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Stone tools reveal different human technical behaviours in the Egyptian Nile Valley between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago

last modified Dec 27, 2017 07:44 PM
Lithic analysis from two Late Palaeolithic Egyptian sites located in the Nile Valley yields new data on human technical behaviours in the region during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Nowadays, we see the River Nile as a perennial source of water. However, it may not have always been the case in the past.


Location of the sites mentioned in the text. Credit: Alice Leplongeon, created using Natural Earth Data in QGIS

In particular, during the Last Glacial Maximum, between 23,000 and 18,000 years ago, there was a global climatic shift towards more arid conditions. In northeast Africa, this translates into the expansion of the Sahara, the lowering of the Mediterranean Sea level and the near-desiccation of some of the major eastern African lakes, such as Lake Victoria, one of the main sources of the White Nile.

All of these changing conditions must have had profound consequences on the behaviour of the River Nile, raising many questions. Was it a highly seasonal river, almost dry during the low water season and a full river during the flood season? Or, was the dune activity at that time such that it dammed the Nile at several places, creating large lakes? Whatever the model considered, this major climatic change is likely to have had important consequences on human populations living in the Nile Valley.

In a new study published today in PLOS ONE, Dr Alice Leplongeon, researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, uses analysis of several Late Palaeolithic assemblages from the Nile Valley to understand how human populations adapted to environmental changes at this time.

According to Dr Leplongeon, “Despite major climatic changes taking place, numerous sites have been found in the Nile Valley, which suggest, instead of a decrease, an increase in population density at this time. This seems to correspond to an increase in the diversity of Late Palaeolithic cultural entities.”

“The two sites analysed for this study are both located near Esna, in Upper Egypt. They are surface sites, consisting mostly of lithic artefacts, attributed to the Silsilian and Afian industries, respectively.”

The study relies on part of the ‘Wendorf collection’ which is composed of the material from all the sites excavated and surveyed by the Combined Prehistoric Expedition, and is now stored at the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan of the British Museum in London.

Late Palaeolithic stone tools and cores from Silsilian site at Esna, Upper Egypt analysed as part of the study Credit: Alice Leplongeon, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

 “Although the two assemblages show some similarities they both show distinct characteristics, such as in the preparation of the core striking platform or management of core convexities, that, along with the differences in tool types, justify the attribution of these assemblages to two distinct industries.”

“We’ve now been able to provide a summary of the characteristics of the lithic assemblages and an associated database that can be used for comparative analysis of materials in neighbouring regions. For example, preliminary review of the archaeological record of the same period (i.e. 25-15 ka) in Sudan, eastern Africa and the Levant seems to show completely different characteristics.”

“Future analysis, coupled with palaeoenvironmental data will help us understand the variety of technical diffusions between the Nile Valley and the areas to the south and north. May the Nile Delta have been an environmental barrier at this time? Was the Nile Valley a ‘true’ refuge area, isolated from the other regions? Watch this space.”




The original research paper "Technological variability in the Late Palaeolithic industries of the Egyptian Nile Valley: the case of the Silsilian and Afian industries"is published in PLOS ONE:

This research has received funding from the Fyssen Foundation, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 655459, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) Project “Big Dry” no ANR-14-CE31-0023-03 and the Marie Curie Alumni Association.


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