Academic journal article Antiquity

Cultural Convergence in the Neolithic of the Nile Valley: A Prehistoric Perspective on Egypt's Place in Africa

Academic journal article Antiquity

Cultural Convergence in the Neolithic of the Nile Valley: A Prehistoric Perspective on Egypt's Place in Africa

Article excerpt

"Systematic mapping of empirical networks and interconnections, without prejudging the demarcation of units, could well lead to substantial discoveries of traditional as well as contemporary systems, and a re-drawing of our picture of African forms of social organisation." (Fredrik Barth 1978: 258)

Introduction

It has been clear for some decades that the later prehistory of Egypt cannot be adequately understood in isolation from a wider African context (see O'Connor & Reid 2003, with reviews of earlier literature). What constitutes an African cultural milieu of long duration can of course be defined on a variety of comparative criteria; but recent attempts to root Egypt's early development in an African setting have focused upon questions of environmental adaptation, and in particular on environmental stress as a driver of cultural change among the early pastoralist societies of this region (e.g. Wendorf & Schild 1998; Kuper & Kroepelin 2006). Too often, perhaps, Evans-Pritchard's (1940: 16) quipping injunction--cherchez la vache--seems to suffice as a descriptor of the relationship between prehistoric economy and society in African contexts.

The aim of the present article is to define an important horizon of cultural change, belonging to the fifth millennium BC, linking Egypt's early development firmly to that of its southern neighbours in Nubia and central Sudan. This north--south axis of Neolithic development, first discussed in earlier publications by one of the present authors (Wengrow 2001: 95-97, 2003, 2006: 26-29, 44-59; and more recently also Edwards 2004: 49-59, 2007: 216-17; Gatto 2011a), has been overshadowed by climate-driven explanations of cultural change, with their focus upon the mid-Holocene desiccation of the 'Green Sahara as a 'motor' of social evolution (see especially Kuper & Kroepelin 2006). Its emergence nevertheless defines a clear break with the Early Holocene past, and the establishment--throughout the entirety of the Nile Valley--of a remarkably consistent set of concepts and material practices relating to the treatment of human bodies in life and death.

Our point of departure is the comparative observation that there is nothing distinctively 'African' about the adoption of mobile cattle pastoralism as a response to climate change, or about the privileging of cattle as ritual and symbolic media. Similar patterns of response have now been documented across a much broader zone of the Middle Holocene Old World, including the southern portions of both the Arabian Peninsula (McCorriston & Martin 2009; McCorriston et al. 2012) and the Indian Subcontinent (Boivin 2004; Fuller 2011). Instead, as we will suggest, it is by charting the spatial and temporal distribution of specific cultural practices focused on the body--its skin and hair; its diverse contents and substances; its emissions and cavities; and its passage between life and death--that the beginnings of a distinctly African context for the later prehistory of the Nile Valley may yet come into focus.

The inception of farming economies in north-east Africa

The 'primary pastoral community', as defined here and in earlier publications (Wengrow 2003, 2006), is a phenomenon of the Middle Holocene, but its foundations, including the adoption of a herding economy, were laid in the preceding millennia of the Early Holocene. The origin and spread of farming in northern Africa was a complex, protracted and regionally variable process. By contrast with some parts of neighbouring south-west Asia and Europe, domesticated plants and animals do not appear to have been adopted as part of a single cultural 'package'. With the exception of Lower Egypt, some areas of which (e.g. Fayum) may have followed a more typically Mediterranean path of development (Phillipps et al. 2012), much of northern Africa witnessed the inception of herding practices centuries, or in some cases millennia, before the arrival of domesticated cereals (Marshall & Hildebrand 2002). …

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