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Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa


The borderland of present day Egypt and Sudan today is a sunburned desert. But 10,000 years ago, thousands of animals walked there among luxuriantly growing trees. Polish archaeologists are looking for traces of people, who lived there at that time and exploited the environment.

Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa
Gebel Ramlah - research in the settlement during a sandstorm [Credit: R. Kenig]
"We do not really know much about the communities whose settlements and cemeteries are the target of our excavations", said PAP Prof. Jacek Kabaciński from the Poznań branch of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology PAS. The scientist heads the expedition in the region of Gebel Ramlah, which is located about 140 km west of the famous rock temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Polish archaeologists have been working there since 2009.

So far they have focused on cemeteries from the fifth millennium BC. "The most important conclusion after a few seasons of the research is this: the then people had very diverse burial rites. This suggests that perhaps we are dealing with different, independent groups of people who had used a very limited area for funeral purposes", explained the researcher.

Historically, there was a large lake in the area of Gebel Ramlah - today only its outline is visible in the desert area. Around it, during the last season of the research archaeologists discovered the remains of many settlements from different periods of the Neolithic. They assume that people once lived there in light huts (no remains of residential structures have been preserved). So how do the archaeologists know that they have discovered settlements?

Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa
Gebel Ramlah - study of a Neolithic settlement [Credit: R. Kenig]
"We encounter traces in the form of pits that were used to store food or dispose of garbage. We also find millstones, grinders, broken pottery and flint tools, remains of hunted gazelles, remains of goats, sheep and cattle they kept - all this clearly indicates that in these places people had lived, worked, ate meals", explained Prof. Kabaciński.

Last season brought an unexpected discovery. In the settlement, archaeologists discovered workshops, in which on rocks containing large amounts of hematite were processed into ochre. Ochre is a red dye, commonly used in funeral ceremonies. Earlier, Polish researchers discovered numerous graves sprinkled with the dye. "This are the first known hematite processing workshops discovered in the area of the Western Desert", emphasised Prof. Kabaciński.

In his view, in addition to the symbolic meaning, ochre was important in everyday life, because this mineral has preserving properties and facilitates processing leather. "It could also be used to dye clothing", he added.

Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa
Hematite processing workshop in Gebel Ramlah [Credit: R. Kenig]
According to the researcher it is very likely that in the late Neolithic period (5000 BC) the area around the lake was visited and temporarily inhabited by shepherd communities originating from different areas of North East Africa, from the shores of the Mediterranean to sub-Saharan Africa. The place of their meetings could be the burial area, located on the elevated banks of the lake, where the dead were buried in numerous cemeteries.

In the early period (approx. 11-8,000 years ago) burials were located within settlements, according to the research by Polish archaeologists. Similar practices occurred at that time in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East.

"Gradually, however, the deceased were being +moved+ outside the residential areas. We are seeing it in Gebel Ramlah - millennium after millennium burials were moved farther and farther from home, and finally in the beginning of the fifth millennium BC separate cemeteries were established outside the settlements, where the dead were buried", said Prof. Kabaciński.

Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa
Study of a Neolithic settlement in Gebel Ramlah [Credit: R. Kenig]
What was the reason for creating such places? According to the researcher, the practice was probably linked to developing beliefs. This was, by placing the dead in one place, it was easier to "control" them. "These places were certainly, like today, special, revered", said the archaeologist.

The researcher emphasised that the most valuable artefacts come from cemeteries: for their last journey the dead were supplied with carefully crafted vessels, jewellery, and even ornaments from remote locations, for example shells from the Red Sea.

Prof. Kabaciński stresses that the best conditions for life existed in this region in the 7th millennium BC. Later, the climate dried up gradually. In the following millennia, the lake was present only seasonally.

Archaeologists search for the first shepherds of Africa
Desert camp near Gebel Ramlah [Credit: J. Kabaciński]
"People were forced to embark on distant wanderings from one water reservoir to the next. In those times there were herds of grazing animals, so getting to the source of water was to be or not to be for these communities", said Prof. Kabaciński. He noted that only in these difficult times people began to make far-reaching contacts. As a result, exotic items appeared in the region of Gebel Ramlah, such as aforementioned shells from the Red Sea, discovered in the graves.

"This climate crisis has forced greater mobility of shepherds and indirectly contributed to the development of contacts with other communities", concluded the researcher.

At the end of the fifth millennium BC shepherds from Gebel Ramlah abandoned their historical territories, because the area underwent desertification, to the extent that made living there impossible. It seems that the most likely direction in which they could have gone was the Nile Valley, the source of life-giving water.

"In science, there is a discussion on how the communities coming from the current area of the Western Desert had contributed to the emergence of pharaonic civilization. It is certainly not a coincidence that its origins date back to the time of arrival of the shepherds from the west", concluded Prof. Kabaciński.

This year's research was funded by a grant from the National Science Centre and the Combined Prehistoric Expedition Foundation.

Author: Szymon Zdziebłowski | Source: PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland [July 22, 2016]
TANN

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