventing prevalent, from 4th millennium BC
    • By 4000 BC, the world's earliest known:
      • Alchemy (see Alchemy in Ancient Egypt)
      • Cosmetics (antimony)
      • Donkey domestication
      • Harps
      • Iron works (see Iron Age)
      • Mortar (masonry)
      • Pottery Hieroglyphs writing in Girza [7]
    • ca. 4000 BC:
      • Flutes
      • early medicine [8]
    • 4th millennium BC: Gerzean tomb-building, including underground rooms and burial of furniture/amulets, preludes Osiris belief in Ancient Egypt
    • 4th millennium BC: Cedar imported from Lebanon [9]
    • ca. 3500 BC: Lapis lazuli imported from Badakshan and/or Mesopotamia (see Silk Road)
    • ca. 3500 BC: possible Silk Road expansion (see Silk Road)
    • ca. 3500 BC: Double clarinets, Lyres (see Music of Egypt)
    • ca. 3500 BC: Senet, world's oldest (confirmed) Board Game
    • ca. 3500 BC: Faience, world's earliest known glazed ceramic beads


  1. Mertz, B. (2010). Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. London: Constable & Robinson.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 10.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. p.21. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, 1988
  4. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 6.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gardiner, Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: University Press, 1964), p. 388.
  6. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 8.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Gardiner, Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: University Press, 1964), p. 389.
  8. Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. p.35. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, 1988.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. p.24. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, 1988
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Gardiner, Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: University Press, 1964), p. 391.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Gardiner, Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: University Press, 1964), p. 390.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. p.28. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, 1988
  13. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 7.
  14. Gardiner, Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: University Press, 1964), p. 393.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 16.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 17.
  17. Shaw, Ian. & Nicholson, Paul, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (London: British Museum Press, 1995), p. 109.
  18. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 18.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 22.
  20. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton: University Press, 1992), p. 20.

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