Fertile silt deposits on the banks of the Nile
First humans who lived in the Nile Valley
Nubian lands stretched about 1000 miles (1600 km) from today's Aswan (Southern Egypt) to the convergence of the Blue Nile into the White Nile, North of Khartoum, today's capital of Sudan, between the first and sixth cataract, passing through the Nile Valley adorned with palm trees and rich vegetation along the shores of the Nile. Since hundreds of thousands of years, before the recent construction of dams on the Nile, the yearly flooding of these lands caused by heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands deposited black silt, a fine prolific soil from the bottom of the river, on the banks of the Nile, that generated rapid growth of all kinds of wild crops , fruit and trees. This environment, rich in animal life that came to drink water from the Nile, and sprawling with fish, was one of the most fertile and abundant environments in the World.
Map of Nubia
Homo Erectus (upright standing man) migrating North into Nubia
Oldowan stone knapping technique
No wonder some of the early Stone Age (Paleolithic) humans - whose earliest stone tools were discovered by paleontologists in the region of Gona in Eastern Ethiopia - close to the Blue Nile, dated to 2.5 to 2.6 million years ago, and the Olduvai valley in Tanzania, which is close to Lake Victoria, that spills into the Nile, dated to between 1.8 and 1.5 million years ago, wanted to escape the tropical climate to a milder and more welcoming environment. Using their stone choppers and stone flakes, which resulted from knapping off stone flakes on one side of a larger stone core that generated a cutting edge - they scraped meat from the bones of hunted animals, prepared leather for housing or clothing, and other purposes.
Changing climate resulting in intemittent droughts also encouraged migrations. These "Homo Erectus" (upright standing human) could also use their tools to cut papyrus and sugar cane reed that grow abundantly on the shores of the Nile river, and bundling them with palm leaves, they could create primordial personal rafts on which they could just slide down the Nile river and explore its shores, choosing the most appropriate environment to sustain their livelihood. This kind of rafts is occasionally still used by Nubians to descend the cataracts - rapids strewn with protruding rocks in the Nile which make navigation impossible, by fishermen and by Nubian children who play and compete sliding on the Nile.
Homo Erectus making Oldowan tools
Nubian on raft negotiating rapids, children sliding and raft at Semna Cataract
Archaeologist Mathieu Honegger at Kaddanarti site
How do we know that humans inhabited the Nubian Nile Valley, between 1.6 million years and half a million years ago? Mathieu Honegger, a Swiss archaeologist and paleontologist who works together with and succeeded the famous Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, who excavated the ancient town of Kerma (in Upper Nubia, Southern Sudan) and found with his team of archeologists seven statues of Nubian Kushite Pharaohs, unearthed stone tools at Kaddanarti and Kabrinarti, close to the island of Badin, 12 kilometers south of the 3rd cataract and about 60 km south of the Nubian town of Dongola. In addition to the tools found in Upper Nubia, tools dated to around 700'000 BCE and others dated 500'000 BCE were also found in Lower Nubia, in and near the cliffs of Abu Simbel, across the famous temple of Abu Simbel built hundreds of thousands of years later.
First migration out of Africa
Latest research states that these early humans settled and transited through the Nile Valley earlier than 2 million years ago, and scientists affirm they also wandered further to North Africa up to Morocco to the West and to the Middle East and later to Central Asia through the Sinai peninsula, between 2 million and 1.5 ago. As during that early stage they probably didn't have ships capable of crossing the sea, and the shores of the Red Sea are at places obstructed by rock cliffs - their easiest way to accomplish these migrations was along the Nile, through Nubian lands. Of course, the emigration didn't occur only at one specific time, but in successive waves, and often necessitated several generations - overland travel was very slow, as horses, donkeys and camels were not yet domesticated.
The "Oldowanian" stone tools found by archeologists in Kaddanarti and Kabrinarti, in the Mahas region in Upper Nubia (Northern Sudan), after they were informed about the site by a local resident, consist of several choppers, tools of brown flint and petrified wood from which flakes were stroken out with a hard hammer stone in a specific direction (percussion flaking) to create a cutting edge. The tool was hold in the hand on the rounded side to scrape off meat or leather from animals, cut wood and dig; and the cut-off stone flakes could be used in the same manner as a knife. The reason why so few of these ancient tools were found in the Nile Valley is that they are buried below 5 or more meters of silt, that was deposited in the valley by the annual flooding of the Nile during the many millennia, in contrast to the tools often found at the surface in Eastern Central Africa. Being stone products, it is very difficult to detect them.
Oldowan tools found at Kaddanarti
Men butchering a hunted animal
Together with these tools animal bones were also found, dated to the same period, some with cutting marks, including hippopotamus, large bovid, antelopes, ancient African horses, and a large extinct African elephant species, so we can presume these ancient men were living in communities and hunting in groups to overpower these large animals. They had a rich and varied diet, complemented with dates, other fruit, beans and other vegetables and grains that were abundantly available and sprouting wild in the region. Living in this prolific environment - where water, clay, wood, palm leaves, sugar cane and papyrus were also abundant and allowed for the creation of daily life utensils and shelters, these humans' cultural creativity rapidly evolved. Oldowan-type stone tools were used by early humans for about 2 million years.
As food sources were abundant, the climate was moderate and the mountains on both sides of the Nile as well as the cataracts protected them from aggression, these stone age people thrived and the population increased, and they gradually refined their tools and added new functionality. By half a million years before our time, these early men and women - also named Homo Ergaster (working human) during this phase - added to their collection pointed tools with sharp edges, the "hand axes", as well as smaller scrapers, choppers, cleavers and stone hammers, which were now sharpened by creating a hard core and then removing flakes by percussion flaking on both sides to obtain a regular symmetric shape with sharp edges and point, thus creating the Acheulean tool industry. These biface tools, made mainly from ferrocrete sandstone and sometimes from pebble and quartz, could be used for additional functions like piercing, digging, and precision-working wood, horn and bones - which were probably also used as utensils and tools, although they degraded over time.
Acheulean hand axes - Photo A. Nasser
While there are no traces of their living places, many stone quarries and workshops with a large amount of stone tools and debris were discovered, attesting the growing sophistication of these early inhabitants of the Nubian Nile Valley. As during long periods rain was more abundant and water was flowing from side valleys to the Nile, and the Nile itself often ran with additional side channels and covered parts of the now dry landscape, sites where prehistoric quarries and tools were found are often on higher grounds.
Stone Age tool quarries - Jebel Al Silsile (Aswan), Western desert and Wadi Halfa
Beside the many archaeological sites excavated recently in Upper Nubia, similar tools were also found by teams of archaeologists examining sites in the Egyptian Lower Nubia during salvation missions in the 1960's before they were inundated by Lake Nasser, mainly at Abu Simbel and Halfa, but also North of the 2nd cataract along the Nile, up to Qena in Upper Egypt. However, as at the time many historians were convinced that early human civilization had only evolved in Mesopotamia, they didn't concentrate much on prehistoric tools - but rather on objects from later periods, assuming they were imported from Northern Egypt. Unfortunately, numberless archaeological sites containing evidence of an early presence of humans in the lands of Nubia are now covered by Lake Nasser formed by the Aswan High Dam.
Map of the main archaeological sites in Lower and Upper Nubia
In the meantime, migrations to South and Western Africa and the Middle East continued, and later from there further to East Asia and Southern Europe, spreading their knowledge to people they encountered - the descendants of humans who had left the continent before. Scientists can trace them by the type of tools they found at these locations. Of course, there were no maps and borders, and ancient people followed game they hunted or searched for a cooler climate and more abundant environment, or just followed their very human curiosity to discover other places to live in, without knowing what awaited them nor the makeup of continents. As ice ages lowered the sea level, some islands, like Indonesia, were connected to the mainland and could easily be reached. Some migrants even came back to Africa.
Migrations and spread of Acheulean
Levallois tools from the Affad site, Upper Nubia (Photo M. Osypińska)
Levallois stone knapping technology
The men living in the Nubian Nile Valley improved their hunting and fishing practices, and refined their stone knapping techniques by producing more efficient and more complex tools. At this stage they cut a core from a larger stone and then refined its edges and point, to make them sharper and more efficient; the Levallois technique. They also created specialized harpoons for fishing, spearheads and later arrowheads. As dedicated tools were created for specific uses, it lead to various "industries", each specializing according to the living environment the people encountered.
Levallois stone knapping technology
Homo Sapiens society
In the meantime, after Homo Erectus had developed the basic elements for a prosperous human life, partially in what is now Nubia, these accelerating mental experiments also brought increased challenges and development of the human brain, and gradually Homo Sapiens (the "knowing" or "wise human"), our own human species, took over bringing rapid advances as well in the tool industry as in social organization.
Paleontologist examines a Middle Stone Age tool workshop in Upper Nubia
The oldest skeleton remains of Homo Sapiens were found by archaeologists near the Omo river in South-West Ethiopia dated about 195'000 years ago, and he was certainly present in the wider region - including in the Nubian Nile Valley. Archaeological sites close to the lower Atbara river - that flows into the Nile short before Meroe - also hints at a possible way they came from Ethiopia into Sudanese Nubia. Due to the large amounts of silt the Nile deposited in the Nile Valley during the tens and hundreds of millennia, human remains from the early and middle Stone Age could not yet be found. While thousands of archaeologists concentrated on excavations in Lower and Middle Egypt, interest for the Nubian region only started increasing recently; only few palaeontologists searched for evidence of early inhabitants of the Nibian Nile Valley.
Homo Sapiens spread into Nubia
As large and heavy stone tools could not easily be transported from one place to another, they had to be newly created at every location. Thus, people inhabiting the Nubian Nile Valley invented smaller and lighter tools, with thinned tip points and truncated facetted tools, and added various types of blades. It needed further elaboration of the Levallois tools, and a reduction in size: that was the emergence of the Nubian Technique, commonly called "Nubian Complex" or "Nubian Levallois Technology" by paleontologists, as it was first conceived in the Nubian region. This technique needed elaborated planning and work, hitting the stone from several directions, at a specific angle and with variable strength to remove flakes of various sizes and thickness. To achieve the desired sharpness of the edges and point, a long elaboration was needed. In several sites, the quarry was located away from the living quarters; the cores and their initial elaboration in Levallois technique was done in the quarry, than the cores were transported and further refined at the living sites.
Nubian Complex tools and the direction in which they were hit with a hammer stone
Nubian Complex sites
Now, with lighter and portable tools, it was easier for these Middle Stone Age people to migrate. Populations of this era were also capable of working ebony, wood and bones and building larger rafts and boats carrying several people, and could reach the Southern Arab Peninsula crossing the Red Sea from its shore at Suakin, Sudan in addition to the route through the Sinai Peninsula. These ancient travelers spread across Africa, the Arab Peninsula - first to Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia - where several sites featuring Nubian Complex tools were found - and later North to the Jordan valley and Mesopotamia, and from there further East to South East Asia. They also wandered North to Southern and later Central Europe, where Nubian Complex tools have also been found. Of course, such migrations took thousands of years, and progressively the Nubian Complex tools were further refined and adapted to the needs of the new environment.
In the Nile Valley itself, about after 250'000 BCE, variations of the Levallois tools led to re-shaping into sharper Musterian blades, scrapers and notches, discoidal (round) tools as well as spear points, and further to denticulate tools which could be used as a saw or a knife for the working of strong and hard materials. Nubian Musterian tools were prepared in the same way as the Nubian Levallois tools, however smaller in size and with retouched points and edges, and were also included in the Nubian Complex.
Mousterian sites in the Nubian Nile Valley
To make their tools even more efficient, Middle Paleolithic people in various parts of Nubia created tools from different raw materials, including basalt, Nubian sandstone, quartzite and quartz from the local bedrock and hematite, of variable strength and utility, and also used reed, wood and animal bones: the Khormusan tools, named after a site situated at Khor Mousa, at the Second Cataract. The technology applied to work the various materials also varied, and these ancient craftsmen - or artists in their own technology - set up their quarries only in sites with good quality stone material. That allowed them to produce small sharp bladelets, denticulate tools and burins - a small engraving and scraping tool, like today's cutter - worked in the Levallois technique. They used the tools for percussion, cutting, chipping, pecking, scraping, chiseling, grinding, drilling, engraving and carving. Khormusan tools were also found in several sites around the 3rd Cataract and close to the 2nd Cataract, at Wadi Kubbaniya.
Khormusan tools from various materials for different purposes
Foundations of a mesolithic habitation
While these early people of Nubia improved their tools, they also organized their social lives. As the mild climate didn't require a covered shelter to sleep, during earlier periods early humans in the Nubian Nile Valley may have used protruding rock shelters as temporary "homes". Later they constructed kinds of oval huts with wooden or cane poles covered with animal skin, palm leaves or brush, that can easily be disassembled and transported. Archaeologists Waldemar Chmielewski discovered oval-shaped foundations, two meters long by one meter wide, with a light depression partly lined with flat sandstone slabs and surrounded by holes that hold the wooden poles of the structures. At the site Arkin 8 close to Old Halfa he found structures believed to date from 100'000 BCE, consisting of sandstone blocks arranged in a semi-circle with an oval foundation measuring 120cm x 130cm, dug 30 cm deep. They are thought to be the oldest human-made structures in the World.
Hut like the ones which may have been inhabited by humans living in the Nubian Nile Valley
70'000 years old village at Affad site near Dongola
As Nubian nature provided them with all the materials and food sources they needed for their subsistence and their society became more specialized, late Middle Stone Age people started building permanent villages. A mission by Polish archaeologists from Poznan led by Dr. Marta Osypińska discovered the oldest human settlements south of Dongola, in Southern Upper Nubia (Sudan), in the Affad region. Postholes, foundations and traces of wooden structures in the dry sand attest the former presence of permanent camps or villages, that may have been built between 70'000 and 15'000 years ago. Pits and hearths outside of the habitation structures completed the village. Nearby, a flint workshop provided the raw material for the manufacture of all kinds of tools; in another area, further away from the village center, animals were butchered. A variety of fossilized bones at that location show that the villagers hunted and ate mainly dried meat of African buffalo, hippos, various types of antelopes and gazelles as well as fish, but also occasionally warthog, mammals, ruminants and large rodents and lizards as well as guenons (small monkeys), and wild ducks and geese, in addition to bird eggs, grains, dates, fruit and honey. An ancient channel of the Nile in the former wetland provided them with water and a way for transportation.
Mesolithic hunters butchering their prey
Now that Middle Paleolithic people had organized their semi-permanent or permanent settlements, they could concentrate more on improving their hunting techniques. Their perfected tools allowed them to use throw lances and arrows. While in a Mousterian site close to Aswan, dated between 66'000 and 45'000 BCE, mostly fossilized animal bones were found, at the site 440 just south of Wadi Halfa, in addition to wild cattle bones, remains of fish were also present, several of which were large deep-water fish. This hints to the fact that fishers had developed sophisticated fishing techniques, involving the use of boats or traps, sharp harpoons fixed on long spears or other methods. As people in various locations have specialized in specific hunting practices, exchange between these communities was likely, that solidified the social bonds and spread knowledge.
Having accomplished the birth of civilization and acquired enough knowledge and experience to adapt to any living conditions, and acquired the technology to produce the tools needed for their livelihood, habitations and defense, the modern humans now increased their migrations out of Africa in larger groups, in several waves, and gradually spread all-over the World. Wherever they encountered descendents of humans who had left the continent before, they transmitted their knowledge, and adapted their tool production, hunting practices and living to the new climatic and environmental conditions. According to archaeological finds, scientists estimate that Homo Sapiens migrated to the Middle East 150'00 to 100'000 years ago, and spread from there to Southern Asia about 70'000 years ago, to Australia 50'000 years before our time, to Europe 40'000 years ago and to North America and later South America about 15'000 years ago. Thus the Nubian Nile Valley can be considered the cradle of civilization, and greatly contributed to culture, art and the beginning of technology that allows us to enjoy modern developments today. In addition to their intelligence and manual skills, the population of the Nubian Nile Valley certainly benefited from their pacific, welcoming, kind and helpful nature that eased their acceptance and integration with other population groups. Today's Nubians inherited these moral principles and qualities that guide their behavior and social relations.
Migration of modern humans out of Africa and spread into the World