Exploitation of Wild Plants by the Early Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers of the Western Desert, Egypt: Nabta Playa as a Case-Study

Article excerpt

The role of plants in the subsistence economy of pre-agricultural societies of the eastern Sahara is poorly known because vegetal remains, except for wood charcoal, are seldom found in archaeological sites. Site E-75-6 at Nabta Playa, with rich assemblages of charred seeds and fruits, is exceptional. Around 8000 b.p. the inhabitants of this site collected a wide spectrum of wild food plants. Wild sorghum was of special interest and its occasional cultivation cannot be excluded.

Many of the species identified at Nabta Playa belong to edible plants which have been gathered for food across northern Africa until recent times. Their utilization by people living at that site seems highly probable, even if no direct evidence was found in the form of one-species accumulations. The occurrence of plant remains, in several huts and pits of almost the same age of around 8000 b.p., created the opportunity to examine their in-site distribution, and to discover how plants were exploited. A multivariate method of correspondence analysis was used, with the results that are the subject of this article.

The site

Nabta Playa is a large internal drainage basin, in the driest part of the Egyptian Western Desert. During wet episodes of the early Holocene the basin was inhabited several times by early Neolithic nomadic populations (Wendorf & Schild 1980). At site E-75-6 three archaeological levels were discovered; the plant material discussed here comes from the middle level (Wasylikowa et al. 1995).

Settlement traces include remnants of huts, pits and wells, distributed along the former lake shore in a belt about 70 m long and 20 m broad [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In the huts, there were one to five hearths and several small and shallow pits interpreted as pot-holes, i.e. places where containers with food were placed for cooking in hot ashes. Eleven AMS dates, based on individual seeds from different huts, gave ages between 8025[+ or -]120 (Oxa-3220) and 7950[+ or -]90 (Oxa-3484) b.p. (Wasylikowa et al. 1993; Wendorf et al. 1992).

At earlier stages of the early Neolithic, the site was inundated by summer rains; it was probably inhabited in the fall and winter. Later, habitation could have lasted the whole year, as it is indicated by walk-in wells connected with the middle level (Wendorf et al. in press). Food procurement was based on hunting (mainly of gazelle and hare), cattle-keeping, and wild-plant gathering. Occasional cultivation of wild sorghum was possible, although this cannot be proven.

Plant remains

Seeds and fruits were recovered by dry-sieving soil samples of known volume. All were preserved in a charred condition. For each sample the exact location on the excavation grid [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] was recorded as well as the context: hearth, pot-hole, post-hole, house fill (lower level), house fill top (upper level). For each identified taxon or morphological type, the number of specimens was recorded for each sample.

The accumulation of plant remains resulted from human activity with various purposes: wood for fuel; seeds, fruits, tubers and rhizomes for food; other uses - medicinal and magic? Charring could have taken place only near the hearths, or possibly near pot-holes; there is no evidence that any of the houses were burned. Charred material was scattered all over the surface of the house floor when the house was occupied; in addition, there may have been secondary mixing after the houses were abandoned. The abandoned site was covered by sands and silts which preserved the charred plant remains. The generally uniform appearance of all charred remains, indicating similar conditions of preservation throughout the site, suggests the composition of the archaeobotanical samples not having been changed selectively by post-depositional processes.

Seeds, fruits, tubers and rhizomes found in the huts probably represent residues of cooking and wastes of plant-processing for food or other purposes. …