Neolithic Transition

2.5 The Transition to the Faiyum Neolithic/Faiyumian (formerly Faiyum A)

2.5.1 Introduction

The earliest evidence of agriculture appears in Egypt in the Faiyum and in the southwest Western Desert:  “Given the data currently available, it can be proposed that the complex of southwestern Asian domesticates was introduced into Egypt between 6000BC and 5000BC or possibly earlier but probably not before 7000BC . . . The process by which domesticates were transferred and adopted is far more difficult to explain and cannot be resolved with our present knowledge” (Wetterstrom 1993, 1995, p.201).  In spite of this warning, the subject of how and in what form agriculture (plant cultivation and pastoralism) entered Egypt is one that has produced a lot of speculative literature.

2.5.2 Settlement Hiatus

The period between the Epipalaeolithic and the Neolithic in the Faiyum is separated by around a 1000 years, judging from radiocarbon dates obtained from sites, as follows:

Final Epipalaeolithic Dates

Earliest Neolithic Dates

744060BP (Bln 2336) QS II/79
7500125BP (I-4130) E29G3 (A)

6480170BP (Gd-2021) QS XI/81

As Wenke et al point out “even if this figure represents considerable sampling error, it is certainly consistent with the idea that the Oasis was abandoned for at least several centuries after the Qarunian” (1989, p.38).  They do not consider it likely that any undiscovered sites which might represent this interim period could have been missed by the numerous surveys of the area.”

There are various explanations as to why this hiatus exists.  A number of people suggest that it is as a result of low lake levels and greater aridification.  Butzer (1976) says that the Faiyum “as affected by this dry period in the time of the Qarunian and there is a gap between this culture and the earliest Neolithic culture when the water level of the lake was also very low” (p.16).  Wendorf and Schild (1976, p.225) and Hassan (1986) have also found evidence that Lake Qarun actually came close to drying up between around 7000 and 6000 BP.  However, “In any case, even if the lake remained a stable resource, declining precipitation rates may have made the adjacent deserts as scarce in animal resources as they are today.  Alternatively, one or a few major flood could have entirely inundated and perhaps killed the forests and swamps and the animals that lived in them, leaving Qarunian peoples to subsist on the sterile desert edge of the Fayyum lake – which may have been difficult” (Wenke et al 1988, p.38). The dry phase was then followed with a wet phase (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989).

This gap fogs questions regarding the origins of agriculture. Whether the Neolithic phase was, or was not, related directly to the Epipalaeolithic phase is debateable: “Central to the analysis of the supposed origins of agriculture in the Fayyum is the question of whether the first agriculturalists there were people who had descended from the Qarunian hunter-foragers and who had been “converted” to agriculture, or whether the first agriculturalists moved into the Oasis already in possession of domesticates and agricultural technologies – and, if so, from where?” (Wenke et al 1988, p.38).

Because of the new domesticate components it is necessary to consider how they came into the Faiyum, and for that, irrespective of whether they were the result of incoming populations or the result of acquisition by indigenous populations:  “the archaeology of the Faiyum can only interpreted in the context of the archaeology of other areas, including the eastern Sahara, Siwa, the eastern Delta and the southern Nile Valley – the areas from which domesticates and agricultural economies may have been initially introduced to the Faiyum” (Wenke and Casini 1989, p.153). 

2.5.3 A non-Qarunian Origin for the Neolithic

There are two main questions concerning the origins of the Neolithic:  where the people came from and where the domesticates were acquired from. Arguments against a Qarunian origin for the Neolithic Population

Some writers believe that the Qarunian and Faiyum Neolithic are not related.   The drying up of the lake and increasing aridification of the area would be consistent with that theory suggesting that populations were driven out of the Faiyum over this period.  Wendorf and Schild (1976, p.225) speculate that the lake may have dried up completely.  Even if the depression did not dry up completely, the surrounding environment may have become difficult to exploit:  “even if the lake remained a stable resource, declining precipitation rates may have made the adjacent deserts as scarce in animal resources as they are today” (Wenke et al 1989, p.38). 

There are big differences between the Qarunian and the Faiyum Neolithic – not only in the economy but in the lithic assemblages and the addition of pottery.  For example there are a high percentage at Qarunian sites of backed bladelets and microlithis and there are no ground stone artefacts or pottery in the Qarunian.  However in the Faiyum Neolithic there are large amounts of pottery, ground stone tools, and bifacials.  The industry is largely macrolithic and simply does not share similarities with the Qarunian.  On this basis alone it would appear to be intrusive.

There is also the matter of the time gap between the two industries:  There is a big gap in radiocarbon dates between the Qarunian and Faiyum Neolithic (8220/7140BP – 6350BP: Hassan 1988) which is consistent with a view that the Faiyum was abandoned for several centuries. While it is worth bearing in mind that some sites within this time range have simply not yet come to light, there are observable and conspicuous differences between the lithic toolkits which suggest a lack of continuity between the two:  “A gap of 1200 years separates the latest dated Terminal Palaeolithic site from the earliest Neolithic Community, but this seems to be for too little time for this basic transformation of lithic industries to occur.  The appearance of a new population seems to be the best explanation.  If so, the new population and not its Palaeolithic predecessors was responsible for the development of Egyptian civilization” (Wendorf and Schild 1976, p. 319). A Near Eastern Origin for Faiyum Neolithic Agriculture

The archaeological evidence of contact between Egypt and the Levant is generally quite poorly documented (Smith 1989 p.74) but there are signs of ovicaprid types which were not indigenous to Egypt and probably came from the Levant dating as far back as c.6595BP at E75-8 at Napta Playa (an average of 12 C14 dates from the site).  This date corresponds to a date from Hauta Fteah in the Levant for ovicaprid presence (Smith 1989 p.74).  In another paper (Smith, 1996 p.34) he says that “On the basis of available data, the cultural connection between the Levant and North Africa ca.7000-6500BP would be a tenable hypothesis.  Material culture items, although by no means identical, are sufficiently similar to suggest contact.  The main thrust was across the Delta to the Faiyum, then on to Cyrenaica and the Fezzan, and later across the Sahara”.  The presence of south west Asian domesticates (plant and animal) and the ideas that accompany domestication are pointed to by Trigger (1983) as convincing evidence for south west Asian connections.  Qantif in the southern Levant was certainly occupied at the same time as the first cultivation of grain in the Faiyum and Merimde (Smith 1989).

Schmidt (1996) and Ginter (1979) suggest that the rectangular sickle that is such a feature of the Faiyum Neolithic, and does not appear in Upper Egypt, is evidence of a Near Eastern connection:  “In Palestine rectangles are starting as early as the Neolithic” (Schmidt 1996, p.284).

Midant-Reynes sees a Near Eastern origin for the Faiyum Neolithic industry, citing a number of aspects as evidence:  polished stone techniques are the same as used in the Natufian, and the custom of polishing cutting edges of chipped stone axes is the same as in Palestine’s Yamukian (Midant Reynes 1992/2000, p.101).  Other indications are domesticated sheep and goat and bifacial flint knapping, notched and winged arrowheads, types of cereals and ground stone celts (Hassan 1988).  On the basis of the lithics Caneva says that: “Both the Merimda and the Fayumian Neolithic cultures are thought to have derived from a Near Eastern common tradition, and more specifically the Jordan Valley” (Caneva 1992, p.224).  The main focus for this thinking is the lithic component:  the presence of core and biface technology is not present in Africa before this time, whereas it is in the Near East in the pre-Neolithic.  “the simultaneous development of the agricultural communities in the Faiyum and the southern Delta shows that a strong influence from the Levant at this time interested the northeastern part of the valley, replacing the previous Epipalaeolithic cultures” (Caneva 1992, p.223).

However, there are inconsistencies in the archaeological data, which suggest that even if there was a Near Eastern origin for the Neolithic it took on a very localised form: “The most obvious contrast between SW Asian agriculturalists and those of the Fayyum Neolithic is in architecture:  if one were to judge from the distribution of artefacts and floral and faunal remains, one could easily conclude that the supposed agriculturalists of the Fayyum Neolithic were mobile groups that maintained considerable dependence on seasonally-available fish, fowl and perhaps the resources of the deserts surrounding the Fayyum” (Wenke et al 1988, p.45).  Dates for an origin in the Levant are entirely compatible: “Given the data currently available it can be proposed that the complex of southwest Asian domesticates was introduced into Egypt between 6000BC and 5000BC or possibly earlier but probably not before 7000BC . . . The process by which domesticates were transferred and adopted is far more difficult to explain and cannot be resolved without present knowledge” (Wetterson 1993/1995 p.201). 

Bard points to the gap between the beginning of food production in the Levant and that in Egypt as something of a mystery (Bard 1994) because in spite of the proximity of Egypt to the Levant, full-scale agricultural activities arrived late:  “The Neolithic phenomenon, in which gathering and, later, hunting were gradually replaced by the cultivation of domesticated plants and animal husbandry, began in the Near East perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago.  The most recent hypothesis of Neolithic origins is that agriculture was first practiced in the southern Levant at late Natufian sites and is only found late in other regions of the Near East . . . . What is unusual about this . . . is the still later development of the Neolithic in Egypt, where the transition to an agrarian way of life occurred only after ca.5500BC” (Bard 1994, p.1).  It made its appearance for the first time, as far as we know, in the Faiyum.  Wenke and Casini (1989, p.141-142) have also remarked on this, pointing out that dates for agricultural adoption in Egypt more or less equates to the time that farming was adopted in Europe, in spite of the fact that Egypt was so much nearer to the Near East.

However, Butzer’s response to this 1000 year lag is that conditions in Egypt were probably considerably favourable to the lifestyle that we see in Egypt at this time:  “I feel that in these ecologically favoured habitats such food-collecting economies were so successful and efficient that local groups cognizant of agricultural or pastoral traits among some of their neighbours initially refused to change their own way of life” (Butzer 1976, p.9).

An alternative explanation for this lag in the establishment of agriculture between the Near East and Egypt is proposed by Hassan (1972).  Based on Butzer and Hansen’s findings (Butzer and Hansen 1968) that between 11,500-11,000BP high floods spread through the Nile area, he notes that settlements after this reduce in size and number, and that the effect of the floods was perhaps to encourage Nile inhabitants to maintain a lifestyle that was flexible in terms of local ecological conditions t any given time – in spite of the innovations that they could well have been aware of being made by their Near Eastern neighbours. A Desert Origin for the Faiyum Neolithic

The Western Desert and the Sahara

Some writers see a Western Desert origin for the Faiyum Neolithic:  “Technological and typological differences between the Qarunian and the Faiyum Neolithic are so significant that there can be no question of the Faiyum Neolithic having developed out of the Qarunian.  The Faiyum Neolithic lithic technology is clearly related to that of the late Neolithic in the Western Desert” (Hendrickx and Vermeersch 2000, p.37). Hoffman also points to a possible Western Desert origin for the Faiyum Neolithic:  “there are hints of other contacts between the Fayumis and contemporary desert peoples at this time.   Material similarities include: ground axes, tabular flint tools, lens-shaped bifacial arrowheads, concave-based arrowheads, use of ostrich shells, amazonite beads, and bone points (Hassan 1988).  Barich (1998, p.132) points to economic influences:  “The oases of the Egyptian Sahara . . . can be considered to be one of the centres from which sophisticated harvesting and horticultural techniques, using local prototypes (millet, sorghum), migrated towards the Nile, among populations who continued to depend primarily upon fishing until the early Holocene (El Kab, Fayum B)”.  She sees these local experiments later combining with wheat and barley from the Levant In the Faiyum A and Naqadan periods (Barich 1998, p.12).

Since at least one theory of agricultural/pastoral origins in Egypt sees these economic innovations as introductions from the Sahara, the possibility that the Fayum, itself a kind of oasis, received early stimulation from this quarter cannot be ignored” (Hoffman 1979, p.185).  Forde-Johnson sees very strong links between Saharan African lithic industries (particularly the Aterian) and those of the Faiyum and western Delta, saying that there is “a very distinct possibility of an Aterian origin for the Nile valley bifacial technique” (Forde-Johnon 1959, p.77). Butzer (1976) considered the Faiyum Neolithic to be intrusive from North Africa, Northern Libyan Desert Oases, Western Sahara or Mediterranean littoral, contrasting the macrolithic tool types and technology with the Nile microlithic traditions.

Bir Kiseiba and Nabta

There is evidence from Bir Kiseiba and Nabta in south east Egypt that societies adopted domesticated animals (particularly cattle) at a very early stage, using pottery and other elements that are often associated with the adoption of a fully agricultural lifestyle.  The Faiyum was certainly occupied during similar time periods to these, but in spite of similarities in the lithic assemblage, the Faiyum Neolithic groups had no pottery, cultivated plants, and the society does not appear to have favoured cattle over any other breed.  In addition, in the Faiyum extensive use was made of natural resources, and the animal domesticates appear to have had a different origin.  This may be accounted for by substantially different environmental conditions, but may also have other explanations.  Dating is consistent with a possible southeast origin for the Faiyum groups and suggest that “the Fayyum sites and those at Bir Kiseiba and Nabta were occupied in some of the same period, but the earlier dates from the Bir-Kiseiba-Nabta region raise the possibility that the earliest occupants of the Fayyum came from the same cultural traditions” (Wenke et al 1989, p.37). An African Origin for Neolithic Agriculture

It is possible that both Desert and Faiyum sites with early domesticates could have emerged from further south, in Africa.  Pre-agricultural use of pottery and apparent domestication of cattle are known from early times at a number of site.  In addition, recent genome studies into cattle origins have suggested that African cattle may well have been indigenous and that they did not derive from the Near East.  Similarly, on the basis of a) presence of actual cattle in Predynastic Egypt and representations in Saharan rock art and b) the absence of cattle in the Near Eastern Fertile Crescent prior to the 5th Millennium BC, Hassan (1972) suggests that cattle herding evolved first in Egypt and North Africa.  Confirmed more recently by Wendorf and Schild work in Nabta Playa where cattle remains and early pottery date to before 6000bc.

Faiyum lithics also offer comparisons with African examples – the most similar are probably Aterian, and there is nothing closely similar in the Levant.

Linguistic studies (e.g. Greenberg 1955) may suggest African rather than Near Eastern affiliations for Ancient Egyptian, perhaps implying that the sources of the Predynastic were African rather than Egyptian, although linguistic studies can only offer very tentative assistance to archaeology at the moment. 


2.5.4 A Qarunian Origin for the Neolithic

Some writers point to the similarities between the Qarunian and the Neolithic - like the very distinctive concave-based stone arrowheads (Hoffman 1979 p.185) and the importance of Clarias in the diet (Cagle 1994), ceramics, domesticated cattle and blade technology.  “The Nabta Neolithic sites . . . show the presence of several concave-based arrowheads similar to those found in the Fayoum A Neolithic” (Wendorf and Hassan 1980).  Hayes (1964, 1965) saw a distinctly new occupation in the Neolithic.

Casini sees a slow cultural adaptation to farming, and believes that this is partly brought on by environmental conditions.  “The studies on the archaeological assemblages found in the course of the Italian survey indicate the presence of a substrate of hunters-fishers-gatherers which preceded the groups of farmers in the Fayum.  This, and the changing environmental conditions, which certainly affected the development of the Fayum human groups, lead to the following conclusion:  “the Fayum A culture can no longer be considered the result of the immigration of alien peoples, but as a process of local evolution and gradual cultural specialisation in the course of which the indigenous food-gathering social groups were adapting to the new environmental conditions” (Casini 1984, p.202).

Butzer (1976) suggests, in general terms, that agriculture could have been an autochthonous development in Egypt (p.9).

Wilkinson (2003) sees a slightly more complex model of adaptation from his studies of the Badarian and the Eastern Desert:  The climatic deterioration theory suggests that at around c.4000BC cattle herders merged with Nile social, bringing a social organisation.  “Attractive as this may seem, there are difficulties with this theory.  For a start the Badarian . . . arose within the Nile valley many centuries before the final desiccation of the neighbouring savannahs” (p.178).  Wilkinson believes that the ‘Badarians’ were influenced before immigration and evolved their own cultural response to it; by the time this still supposed immigration took place, Egyptians of Nile Valley were already culturally established.

There is certainly no indication that the Fayum inhabitants were pre-adapted to agriculture.  Dates show a gap between the two periods and there is no sign of grain use and storage in the Qarunian and there are very few grinding stones. 

2.5.4 A Mixed Origin for the Faiyum Neolithic

Anne Stemler sees a possible combination of Asian and African origins for the Egyptian pattern of agricultural activity: “It is generally accepted that the plant and animal remains were introduced from Asia, not only because they appear in the archaeological record in southwestern Asia at least two millennia earlier, but also because extensive wild populations of emmer, wheat, barley, and sheep probably were not present in Africa at this time (Zohary 1969,:54; Clark 1971).  It is still not clear whether cattle could have been domesticated in Africa where two kinds of wild cattle occur (Clark 1971).  The mixture of African and Asian elements in early agricultural settlements in Egypt strongly suggests that people who grew the crops were not all migrants from Asia” (Stemler 1980, p.505).

Hassan sees an origin of farming knowledge from the south west of Egypt.  Evidence from the southwest Western Desert (Bir Kiseiba-Nabta), Siwa and Bahariya provides evidence of a phase of moister conditions from around 9,500 to around 6,700BP (Wendorf and Hassan 1980).  This period was associated with human occupation in most of the Egyptian oases by Epipalaeolithic hunters and gatherers.  In the South herders of cattle and sheep/goats were early cultivators of plants, taking advantage of savannah-like conditions. “The moist phase was followed by a period of severe aridity which has most likely led to the gradual depopulation of the desert and an infiltration of the Nile Valley by individuals and families . . . .  Similar aridification seems to have affected the Sinai and the Negev, and a similar movement of population towards the Nile is plausible.  This is no mass invasion but a gradual infiltration by drifters and refuges over a span of about 500 years or more” (Hassan 1984, p.222).  Hassan sees these drifters mixing with the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups in the Nile valley, bringing agricultural practises, which supplemented the existing food-acquiring traditions:  “The change in subsistence was almost imperceptible, peaceful and gradual” (1984, p.222). He summarises: “the emergence of agriculture in Predynastic Egypt was a result of demographic fusion between the inhabitants of the Nile Valley and refugees from the desert regions adjacent to the Nile Valley from ca.7000-6000BP and the subsequent diffusion of agricultural practises along the Nile” (Hassan 1984, p.224). 

Wendorf and Schild (1984, p.428) see early domestication of livestock in the Western Desert and the eastern Sahara as an adaptation by non-indigenous to an improved environment, and suggest that the Faiyum Neolithic could have evolved as a part of this process.

Barich (1998, p.132) sees the evidence from the Faiyum as representing plant processing practises developed in the Western Desert, combined with the import of wheat and barley in the Levant.

Wenke and Casini (1989 p.148) suggest that in the transitional phase between the Qarunian and the Faiyum Neolithic, lake levels may have decreased and that “this may have been sufficient to displace indigenous hunter-gatherers and thereby render an ‘open niche’ for agriculturalists”.

Butzer 1976 believes that the Faiyum Neolithic stemmed from a number of sources, including the oases of the Western Desert, the Sahara and the Mediterranean Littoral.

It is also possible that the coming together of groups when weather deteriorated and that these connections formed new traditions as weather improved and groups were able to expand away from each other. 

2.5.5 Conclusions about the Origins of the Faiyum Neolithic

It is quite clear that insufficient information exists for all writers to agree an origin for agriculture in the Faiyum, or the relationship between the Qarunian and the Faiyum Neolithic.  It is worth bearing in mind a suggestion from Wenke based on his survey and his belief that much information still lies beneath lacustrine silts or current farming settlements: “It is still possible that we shall find that the ‘mysterious gap’ of 1500 years between the Fayum B and Fayum A cultures involved considerable indigenous domestication and development of agricultural strategies” (Wenke 1984, p.196).  It is equally possible that other sites will be found that offer alternative suggestions.  Whatever the case, we still need to review the existing data against new evidence from other areas within Egypt, including the Sahara, the eastern Delta, the Libyan Desert, Upper Egypt and Nubia.

Finally, I am most convinced by Wenke and Casini’s view that “It is entirely possible – and even likely – that both direct replacement of non-agriculturalists and the ‘conversion’ of hunter-collectors to agriculturalists occurred, and that important domesticates and other cultural influences came from several different areas, such as southwest Asia, northwest Africa and Saharan oases.  Thus the problem of understanding early Egyptian agriculture is almost certainly one of establishing degrees of significance of various factors in a complex multi-variate patterns of cultural and environmental interaction” (Wenke and Casini 1989 p.143).