Added March 1998. Updated November 26, 2000.
Late Neolithic megalithic structures at Nabta Playa (Sahara), southwestern Egypt.
By Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild
Located 100 km west of Abu Simbel, in southernmost Egypt, Nabta Playa is a large, internally drained basin, which during the early Holocene ( ca. 11,000 - 5500 calibrated radiocarbon years ago) was a large and important ceremonial center for prehistoric people. It was intermittently and seasonally filled with water, which encouraged people to come there, and today it contains dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of archaeological sites. People came from many regions to Nabta Playa to record astronomical events, erect alignments of megaliths, and build impressive stone structures.
From around 65,000 years ago until about 12,000 years ago the Western Desert was hyper-arid, at least as dry as today and perhaps drier. This began to change after 12,000 years ago when the summer rains of tropical Africa began to move northward, bringing sufficient moisture for a wide variety of sahelian grasses, trees and bushes to grow, and for a few small animals to exist, mostly hares and small gazelle, but also including a few small carnivores. Even with the rains it was still very dry; the annual rainfall was no more than 100 - 150 mm per year, and it was unpredictable and punctuated with numerous droughts, some of which caused the desert to be abandoned for lengthy periods. The earliest (11,000 - 9300 years ago, calibrated) settlements at Nabta were composed of small seasonal camps of cattle-herding and ceramic-using people. These early cattle are regarded as domestic (Wendorf and Schild 1994), and it may have been in the Western Desert that the African pattern of cattle herding developed, wherein cattle serve as a "walking larder" and provide milk and blood, rather than meat (except for ceremonial occasions) and are the economic basis for power and prestige. Pottery is very rare in these sites, but distinctive. It is decorated over the entire exterior with complex patterns of impressions applied with a comb in a rocking motion. The source of this pottery has not been identified, but it is among the oldest known in Africa, and older than pottery in Southwest Asia. These early people probably came into the desert after the summer rains from either farther south or the adjacent Nile Valley, in either case searching for pasture for their cattle. Each fall, when the surface water in the playas dried up and there was no water for them or their cattle, they had to return to the Nile, or perhaps to the better watered areas to the south.