Egypt: History - The Middle Paleolithic in Egypt

Middle Paleolithic: 100,000 - 30,000 BC

Between the Lower and Middle Paleolithic eras, the Abbassia Pluvial ended and the Sahara returned to a desert state. By this time Homo erectus had evolved into Homo neanderthalensis, and began to escape the encroaching desert by migrating to the Nile Valley and to the oases that were left, such as the one at Kharga.

It was about this time that a more efficient stone tool industry developed. Called Levalloisian after the site in France where tools of this style were first discovered, it involves the making of several stone tools from one piece of stone by chipping a number of similarly sized and shaped flakes from around the circumference of the stone. This technique was a good step over the previous techniques which often required an entire stone to make a single tool, or if multiple flakes were taken from a single stone, they would be of varying sizes, many unusable. With this technique, numerous thin, sharp, almost identical flakes could be made and only slightly reshaped to make what was desired. The standardization of stone tools, as well as the development of several new tools had begun. Most importantly, the Levalloisian industry resulted in an invention that would change everything that had come before: the spear point.

Levallois points not only had a better piercing point, they were also made to be fitted to wooden shafts. The advantages of a stone spear point over a sharpened wood one permitted a great increase in hunting efficiency, as well as a change in hunting tactics. The stone spear point may even have led to another trait of the Middle Paleolithic, which was the focus of tribal attention on one particular type of game, such as sheep or goats, a step toward domestication.

It was during Middle Paleolithic times that early humans began to spread throughout the area. The development of these new stone industries and survival techniques, coupled with the Mousterian Pluvial (which was even greater than the Abbassian that preceded it) between 50,000 and 30,000 BC caused a widespread distribution of early human culture. Whereas Lower Paleolithic sites are few and far between, Middle Paleolithic sites are scattered all over Egypt and the Sudan, from the Nile Valley to the coast of the Red Sea to even the now-hostile Liqiya depression in the southern Libyan Desert. The Mousterian Pluvial caused the Sahara to bloom like never before, not only in vegetation and wildlife, but also in new human settlements. By this time, early humans (still Neanderthaloid) had spread to almost every habitable area of North Africa.

Two new industries emerged during the Mousterian Pluvial, those being the Aterian Industry and the Khormusan Industry. The Aterian Industry, named for the type site at Bir-el-Ater in Tunisia, began some time around 40,000 BC, about the middle of the pluvial, and ended just shy of 30,000 BC. Aterian points are characterized by a distinct "tang" or plug on the bottom, which allowed for a more secure fit to the spear shaft. Originally thought to be arrow points, Aterian points may have been far too bulky to be used on primitive arrows, and were more likely points for a smaller variety of spear, the dart, which was more efficient in hunting small game than the normal-sized spear. Another invention of the Aterian Industry was that of the spear-thrower, a small length of wood with a notch at one end for the back end of the spear shaft, which allowed for greater power in throws as well as greater accuracy. These new developments permitted increased efficiency in hunting large grazing animals. The discoveries of gigantic stores of animal remains and human artifacts at site BT-14 attest to the success of these new hunting methods as well as the success of the settlement itself. The bones from this site reveal that our ancestors made use of a wide variety of animal life such as the white rhinoceros, the now-extinct Pleistocene camel, gazelles, jackals, warthogs, ostriches, and various types of antelopes.

In the Khormusan Industry, stone tools became even more varied and advanced, and tools made of bone and ground hematite became widespread. Of course, these industries did not follow one another one by one, but rather overlap by several thousand years as well as in area. The Khormusan is noted above all for the prolific use of a small, sharp point that greatly resembles the early arrow points of the Native Americans. In fact, such points were used during the Upper Paleolithic to tip the arrows developed at that time. Whether the Khormusans developed bow technology is still under debate, as is whether the Aterians did. Regardless, the Khormusans were certainly efficient hunters, as well as being gatherers and fishers, and their diet resembled that of the Aterians, and added wild cattle (think of cattle roughly twice as big as our domestic cattle), and fish from the Nile. These animals came from many different in the Nile Valley and the surrounding area, so Khormusan hunting parties must have ranged from the river itself to the savanna grasslands. These two industries, or rather, these two cultures, for such they were, existed almost side-by-side until the end of the pluvial, foreshadowing the the great cultural cross-sections that would inhabit Dynastic Egypt thousands of years later.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011