Some tribes who tracked game across the grassy plains made their way eastwards. They joined the indigenous people on the plateau overlooking the gorge. Crude flint implements for chopping, scraping, skinning, sawing and stabbing attest to their hunting and fishing activities. Their settlements show that at this time they were little different from Egyptian Stone-Age settlements in Libya, Morocco and western Europe; populations of African origin that had settled on the Mediterranean. Other tribes made their way westwards from Asia, across the Isthmus of Suez or the Straits of Bab el Mandab in Egypt.
Stone artifacts indicate that at first the different tribal units remained isolated. The changing climatic conditions, however, encouraged them to group together in times of plenty to exploit the valley potential and split into smaller groups during the drought or low-flood season to search for Egyptian food. As the savanna became a desiccated waste, therefore, the hunting way of life was abandoned, and the people began to adjust to valley conditions; in so doing their lives became unavoidably bound to the rise and ebb of the flood.
The level of the Egyptian Nile in Egypt began to rise in July each year. At first the water spread over the floodplain lowlands and the people withdrew to the lower valley. Then, as the uplands became progressively submerged they moved to the dry rim of the plateau. The flood reached its full height towards the end of August when activities were limited to the pursuing of hartebeest, wild ass and gazelle on the desert highlands.
At the end of October the waters began slowly to recede, leaving behind a fairly uniform deposit of silt as well as lagoons and streams that became natural reservoirs for fish. This was the beginning of the season of abundance. Settlements were made at the edge of the floodplain where movements could be made either into the hills to hunt game animals, or into the flood- plain itself which provided ample resources for food-collecting. A variety of plants including wild wheat, brush, bulrush and papyrus formed lush vegetation in the enriched soil, and indigenous and migratory waterfowl were plentiful. In April the Egyptian Nile was at its lowest level. Vegetation started to diminish. Seasonal pools dried out. Game began to move southwards, or scatter. Fishing was limited to the permanent pools, side channels and the river. But the wooded areas near the river could be exploited for turtles, rodents and Nile clams, which were collected in large amounts. By July the Nile started to rise and the cycle was repeated.
Since the rise and ebb of the flood occurred with tireless regularity, a similar rhythm resulted in the lives of the people who depended on it. This is one of the unique features of the ancient Egyptian civilisation: that the bond between the Egyptian land and the people, which was established as much by the geographical characteristics of the land as from nature’s changeless cycles, affected their essential character. It was a relationship so intimate that it subtly imprinted itself on their lives and beliefs, and ultimately affected their political and social patterns. Though three civilisations rose and fell during Egypt’s 3,000 years of ancient history, and these were interspersed with periods of anarchy and bloodshed, foreign occupation, political corruption and centuries of decline, those distinctive features of the culture which were the direct outcome of the natural characteristics of the land endured.
The sun and the Nile river, which together formed the dominating cause of existence, made a profound impression on the people. They were two natural forces with both creative and destructive power. For the life-giving rays of the sun that caused the crop to grow could also cause it to shrivel and die. And the river that invigorated the soil with its life-giving silt could destroy whatever lay in its path or, if it failed to rise sufficiently, bring famine. The sun and the river, moreover, shared in the pattern of death and rebirth: the sun ‘died’ when it sank on the western horizon only to be ‘reborn’ in the eastern sky the following morning. And the ‘death’ of the land followed by the germination or ‘rebirth’ of the crops each year were directly connected with the river’s annual flood. Rebirth was, therefore, a central feature of the Egyptian scene. It was seen as a natural sequence to death and undoubtedly lay at the root of the ancient Egyptian conviction of life after death. Like the sun and the crops, man, they felt assured, would also rise again and live a second life.
The climate in semi-tropical, largely barren Upper Egypt bore no resemblance to the temperate, fertile Delta. And the cultures that developed in each area, like the land itself, each had a distinct character. Agriculture made its first appearance in the Delta, which is not surprising in view of the mild climate and the fact that grain, once planted, benefitted from the natural irrigation of the Egyptian Nile. In Upper Egypt simple farming communities were also established but due to the more hostile environment the people remained pastoralists rather than farmers.
One of the earliest Neolithic sites in Egypt is a large village called Merimda in the western Delta. The houses were oval in plan and made of lumps of clay over a structure of reeds. Grain a variety of domesticated barley apparently brought from western Asia was stored in large jars and baskets near the houses. The presence of polished stone axes, fish-hooks and well- made arrowheads indicates however, that the Egyptian people of Merimda, like their ancestors of the Late Paleolithic, still hunted. They buried their dead around their dwellings. They had few funerary gifts apart from flowers and, in one tomb, a wooden baton. It is possible that this primitive community buried their dead near their houses in the belief that the propitiation of the dead was essential for the welfare of the community as a form of ancestor worship.
Most of our knowledge of the settlements in Upper Egypt comes from their burial customs, especially from Badari for which the culture called the Badarian has been named. The dead were buried in cemeteries at the edge of the desert. Though no sacred images were found, we know from their simple graves that the people believed in the afterlife, and believed also that this was regarded as a prolongation of life on earth. It may have been the natural desiccation of the bodies of the dead, in the dry heat of the desert sand, into leatherlike figures, that first led the people to believe that preservation of the body was essential for the afterlife. Each corpse was wrapped in matting or skins and placed in a contracted position, knees to chest, surrounded by worldly possessions: bone needles and awls, weapons including spears and arrow-heads, jewellery, including ivory bracelets, necklets, girdle beads and ivory combs ornamented with birds, and fine thin-walled pottery, with black rim or with rippled patterns, containing food, drink and ointments. Buried in the same cemeteries as the people in Upper Egypt, and similarly wrapped, were animals, such as cows, sheep and jackal. The cow later became revered as the Egyptian goddess Hathor at Dendera. The ram became the god Khnum at Elephantine. And the jackal was later to become Anubis, the god of the necropolis, who was believed to watch over funeral rites and guard the western horizon.