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Nabta Playa

Nabta Playa is an internally drained basin that served as an important ceremonial center for nomadic tribes during the early part of the Holocene epoch. Located 100 km west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, Nabta contains a number of standing and toppled megaliths. They include flat, tomb-like stone structures and a small stone circle that predates Stonehenge and other similar prehistoric sites by at least 1000 years.

The site was first discovered in 1974 by a group of scientists headed by Fred Wendorf, an Anthropology Professor from Southern Methodist University in Texas. The team had stopped for a break from their uncomfortable drive from the Libyan border to the Nile Valley when, as Wendorf stated, “we were standing there minding our own business, when we noticed potsherds and other artifacts." Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Wendorf returned to Nabta several times. He determined that humans had occupied the Nabta area off and on for thousands of years, dating from as early as 11,000 years ago up until about 4,800 years ago. Although the area was occupied for more then 5,000 years, the majority of the stone structures and other artifacts originated between 7,000 and 6,500 years ago. It was considered by most to be the height of human occupation at Nabta.

Nabta became a habitable area because of a climatic change that occurred over North Africa around 12,000 years ago. This climatic change was caused by a northward shift of the summer monsoons. This shift brought enough rain to the Nabta region to enable it to sustain life for both humans and animals. Although it was a small amount of rain, usually around four to eight inches (10-15 cm) per year, it was enough to fill the playas with water for months at a time. Between 11,000 and 9,300 years ago, Nabta saw its first settlements. The people living at Nabta herded cattle, made ceramic vessels, and set up seasonal camps around the playa. These people regarded cattle in much the same way as modern peoples of West Africa regard them. The blood and milk of the cattle was more significant than the meat. The ceramics that were found from this period are minimal, but are considered to be some of the oldest identified in Africa.

Once fall came and the playa dried up, these people had to migrate to areas where more water was available, possibly to the Nile in the east or perhaps to areas further south. Larger settlements began to pop up shortly after 9,000 years ago. These people were able to dig wells that supplied them with enough water to live at Nabta year round. They survived on a number of wild plants and small animals like hares and gazelles. By around 8,100 years ago there is evidence for the domestication of larger animals including goats and sheep. This is also a time when the people of Nabta started to produce pottery locally.

Settlements became larger and more sophisticated. One settlement from this period contains 18 houses arranged in two, possibly three straight lines. It also contains numerous fire hearths and these amazing walk-in wells. This settlement also shows the establishment of an organized labor force. This settlement and all the other settlements at Nabta were abandoned for a couple of long stretches between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago when two major droughts occurred. These droughts caused the water table to be lowered to around the same level as it is today, causing Nabta to be hyper-arid and virtually lifeless for long periods of time.

The groups of people that returned to Nabta after the droughts exhibited substantial advancement toward a more complex society that expressed a greater degree of organization and control. This control and organization was probably centered around some ritual or religious belief system. This is the time period when most of the major structures were constructed at Nabta. They constructed five megalithic alignments that radiated from a cluster of stones that has been named E-96-1 Structure A. These megaliths were constructed out of quartzite sandstone that came from exposed sandstone that was at least a half -kilometer away. The stones were erected and embedded into the playa. With the help of GPS satellite technology, recent surveys by Wendorf and University of Colorado at Boulder’s Astronomy Professor J. McKim Malville have allowed them to map out the exact location of these stone alignments. These studies confirm that one of the alignments of the megaliths form an east-west line and another alignment forms a north-south line.

Although more research needs to be done, many scientists, including Malville, believe that the alignments had an astronomical significance. Three hundred meters north of these alignments is the stone calendar circle. Compared to Stonehenge, this circle is very small, measuring roughly 4 m in diameter. The calendar consists of a number of stones, the main ones being four pairs of larger ones. Each of these four pairs were set close together to form what Wendorf calls “gates.” Two of these pairs align to form a line very close to a true north-south line, and the other two pairs or gates align to form an east-west line. The east-west alignment is calculated to be where the sun would have risen and set from the summer solstice 6,500 years ago.

Fire hearths from around the circle date to around 6,800 years ago. Another 300 meters north of the calendar circle is a stone covered tumuli that contained the remains of cattle. One of the tumuli contained a cow that was fully articulated. This particular tumulus was dug into the ground surrounded by a clay frame. It had a roof made from the limbs of tamarisk. It was then covered with broken rocks that formed a mound eight meters in diameter and one meter high. Wood from the roof of the chamber has been dated to around 6,500 years ago. Other tumuli that were found in the area were more basic and consisted of unshaped stones that contained disarticulated cattle bones. They had no subsurface structure and were basically piles of bones covered with stones. These tumuli were dated to about 5,500 years ago.

Another major feature at Nabta is a group of thirty “complex structures.” These structures are located about a kilometer south of the cattle tumuli measuring 500 meters in length and 200 meters in width. The framework was constructed by using roughly shaped or unshaped stones that were set upright to form a structure that was oval in shape measuring 5 meters by 4 meters. Aside from a few minor details, all of the structures were basically the same. They all face slightly west of north and they all have one or two large stone slabs that lay horizontally in the center of the structure. What makes them unique is that they have been built over large mushroom-shaped tablerocks. The tablerocks were shaped by years and years of erosion and then covered by two to three and a half meters of playa clays and silts.

It is unclear as to how the Nabtians were able to locate these tablerocks. One theory is that they were located by accident when they were digging wells, but nobody knows for sure. The largest excavated structure reveals that a large pit was dug before the erection of the walls. The pit was about 6 m in diameter and 4 m deep. It was dug down to the tablerock. They shaped the rock to have three convex sides and one side that was worked to form a straight edge that face north. In the pit they placed another large shaped stone or sculpture that resembled a cow or some other large animal. The sculpture was placed upright with its axis facing north, the same way as the tablerock below it. The pit was backfilled with playa clay one meter thick in order to support the sculpture. Two smaller stones were also placed in the pit to help secure the sculpture even more. Once the sculpture was in place and the pit was completely backfilled, the surface stones were then erected and placed into position. Testing done on charcoal from around the structures indicates a date to 5,500 - 5,000 years ago. The actual function of the complex remains a mystery.

About 4,800 years ago there was another climatic change. The African monsoons shifted south to approximately the same area that they were prior to 12,000 years ago. The land became hyper-arid again and caused human habitation at Nabta to cease. The cattle worshipping people of Nabta had to migrate to a more livable area. But to where did these people migrate? Some people believe that the people of Nabta eventually made their way to the Nile Valley. Perhaps they were the people responsible for the rise of the Egyptian Empire. This theory is based on the prominence of cattle in the religious belief system of Pre-dynastic Egypt continuing into the Old Kingdom.

In ancient Egypt, cattle were deified and regarded as the earthly representative of the gods. Egyptian Pharaohs were said to represent two gods. Horus represented Upper Egypt and Seth represented Lower Egypt. Horus was the son of Hathor who was depicted as either a cow or a strong bull. Another Egyptian god that is represented by a bull is the god of rain, a very important entity to the people of Nabta, considering that life or death could have been determined by the amount of rain they received. Another point of interest is that pre-Egyptian societies did not place the same importance on cattle in either a social or religious capacity, indicating that outside influence must have played a part in the Old Kingdom belief system. This may have happened because the pastoralists from Nabta came to the Nile to conquer and take over the land from their farming neighbors. Perhaps they simply joined together with the farmers and their beliefs were blended with those of the farmers. No matter how you look at it, given the closeness of Nabta to the Nile, there had to have been interaction between them and ideas had to be exchanged to some degree.

Whether or not the people of Nabta had anything to do with the Egyptian civilization, it is still a site of great importance. It dates to a time when climatic and social changes were occurring. Complex societies or civilizations were starting to emerge not only in Africa, but throughout the world. Nabta helps to provide us with a better understanding of what life was like during this time in history.


J McKim Malville, News-University of Colorado at Boulder, May 31, 1998 Wendorf, Fred and Schild, Romuald, Late Neolithic structures at Nabta Playa, southwestern Egypt, 1998,

J. McKim Malville, Fred Wendorf, Ali a Mazar, and Romauld Schild,

Megaliths and Neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt, Nature 1998

StarDate Ancient Horizens, Nabta: Circle in the Sand,

Jeff Hertaus

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