Prehistoric Egypt: Deciphering Egypt’s Timeline

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

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

Prehistoric Egypt refers to that mysterious stretch of time before Egypt had writing. In order to uncover the chronology of that period in Egyptian civilization, historians had to rely on other sources as alternatives to written records. The Bible was a primary means of calculating human history until Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Learn about the three main categories of prehistory, and what Egypt’s first inhabitants were like.

Nabta Playa Calendar Circle, reconstructed at Aswan Nubia museum
The “calendar circle” in the Nabta Playa archaeological site. This site is one of the earliest of the Egyptian Neolithic Period and dates back to 7500 B.C. (Image: Raymbetz/Public domain)

Egyptian Prehistory and the Bible

What does “prehistoric” mean? It’s literally “before history.” What that means is “before writing.”

Prehistory is not a term that covers the whole world at the same time. For example, writing began in Egypt in about 3200 B.C. After 3200 B.C., Egypt is considered out of prehistoric times, but England would still have been in prehistoric times.

Prehistory is a relative term that depends on the culture; prehistoric Egypt means Egypt before 3200 B.C.

Just how old is “old,” exactly? The study of prehistory is fairly recent. Before the study of scientific prehistory people used the Bible as a record to try to figure out how far back human history went.

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

Portrait of James Ussher painted in 1641
Using the bible, the 17th century, the Bishop of Usher, calculated that the world began in 4004 B.C. (Image: Attributed to Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen – Art UK/Public domain)

In the 17th century, the Bishop of Usher used the Bible to determine a timeline of the ancient world from the listed generations in Genesis, the “so and so begets so and so,” by working backward to calculate that the world began in 4004 B.C.

In the 17th century, you could purchase an authorized Bible, where printed in the margin next to Genesis were the words “4004 B.C.”

That’s how far prehistory went back in the 17th century. The Bishop of Usher wasn’t the only one who believed in this version of history. Isaac Newton, the great physicist, mathematician, and inventor of calculus, tried to work out the chronology of ancient Egypt in his spare time.

In his book on the chronology of ancient Egypt, Newton concluded the Egyptians had traced their history back too far, past 4004 B.C. He agreed with his contemporaries that prehistory didn’t go further past that date.

Learn more about what makes ancient Egypt so fascinating

How Darwin’s Writings Changed the Prehistory Timeline

Two major events in 1859 created the underpinnings of prehistoric study that we know today and changed the perception that history started in 4004 B.C.

First, several antiquarians—prehistoric archaeologists—began excavating sites in England, and discovered Stone Age tools next to the bones of extinct animals. They published their findings to the Royal Society, suggesting that because of the combination of the stone tools and extinct animals, that history went further back than the Bishop of Usher thought.

The second event was the publication of one of the most important books in the history of the world, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin suggested humans are the product of evolution over a period longer than a couple of thousand years. 

Title page and the facing page of the 1859 Murray edition of the Origin of species by Charles Darwin.
(Image: John Murray, Publisher/Public domain)

Between Darwin’s evolution of the origin of species and the discovery of stone implements with fossils, people began to think the world was much older than the Bishop of Usher suggested. Also telling are the evolutionary features that make humans special.

For example, our eyes are placed in such a way that they are on the same plain. Unlike fish or other animals, we have stereoscopic vision that allows us to see things in depth. Compared to our other senses, our sight is our most important sense.

The opposable thumb is an important adaptation that Darwin talks about that sets us apart among other species. We have fine motor skills. This means we can move our fingers for the little fine-tuning of things by making tools or building things.

Our teeth evolved as well. We don’t have teeth like our primate relatives. We have molars, for example, which are good for grinding grains, rather than canine teeth for ripping.

Learn more about the mythology, religion, and philosophy of the ancient Egyptian intellect

All of these evolutionary advantages took millions of years to develop. History, therefore, had to go back much farther.

How much further, exactly? In geological times, the current estimate for the origin of the earth is four and a half billion years.

What Hominid Fossils Suggest About Human History

But when did the origin of man start? The answer is found in the earth’s four and a half billion years of life. If we think about the history of the earth as a 24-hour clock, we go back just a few minutes.

Lewis Leakey examining skulls from Olduvai Gorge, Africa.
Lewis Leakey examining skulls from Olduvai Gorge, Africa. (Image: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT/Public domain)

One of the earliest discoverers of early man was Louis B. Leakey, who found fossil remains of hominids at Olduvai Gorge in Africa. Hominids are an early humanlike form of man. Humanoid in appearance, their fossils indicate they lived at an earlier stage of the evolutionary chain. Leakey’s work suggests they lived approximately about 1.75 million years ago.

Some prehistorians and paleo archaeologists suggest pushing back the timeline even a little further. Currently, the argument has settled that hominids may have appeared about two million years ago.

How do you cover the history of a long period like that?

The Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Eras

Prehistorians divide up prehistory into three big manageable chunks: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic.

Let’s define and clarify what these terms mean. Paleolithic comes from the Greek words paleo and lithos, or “old” and “stone,” respectively. The term refers to the Old Stone Age. 

What characterizes the Old Stone Age is that during this period man was a hunter and gatherer. There were no domesticated animals or raising of crops. That is the characteristic of Paleolithic.

Mesolithic derives from meso, or “in the middle.” This era is the Middle Stone Age and the transition period where man went from hunter-gatherer into the gradual slide toward raising crops and animals.

Neolithic is when we finally have the domestication of animals and the raising of crops—the New Stone Age.

Learn more about the difficulties of studying a prehistoric civilization

Egypt’s First Inhabitants

Egypt was first populated by about 700,000 B.C. The consensus, though far from established, is that the early inhabitants of the Nile Valley came up through the south from other parts of Africa, as this was an easy migration for them.

People tend to think of Egypt as a desert, but this wasn’t always the case. In 700,000 B.C. it was similar to the Serengeti Plain, filled with giraffes and gazelles. It was a lush country, and the Nile was the kind of corridor that could be easily followed, providing a convenient water supply.

These people came in from the south to the north. While there are no remains of these early people, we have their tools to study and learn from.

What were these people like? They had speech and could probably control fire. These were not crude people.

They were also food gatherers. But they had only one tool—the hand ax, which is as simple a tool as you can imagine. It’s a stone that is held in the hand and used to smash or pound at prey or dig for tubers, among other uses.

However, it’s not an accidental tool you just pick up off the ground to use. A hand ax is flaked and made to fit the palm of your hand, without cutting the user. It’s an intentional tool made for a purpose.

Learn more about the startlingly unique characteristics of Egypt as a flourishing nation

The next big jump didn’t occur until around 70,000 B.C. when Neanderthal men arrived in the Nile Valley.

Common Questions About Prehistoric Egypt

Q: What are the three main periods of Egyptian history?

The three main periods of Egyptian history are the Old Kingdom (approximately 2,700-2,200 B.C.E.), the Middle Kingdom (2,050-1,800 B.C.E.), and the New Kingdom (approximately 1,550-1,100 B.C.E.). After the New Kingdom came the Late New Kingdom, ending around 343 B.C.E.

Q: When was the first Egyptian civilization?

The first Egyptian civilization spanned 30 centuries, from approximately 3100 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E., when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

Q: Was Egypt called Kemet?

Kemet was the name Egyptians gave their country, originating from the nutrient-rich black soil from the resulting Nile floods.

Q: How did Egypt start?

Around 5500 B.C.E., Egypt sprung up along the Nile River but was then divided into two kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. King Narmer unified Egypt around 3200 B.C.E., which marked the start of Egyptian civilization as we know it.

This article was updated on October 31, 2019

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