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 three thousand years before the emergence of the first unified Egyptian state society.

Scholars mark the beginning of the predynastic period somewhere between 6500 and 5000 BC when farmers first moved into the Nile valley from Western Asia, and the ending at approximately 3050 BC, when the dynastic rule of Egypt began. Already present in northeastern Africa were cattle pastoralists; the emigrant farmers brought sheep, goats, pigs, wheat and barley. Together they domesticated the donkey and developed simple farming communities.

Chronology of the Predynastic

  • Early Predynastic (Badarian) (ca 5000-3900 BC)
  • Middle Predynastic (Nagada I or Amratian) (ca 3900-3650 BC)
  • Late Predynastic (Nagada II or Gerzean) (ca 3650-3300 BC)
  • Terminal Predynastic (Nagada III or Proto-Dynastic) (ca 3300-3050 BC)

Scholars typically divide the predynastic period, as with most of Egyptian history, into upper (southern) and lower (northern) Egypt. Lower Egypt (Maadi culture) appears to have developed farming communities first, with the spread of farming from the Lower Egypt (north) to the 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.

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, 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 3050 BC) 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.

Archaeology and the Predynastic

Investigations into the Predynastic had their start in the 19th century by 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 Sites  

Herbal Wines of Ancient Egypt illustrates trade connections between predynastic Egypt and the Levant region of the near east.


On Michael Brass's The Antiquity of Man site, you'll find the complete text of Kathryn Bard's 1994 paper in the JFA cited below.

Bard, Kathryn A. 1994 The Egyptian Predynastic: A Review of the Evidence. Journal of Field Archaeology 21(3):265-288.

Hassan, Fekri 1988 The Predynastic of Egypt. Journal of World Prehistory 2(2):135-185.

Savage, Stephen H. 2001 Some Recent Trends in the Archaeology of Predynastic Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Research 9(2):101-155.

Tutundzic, Sava P. 1993 A Consideration of Differences between the Pottery Showing Palestinian Characteristics in the Maadian and Gerzean Cultures. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 79:33-55.

Wenke, Robert J. 1989 Egypt: Origins of Complex Societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 18:129-155.