Ancient Egyptian Tools: Building Civilizations

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

From 700,000 B.C. to roughly 70,000 B.C., the only tool used by Egypt’s inhabitants was the hand axe. However, ancient Egyptian tools began to grow increasingly varied and more sophisticated with the arrival of the Neanderthals, followed by Homo sapiens. With new tools, came new possibilities, allowing humans to transition from nomadic lifestyles into settlements.

ancient Egyptian wall relief with people figures bringing tools
Ancient Egyptian wall relief with people carrying tools. 

Neanderthals Arrive in Egypt

Around 70,000 B.C., Neanderthals arrived in Egypt’s Nile Valley.

The word Neanderthal is a combination of the German word for valley, thal, and the location of the fossils of an early man discovered in the Neander Valley.

One incorrect assumption is that the term Neanderthal refers simply to a caveman or a brute. Neanderthals were not brutes. They buried their dead, cared for the sick, and even developed a slightly more sophisticated flaking technique for tools.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Their tools were more specialized, including the scraper, which was intended for scraping hides. They would take a scraper, which is approximately four inches long, hold it in their hand, remove the flesh, and then remove the hair from the hide to create the beginning of a garment for clothing.

Neanderthals eked out an existence in the Nile Valley sometime after 70,000 B.C. to around 43,000 B.C.

The tools Neanderthals used—scrapers and hand axes—are often found in the desert. This means that Egypt was a moister place in the past; when they were making the tools it wasn’t a desert landscape. Over time, the climate in Egypt has changed considerably.

Learn more about the basic divisions of prehistory and the difficulty of studying a prehistoric civilization

Life for Homo Sapiens

The next great shift occurred around 43,000 B.C. Modern man, known as Homo sapiens, arrived in Egypt.

Homo sapiens, however, didn’t evolve from Neanderthals, but rather replaced them. We are a different branch of the evolutionary tree.

When Homo sapiens arrived in the Nile Valley, they fished, and their diet included mollusks and shellfish. At that time, the Nile began to dry up a little, and there were small gatherings of people around lakes.

To figure out what kind of communities there were, the best estimate comes from tools found there. These communities consisted of bands or clans of maybe 25 to 50 people living together at a time.

Life expectancy, however, was short. From birth, you could not expect to live more than 30 years in prehistoric times.

Learn more about what makes ancient Egypt so interesting

Introducing New Tools

There were also new tools fashioned from different materials. The first, of course, was flint, as it is the easiest to flake.

But there was also obsidian, which is volcanic glass. The advantage of obsidian is it gives the tool a much sharper edge, as sharp as surgical steel. Other materials—diorite, a harder stone, and quartzite, were used to fashion tools as well.

During this period a new tool appeared: the sickle, used for harvesting crops. But it does not mean that early Homo sapiens were planting crops.

How was a sickle made in prehistoric times? First, you took the wood, shaped into a crescent, and inserted flints into it, about two to three inches long each, in a row, to slice and harvest your grain.

The general theory during this time is that they weren’t planting grain, but that they were intensively caring for wild grains. They hadn’t yet understood how to plant crops.

The Bow and Arrow: An Essential Weapon

Recurve Selfbow MET 36.3.211 EGDP015988. Metropolitan Museum of Art  [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Recurve Selfbow circa 1492–1473 B.C. (Recurve Selfbow MET 36.3.211 EGDP015988. Metropolitan Museum of Art
[CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

During this period, the bow and arrow, an incredibly important invention, was introduced. The bow is the first weapon in history that stored potential energy. By bending the wood and storing it in a string, the energy can all be transferred to the arrow when it’s shot.

The advent of the weapon required arrowheads, specifically flaked arrow points. At Kom Ombo, a site in southern Egypt, archaeologists discovered arrow points called microtools, an arrow point the size of your thumbnail, used for hunting birds.

It is not an easy task to flake a shape like this to attach it to the arrow shaft, but they did it.

As Homo sapiens developed their tool-making, progress accelerated. Half a million years passed with only the hand ax before the bow, the sickle, and arrows appeared, leading to greater advancements and civilization.

One archeological puzzle, however, surrounds the sickle: it disappeared from use for a couple of thousand years.

What happened? The dominant theory is crop failure; for some reason, the crops failed, and the early Nile River people no longer harvested wild grains, so the sickle was no longer needed. It would make a reappearance later in their history.

A secondary theory, though a long shot, becomes a possibility. With the bow and arrow, hunting becomes a lot easier.

The hunter can be removed from the animal at a safe distance to shoot their prey. It may mean that protein gathering through hunting became a more important source of food than even the gathering of crops.

Learn more about the traditions and conceptual inventions that created a majestic Egyptian nation

Entering the Mesolithic Period

As prehistoric Egyptians entered the Mesolithic period, around 10,000 B.C., their society transitioned from hunter-gatherers into domesticating animals and raising crops.

In this period, people started to settle. They used grindstones to grind harvested grain, but they also ground cosmetics, like eye makeup.

Makeup represents an important part of the culture that is likely religious, indicates ritual, and maybe also be purely decorative. Homo sapiens used malachite, a green mineral, and mixed it with a little bit of fat as a binder, painting it above their eyes. This practice was an early form of cosmetics.

The New Stone Age

The beginning of the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, represented civilization closer to what modern humans recognize.

Cylinder vessel of King Hor Aha from Saqqara, 1st dynasty - Kestner-Museum, Hannover
Cylinder vessel made from marl clay, from the 1st dynasty.

This is when we see pottery develop and emerge, which is not as easy to develop as one might think. We take it for granted but consider what the process involves.

Once the right clay has been found, you have to build a kiln to fire it in, and then the pottery has to be fired in some way. That’s not such an easy thing to accomplish. It’s a big step, but pottery has many useful applications.

Harvested grains can now be cooked and made into a kind of porridge, and they could cook their food in pots. You can also make beer. In archeological excavations, whenever a bakery is found, right next to it is a brewery, because they both use yeast.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought

The Emergence of Real Settlements

What do we consider a real settlement? In the beginning, there were probably villages of about 150 people up and down the Nile. But with toolmaking, to make little arrowheads, skilled labor is needed.

The division of labor appeared: the toolmaker, a baker, a brewer, the pot maker. An organized society grew up and down the Nile, announcing the start of the Neolithic period and leading up to the written word in Egypt.

In this early period before 3200 B.C., at the end of prehistory but before writing, villages appeared up and down the Nile.

The entire population of Egypt in this period was about 2,000 people, living in these isolated villages.

As these villages developed, so did politics. Toward the end of this period, they seem to have had kings in Upper and Lower Egypt, or at least, each one seems to have been ruled by a single ruler. A kind of low-level unification with social and political strata began to develop.

One of the things to remember about Egypt is Upper Egypt is in the South on the bottom and Lower Egypt is in the North because the Nile flows from the south to the north.

Thus we refer to “up the Nile” as going south and “down the Nile” as going north, and why Upper Egypt is below Lower Egypt.

A recognizable civilization as we understand it began to develop. These Neolithic, New Stone Age people, started to develop rituals and culture.

They began by burying their dead in sandpit burials, and these sandpit burials are perhaps the origin of mummification. Burying a body in the sand dehydrates it naturally, known as natural mummies.

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But more important about these burials, is the people were buried with their possessions, suggesting intentionality. They were not just chucked in a pit to get rid of them. When you bury someone with pots, with jewelry, the suggestion is a belief in life after death.

Even before writing, we can try to make some inferences about what these people thought. Burials, tools, and archaeological sites comprise just some of the evidence from which we make those inferences about the prehistoric people who lived in Egypt.

Common Questions About Ancient Egyptian Tools

Q: What tools did the Egyptians use to make the pyramids?

To create the pyramids, the ancient Egyptians unearthed limestone and sandstone using the leverage from chisels and saws. They employed iron chisels to dig up granite, which was harder than limestone and sandstone.

Q: How did the Egyptians make tools?

When it came to making tools, the ancient Egyptians had to be inventive, using the world around them. They used stone such as the softer limestone and sandstone and the harder granite, depending on what they were making, and flint could be used to carve the softer stones into shapes. They also used copper and bronze, which were for the most part imported.

Q: Did the Egyptians have iron tools?

The production of iron requires very high temperatures. In Egypt, iron objects can be traced back to the Naqada III period (3200 to 3000 BC), but iron tools were not regularly used until around 500 BC.

Q: What tools did farmers use in ancient Egypt?

Farming tools used in ancient Egypt include hoes, plows (hand-held and oxen-pulled), rakes, winnowing scoops, and flint-bladed sickles.

This article was updated on November 5, 2019

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