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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/December 1898/The Stone Age in Egypt


THE investigation of the origin of man in Egypt is a very complex problem, belonging as much to geology as to archæology. The earliest evidences we have of human industry, in fact, go back to so remote a period that they should be regarded rather as fossils than as archæological documents. They are very coarsely worked flints, which are found near the surface of the ground among the pebbles of the Quaternary or Pleistocene epoch, and similar to those which occur abundantly in Europe, America, and Asia; but the study and collection of them have been pursued with less method than in those countries. The more recent monuments, so much more conspicuous and more easily accessible, have attracted most attention, while these have been left in the background.

No region in the world presents a clearer and more distinct individual character than Egypt. Each village is a special world, each valley a universe that has developed its own life; and man has felt the special local impressions; and even in modern times, while all the Egyptian villages present a similar aspect, and although the fellah appears to be the same sort of a man everywhere, each locality has its special individual characteristics. One who knows how to observe men and things critically will find considerable differences. These dissimilarities are as old as Egypt itself. They have always existed, and are as much more intense as the communications between district and district were formerly more difficult. They are due to physical conditions special to each village, to the prevailing winds, the form and character of the mountains, the extent of cultivable lands, and the supply of water. A study of the detail of the country is a very important preliminary to the examination of Egyptian history. Every village and every nome had formerly its special divinity and its particular usages. Are we sure that the gods and customs were not imposed by local conditions? At Ombos two hostile gods were adored in the same temple. May we not see in this fact a recollection of the hostility which has always prevailed between the inhabitants of the two banks of the river, and still continues?

Previous, however, to investigating these details which have been so influential on Egyptian civilization, we ought to dispel the darkness which hides from us the earliest traces of man in the valley of the Nile, and examine how man lived in his beginning, to study the geology of the country and its condition when it issued from the seas. As one of the results of this study we find that palæolithic man, known to us only through the rough-cut flints we find in the alluvions, made his first appearance. After this period of excavation came that of filling up with silt, which still continues. New evidences of man appear in his burial places and the ruins of his villages, the kitchen middens which he has left in his habitations of unburned brick and in his camps. This time he is more civilized; he chips his flints with a skill that is not surpassed in European neolithic implements; he makes vessels of stone and clay, covers them with rude paintings, sculptures animal forms of schist, and wears necklaces of the shells and the stones of the country. Then comes a foreign people to take possession of Egypt, bringing knowledge of metals, writing, hieroglyphics, painting, sculpture, new industries and arts that have nothing in common with the arts of the people it has overcome. The ancient Pharaonic empire begins, or perhaps the reign of the divine dynasties. The men with stone implements are the aborigines; the others are the conquering civilized Egyptians. Nothing can be more interesting than a comparison of the arts of the aborigines and those of the Egyptians of the earlier dynasties. Nearly all their characteristics are different, and it is impossible to regard them as of common origin. Yet some of the native forms persisted till the last days of the empire of the Pharaohs. These aborigines belonged to a race that is now extinct, they having been absorbed into the mass of the Egyptians and Nubians among whom they lived, and from this mixture the fellah of ancient times is derived. The origin of the conquering race—of the Egyptians as we know them—has not been precisely determined. The weight of evidence, so far as it has been obtained, and the balance of opinion, are in favor of an Asiatic origin and of primary relationship with the Shemites of Chaldea.

In Egypt more than in any other country it is necessary to proceed with the most scrupulous circumspection in the examination of remote antiquities. The relics of thousands of years of human life have been piled one upon another and often intermixed. The questions they raise can not be answered in the cabinet or by the study of texts; but the inquiry must be prosecuted on the ground, by comparison of the deposits where they are found and in the deposits from which they are recovered.

From my first arrival in Egypt, in 1892, my attention has been greatly occupied with the question of the origin of the relics of the stone age that have been found from time to time in that country. I have gathered up the scattered documents, explored a large number of sites, and have bought such flint implements as I have found on sale. I have gradually been led to believe that while some of these cut stones may possibly belong to the historical epoch, we shall have to attribute a much more remote antiquity to the most of them, and that evidences of a neolithic age in the valley of the Nile are more abundant than has generally been supposed.

In many minds the historical antiquity of Egypt, the almost fabulous ages to which its civilization ascends, seem to challenge the history of other countries, and the land of the Pharaohs, rejecting all chronological comparison, to have appeared in the midst of the world as a single example of a land which savage life had never trodden. Yet what are the centuries since Menes ruled over the reclaimed valleys, the few thousand years of which we can calculate the duration, by the side of the incalculable lapse of time since man, struggling with the glaciers and the prehistoric beasts, began his conquest of the earth? The antiquity of Egypt, the eight thousand years (if it be as many) since the first Pharaoh, are only as an atom in the presence of these ages. We can assert some vague knowledge of these pre-Pharaonic inhabitants, for two hatchets of the Chellean pattern were found some time ago in the desert, one at Esnet, the other near the pyramids of Gizeh; and we can now affirm in the most positive manner that Quaternary man lived in the country which is now Egypt, and was then only preparing to be. Four palæolithic stations have been more recently discovered—at Thebes, Tukh, Abydos, and Daschur. Join these sites to the other two where isolated pieces were found, and we have the geography of what we know at present of Chellean man in the valley of the Nile. Doubtless continuous researches would result in similar discoveries at other points, for I have met these relics wherever I have been able to make a short sojourn. The Chellean implements are found in the gravels of the diluvium on the pebbly surface. They have been disturbed and probably scattered, but some places yield them more numerously than others—points possibly corresponding to the ancient workshops. I have found a considerable number of specimens at Deir-el-Medinet; M. Daressy, of the Bureau of Antiquities, found a perfectly characteristic Chellean hammer stone in the Valley of the Queens at Gurneh, as perfectly worked as the best specimens found at Chelles, St. Acheul, and Moulin-Quignon.

The finds are not very numerous at Tukh, but one may in a few hours make a collection there of hatchets (or hammer stones), scrapers, points, simple blades, and a large number of stones bearing indisputable marks of having been worked, but not presenting precise forms. The deposit at Abydos is in the bottom of a circle behind the ruins surrounding the Pharaonic necropolis. The specimens seem sufficient to prove the existence of Quaternary man in Egypt, while the search for them has hardly yet begun. In view of them it is extremely improbable that man did not also exist there during the long period that intervened between this primitive age and that of the earliest Egyptians who had metals. He did exist there then, and the evidences of it are found in neolithic remains between Cairo and Thebes, a distance of about eight hundred kilometres along the valley of the Nile, in the Fayum, and in Upper Egypt. Among these are the remarkable tombs at Abydos which have been explored by M. E. Amélineau, and of which he has published descriptions. They belong to a category which I have characterized as tombs of transition and as signalizing the passage from the use of polished stone to that of metals. Their archaic character can not be disputed, and their royal origin is probably certain. They may belong to aboriginal kings or to the earliest dynasties. They reveal a knowledge of brass and of the use of gold for ornament. At the necropolis of El-'Amrah, a few miles south of Abydos, are some archaic tombs, all of the same model, composed of an oval trench from five to six and a half feet deep. The body is laid on the left side, and the legs are doubled up till the knees are even with the sternum; the forearms are drawn out in front and the hands placed one upon the other before the face, while the head is slightly bent forward. Around the skeleton are vases, and large, rudely made urns, often filled with ashes or the bones of animals, and nearer to them are painted or red vessels with black or brown edges, vessels roughly shaped out of stone, and figurines in schist representing fishes or quadrupeds, cut flints, alabaster clubs, and necklaces and bracelets of shells. Bronze is rare, and found always in shape of small implements. Both purely neolithic tombs and burials of the transition period to metals occur at El-'Amrah. The most remarkable feature of the burials is the position of the corpse, totally unlike anything that is found of the Pharaonic ages.

The Egyptian finds of stone implements present the peculiarity as compared with those of Europe, that types are found associated together belonging to what would be regarded in other countries as very different epochs. The time may come when subdivisions can be made of the Egyptian stone age, but the study has not yet been pursued far enough to make this practicable at present. Among these articles are hatchets showing the transitions, examples of which are wanting in Europe, from the rudest stone hammer to the polished neolithic implement; knives of various shape and some of handsome workmanship; scrapers, lance heads, arrowheads, saws, pins, bodkins, maces, beads, bracelets, and combs. The large number of instruments with toothed blades found at some of the stations may be regarded as pointing to a very extensive cultivation of cereals at the time they were in use. The deposits of Tukh, Zarraïdah, Khattarah, Abydos, etc., situated in regions suitable for growing grain, yield thousands of them, while they are very rare at the fishing station of Dimeh. That the use of sickles tipped with flint very probably lasted long after the introduction of metals seems to be proved by the hieroglyphics; but very few evidences of the existence of such tools are found after the middle empire.

No traces of articles related to the religion of the Pharaohs are found in the burial places of the aborigines. In place of the statuettes and funerary divinities of later times are found rude figurines of animals cut in green schists. They represent fishes, tortoises with eyes adorned with hard stone or nacre, and numerous signs the origin of which is unknown, and were apparently regarded as fetiches or divinities. Articles of pottery are very numerous, very crude, and of a great variety of forms. It is not necessary to suppose that the people who have left these relics were savages or barbarians. History and even the present age afford instances of many peoples who have obtained considerable degrees of civilization while backward in some of the arts. It is hardly possible to achieve delicacy of design and finish without the use of metals. I believe I have shown that an age of stone once existed in Egypt, and that it furthermore played an important part, even in Pharaonic civilization.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Author's Recherches sur les Origines de l'Egypte.