The known, Dynastic Egypt began around 3,100 BCE. But the magnificent, complex civilization we still learn about in elementary school did not suddenly emerge, fully-formed. What came before? Archaeologists know that roughly between 9,300 BCE and 4,000 BCE, an enigmatic Neolithic people built a proto civilization in Egypt. But there has been little research on them, so a new excavation of three burial sites has the possibility of adding greatly to the understanding of how ancient Egypt became, well, ancient Egypt.
During the Neolithic, Egypt was much greener, allowing ancient herders to populate what is now the middle of a barren desert. During the Final Neolithic (4,600 – 4,000 BCE) they began to bury the dead in formal cemeteries. We know this from excavations at three burial sites which were not lone graves but large cemeteries housing over 100 burials each.
One cemetery appears to be for the elite. It had a low childhood mortality rate, tall stature, and relatively long lifespans for the Neolithic. Men averaged about 170 cm tall (5’7"), and women about 160 cm (5’3"). Most had lived beyond 40, and some even into their 50s. That’s not old today, but for the Neolithic, that’s nothing to scoff at. And most tellingly, those in this cemetery were buried with many artifacts including ornamental pottery, jewellery from stones and ostrich eggshells, sea shells far from the sea, and animal remains. Two other cemeteries appear to be for lower-status individuals. They had few artifacts, high child mortality, were physically shorter, and had shorter lifespans. The larger of the two cemeteries had a separate burial area for children under 3 years old, although most of the remains were infants and late-term fetuses. It is the earliest known infant cemetery.
These three very different burial sites suggest that by 4,600 BCE, Neolithic society had developed stratified social hierarchies. It also suggests that age 3 is when children became “people” and were included in adult cemeteries. Finally, there was evidence of respect for those previously buried, because when coming across old skeletons in reused graves, they often carefully repositioned their ancestors’ bones, sometimes even replacing teeth that had fallen out! The archaeological evidence suggests a sophisticated herding society, one slowly evolving towards what would become Dynastic Egypt.