Predynastic Egypt - Beginner's Guide to Earliest Egypt

What Was Egypt Like Before the Pharaohs?

Narmer Tablet (reproduction at the Toronto Museum)
Narmer Tablet (reproduction at the Toronto Museum). Chris Pigeon

The Predynastic period in Egypt is the name archaeologists have given to the 1,500 years before the emergence of the first unified Egyptian state society. By about 4500 BCE, the Nile region was occupied by cattle pastoralists; by about 3700 BCE, the predynastic period was marked by the transition from pastoralism to a more sedentary life based on crop production. Emigrant farmers from south Asia brought sheep, goats, pigs, wheat, and barley. Together they domesticated the donkey and developed simple farming communities.

More importantly, within about 600–700 years, Dynastic Egypt was founded.

Fast Facts: Predynastic of Egypt

  • Predynastic Egypt lasted between about 4425–3200 BCE.
  • By 3700 BCE, the Nile was occupied by farmers who grew West Asia crops and animals. 
  • Recent research has identified predynastic advances thought to have been developed at later periods.  
  • Those include cat domestication, beer production, tattoos, and treatment of the dead. 

Chronology of the Predynastic

Recent reworking of the chronology combining archaeological and radiocarbon dating by British archaeologist Michael Dee and colleagues has shortened the length of the Predynastic. Dates on the table represent their results at 95% probability.

  • Early Predynastic (Badarian) (ca 4426–3616 BCE)
  • Middle Predynastic (Naqada IB and IC or Amratian) (ca 3731–3350 BCE)
  • Late Predynastic (Naqada IIB/IIC or Gerzean) (ca 3562–3367 BCE)
  • Terminal Predynastic (Naqada IID/IIIA or Proto-Dynastic) (ca 3377–3328 BCE)
  • First Dynasty (rule of Aha) begins ca. 3218 BCE.

Scholars typically divide the predynastic period, as with most of Egyptian history, into upper (southern) and lower (northern, near the Delta region) Egypt. Lower Egypt (Maadi culture) appears to have developed farming communities first, with the spread of farming from Lower Egypt (north) to Upper Egypt (south). Thus, the Badarian communities predate the Nagada in Upper Egypt. Current evidence as to the origin of the rise of the Egyptian state is under debate, but some evidence points to Upper Egypt, specifically Nagada, as the focus of the original complexity. Some of the evidence for the complexity of the Maadi may be hidden beneath the Nile delta's alluvium.

Historical map of Ancient Egypt with most important sights, with rivers and lakes. Illustration with English labeling and scaling.
Historical map of Ancient Egypt with most important sights, with rivers and lakes. Illustration with English labeling and scaling. PeterHermesFurian / iStock / Getty Images

The Rise of the Egyptian State

That development of complexity within the predynastic period led to the emergence of the Egyptian state is inarguable. But, the impetus for that development has been the focus of much debate among scholars. There appears to have been active trade relationships with Mesopotamia, Syro-Palestine (Canaan), and Nubia, and evidence in the form of shared architectural forms, artistic motifs, and imported pottery attests to these connections. Whatever specifics were in play, American archaeologist Stephen Savage summarizes it as a "gradual, indigenous process, stimulated by intraregional and interregional conflict, shifting political and economic strategies, political alliances and competition over trade routes." (2001:134).

The end of the predynastic (ca 3200 BCE) is marked by the first unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, called "Dynasty 1." Although the precise way in which a centralized state emerged in Egypt is still under debate; some historical evidence is recorded in glowing political terms on the Narmer Palette.

Advances of the Predynastic Period

Archaeological investigations continue into several predynastic sites, revealing early evidence for characteristics once thought to have been developed in dynastic periods. Six cats—an adult male and female and four kittens—were found together in a pit from Naqada IC-IIB  levels at Hierakonpolis. The kittens were from two different litters and one litter was from a different mother than the adult female, and investigators suggest the cats had been taken care of and thus may represent domesticated cats.

Five large ceramic vats were found in a room at the city, with contents suggesting the residents were making beer from emmer wheat and barley, between 3762 and 3537 cal BCE.

At the site of Gebelein, the bodies of two naturally-desiccated people who died during the Predynastic period have been found to have been tattooed. A man had two horned animals tattooed on his upper right arm. A woman had a series of S-shaped motifs on the top of her right shoulder and a curved line on her upper right arm.

Chemical analysis of funerary textile wrappings dated to the pit graves from the site of Mostagedda in Upper Egypt shows that pine resin and animal fat or plant oil was used to treat the bodies as early as between 4316 and 2933 cal BCE. 

Animal burials at predynastic sites are not uncommon, typically including sheep, goat, cattle, and dog buried with or alongside humans. In an elite cemetery in Hierankopolis have been found burials of baboon, jungle cat, wild donkey, leopard, and elephants. 

Archaeology and the Predynastic

Investigations into the Predynastic had their start in the 19th century by British archaeologist William Flinders-Petrie. The most recent studies have revealed the extensive regional diversity, not just between Upper and Lower Egypt, but within Upper Egypt. Three principal regions are identified in Upper Egypt, centered on Hierakonpolis, Nagada (also spelled Naqada) and Abydos.

Predynastic Capitals

Selected Sources