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Ancient Egypt: Predynastic Period

Updated on January 4, 2010
The Dancer  Painted terracotta statuette from Naqada II Period (3650-3300 BCE)  Image credit :
The Dancer Painted terracotta statuette from Naqada II Period (3650-3300 BCE) Image credit :

Ancient Egypt's Beginnings


For close to forty centuries Ancient Egypt proved to be one of the most enduring cultures of mankind. Her influence stretched beyond her borders through trade and conquest, and still fascinates humanity to the present day. Her mummies have given us countless hours of contemplation as to why and how. We revel in her treasure and unique philosophy, marvel at her monuments, and continue to seek her secrets. In short, Ancient Egypt is still influencing and conquering. Before the Ancient Egyptian organized into the dynastic culture we are so familiar with today, several prehistoric and Predynastic periods are evident.

Before the Predynastic stage a long prehistory stage is apparent. During the Abbassia Pluvial period which took place between 120,000 and 90,000 BCE North Africa experienced a lengthy wet and rainy period. The present desert area was gradually populated and opened to an expansion of the Acheulean culture which flourished along the Nile. A sudden change in technology from bifacial to flake tools marked the end of the Acheulean and would last until approximately 30,000 BCE. With the increasing advent of Saharan drought several cultures would merge to meet in the Nile Valley. These separate groups while developing unique cultures were based upon its common source.

Predynastic pottery with Nile River scene from Early Naqada II (3650-3500 BCE). Image credit :
Predynastic pottery with Nile River scene from Early Naqada II (3650-3500 BCE). Image credit :

Predynastic Egypt

The Qadan culture of 12,000 BCE proved to be a pivotal period with advances in stone tools and economics, and experiments in agriculture. Not until the environment changed into a sub pluvial period did animal domestication and agriculture gain in popularity. Quickly on the heels of agriculture were advancements in textiles and ceramic production. With the onset of farming came changes in funerary practices. Instead of burying their dead close by, gravesites were placed further away from the settlements at the outer edge of cultivated land. The deceased was oriented toward the west and given equipment and provisions for his journey.

Egypt’s duality as per the north and south becomes more obvious at this point. This duality would become a staple of Egyptian culture. At this stage the north, also known as Lower Egypt, advanced more than the south in their lithic industry; and the south, also known as Upper Egypt, made more advancements in pottery. Eventual unification of the two lands would take approximately one thousand years to accomplish.

Between the sixth and the fifth millennia the First Chalcolithic era saw the ‘Faiyum A’ culture dominating the north which relied more on hunting and fishing. The ‘Badarian’ culture dominated the south and relied more on agriculture. At the same time tombs evolved into a more architectural style. By the end of the Old Predynastic period (4500 BCE) the Egyptian people were advancing and exploring outlying territories. Due to a lack of natural resources trade routes were set up with Nubia to the south for gold, and the Sinai would supply Egypt’s lead, tin, galena, and  some gold. The necessary protection of distant mineral deposits, and the routes to access them would play a major role in future pharaohs’ foreign policy.

From 4000 – 3300 BCE during the Gerzean period, the north increased its influence upon the south where tombs became replicas of dwellings and often included a number of rooms. This point in time accomplished the structuring of the main components of a unified Egyptian culture.

In the Predynastic phase the Egyptians developed a writing system based on  pictures which included combinations of pictograms and phonograms. Pottery fragments reflect the basics of the early Egyptian writing and remained fundamental through its history. Eventually it developed to include ideograms, phonograms and determinatives (end symbols which clarified the word and its meaning), and would include up to several thousand signs depending on the period.

A reconstructed grave pit before mummification. Bodies were naturally preserved in the sand due to the arid conditions. Image credit :
A reconstructed grave pit before mummification. Bodies were naturally preserved in the sand due to the arid conditions. Image credit :

Future Pharanoic System

Whether Upper Egypt (south) or Lower Egypt (north) dominated in final unification is an ongoing debate. Egyptian sources claim that the south prevailed over the north, but modern studies of early social systems point to the north dominating the south. Documents which include the Battlefield Palette, the Bull Palette, the Scorpion Macehead and the Narmer Palette all indicate the validity of a ‘hydraulic’ theory which theorizes that control over irrigation played a major role in forming the Early Dynastic period. All the necessary pieces were now in place to form the pharaonic system and an enduring culture we still revere today.

 And so begins a history where intrigue and power were the food for pharaohs, and where women could become kings. The characters that would develop throughout Egypt’s long history were complex, yet very identifiable to ourselves. They were innovative as seen in the Old Kingdom’s Imhotep, a well known architect. In the New Kingdom Ramses would create a propaganda machine that puzzled archaeologists. Amenhotep IV changed his name, moved the capital city and created a new religion that many consider the first monotheism. Egypt’s longevity is due in part to her geographic location where, unlike many other cultures, she was often sheltered from invaders and able to grow and prosper into a culture which was surprisingly optimistic and continues to intrigue us.


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    • E. Nicolson profile imageAUTHOR

      E. Nicolson 

      9 years ago

      Thank you, Keith. I appreciate your comments.

    • profile image

      Keith Mitchell 

      9 years ago

      A lot of what I see on hubpages is like the "E!" network-me included-fun, fluffy, maybe even silly. Your stuff is like watching "History International." It's more weighty and leaves me feeling like I've done something worthwhile. Btw, the final paragraph is extremely well written. Good photos, great topic, handled well.

    • E. Nicolson profile imageAUTHOR

      E. Nicolson 

      9 years ago

      Thank you for your kind comment. I must admit that it turned into more of a challenge than I originally anticipated :)

    • Norah Casey profile image

      Norah Casey 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Predynastic Egypt isn't an area I've spent a great deal of time studying, partly due to the wealth of information to sift through to come to a conclusion. This was one of more concise papers on that era I have read in a very long time. Well done!


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