As is the case around the world, archaeological evidence has been discovered in Egypt and northern Sudan revealing that its diverse prehistoric communities did not always live side-by-side in equitable harmony, and that violence and ‘warfare’ were a regrettable reality of life. (Some scholars are of the opinion that ‘true’ warfare emerged only with the formation of states and their professional armies, and prefer instead to talk of ‘lethal intergroup violence’ or the like). The earliest evidence we have that it was not all sweetness and light between these communities was unearthed at Wadi Kubbaniya (the largest wadi in the Western Desert), which lies about ten miles north of Aswan.
Wadi Kubbaniya Man
Between 1978 and 1983, the famous American archaeologist Fred Wendorf (a hugely important figure in Egyptian prehistoric research) and his colleagues of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition (CEP) undertook a series of important archaeological investigations at Wadi Kubbaniya. They discovered that, about 18,000 years ago, the lower reaches of the wadi were flooded by the Nile inundation, creating a temporary lake and a favourable environment for Late Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers (or ‘foragers/hunter-fisher-gatherers’). The area was rich in food resources, particularly fish (at one of the wadi’s hunter-gatherer sites, about 13,000 catfish bones were found). Also available on the Late Palaeolithic menu at Wadi Kubbaniya were many edible plants, including camomile and nut-grass tubers, and wild animals such as hartebeest and wild cattle.
The most notable discovery made by the CEP archaeologists at Wadi Kubbaniya, however, was the skeleton of a young man (around 20-25 years of age), who, it seems, had not only been killed by an armed aggressor, but had also been involved in at least one previous violent encounter. As detailed in the American National Academy of Sciences tribute to Fred Wendorf:
A chip of flint from a past wound was embedded in his shoulder, and a healed fracture of his forearm revealed that he had once used it to ward off a blow. His death came as the result of a spear-sized projectile that had left two flint barbs between his ribs and lumbar vertebrae.
The evidence suggests that not only had Kubbaniya Man died from a violent spear thrust to the back, but also that he had been no stranger to violence before his premature death. Whether he lost his life in ‘battle’, or was a victim of murder, will, of course, forever remain a prehistoric mystery.
Gebel Sahaba: a war cemetery?
Today, lying just over the Egyptian border in northern Sudan, the Gebel Sahaba cemetery is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, as it is often seen as providing the earliest evidence for warfare yet known, although, as noted above, not all are prepared to accept that ‘authentic’ warfare was present in the prehistoric past. Whatever the case, Fred Wendorf and his great friend and colleague, Romuald Schild – aided by a team of international researchers working for UNESCO – excavated Gebel Sahaba in 1955-1956, uncovering a Late Palaeolithic cemetery (Site 117), dating to at least c.12,000 BC and containing the skeletal remains of 61 individuals (men, women, and children).
Shockingly, it was subsequently discovered that around half of the people buried in the simple graves (shallow pits covered with sandstone slabs) had died violently, with fragments of flint arrows or spears still lodged in the bones of their skeletons, or lying between them, in areas where there would formerly have been soft tissue. Some individuals seem to have died particularly nasty deaths, having been viciously attacked by several assailants. For example, a young woman (Skeleton 44) was hit by as many as 21 projectile points, with the three fragments found at the base of her skull thought to be from a barbed spear or arrow that had penetrated her mouth or face. Even more disturbing was the discovery of two children buried together in a grave, both of whom had flint projectile fragments embedded in their neck vertebrae, strongly suggesting they were executed together.
Further evidence for violence was found on the Gebel Sahaba skeletons in the form of parry fractures seen on the forearm and hand bones of some victims (revealing that they had tried to defend themselves from attackers wielding club-like weapons of some sort). Also present were broken collarbones, and cut marks or lesions caused by projectile points or other weapons.
We could be forgiven for viewing the grim but fascinating finds from Gebel Sahaba as evidence for the attack and brutal massacre of a Late Palaeolithic community, and that Site 117 therefore represents a prehistoric war cemetery. However, recent reanalysis by Isabelle Crevecoeur and her colleagues of the Gebel Sahaba skeletal remains (which were donated to the British Museum by Fred Wendorf) suggests something a little more prosaic, but nonetheless still paints a far from peaceful picture of Late Palaeolithic life in the Nile Valley. This reanalysis discovered more than 100 previously unrecorded healed and unhealed traumatic lesions (mostly projectile injuries) and numerous new projectile fragments (around 130) embedded in skeletons, with several new victims of violence also identified. Crevecoeur’s team concluded from their study of the Gebel Sahaba skeletal evidence that it pointed to recurring episodes of small-scale violent conflict, comprising raids, ambushes, and skirmishes (which are all features of ‘true’ warfare, it should be noted) in the Nile Valley at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum or ‘Ice Age’. Renée Friedman has noted that, because of wildly fluctuating Nile floods at this time (the river was either too high or too low – a result of severe climate change at the end of the Ice Age), the environmental conditions in the Valley were conducive to violent conflict:
There was little viable land on which to live, and resources must have been scarce. Competition for food may well have been the reason for the conflict, as more groups clustered around the best fishing and gathering grounds and were unwilling or unable to move away.
At the end of the 19th century, Egyptologist E A Wallis Budge shipped 27 mummies back from Egypt to the British Museum, among which were six ancient cadavers recovered from the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. One of these mummies, Gebelein Man, was displayed in the British Museum in 1901 and has been on almost continuous display ever since. His remarkably well-preserved, naturally mummified body (the result of being buried in a simple, shallow pit grave, dug into the hot, dry desert sand) and reconstructed grave, became one of the Museum’s most popular exhibits. Gebelein Man’s earlier nickname of ‘Ginger’, which he acquired because of the striking tufts of red hair surviving on his head, is no longer felt to be ethical, with some arguing that the same can be said for the display of his body in a public space.
More than 100 years after his arrival at the British Museum, Gebelein Man was taken out of the British Museum for the first time and transported to the nearby Bupa Cromwell Hospital, where he was CT-scanned. The detailed images created from the scans revealed that Gebelein Man had been about 20 years old when he died, but also threw up something of an unexpected and nasty surprise – he had died a violent death. An unhealed wound identified above his left shoulder blade showed that Gebelein Man had been stabbed in the back, and that the pointed weapon used (probably a silver or copper dagger) had not only damaged the underlying muscle, scapula, and fourth rib, but probably punctured his lung.
All the evidence pointed to homicide rather than death in combat, and that Gebelein Man had been the victim of a surprise attack: a lack of defensive wounds on his body lent support to this interpretation. Whatever the truth, a radiocarbon date obtained during analysis of his hair indicated that Gebelein Man died c.3400-3000 BC. This period was marked by the expansion of a powerful polity of the Naqada culture from Upper to Lower Egypt that culminated in the unification of the ‘Two Lands’. Many Egyptologists are of the opinion that this was a process involving violence, warfare, and conquest, and as Renée Friedman has thus remarked: ‘The stab wound in Gebelein Man’s back may mark him as an unfortunate victim of his times.’
Iconographic evidence for warfare and conquest
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the death of Gebelein Man, several superb artefacts dating to the final stages of the Predynastic/Naqada Period (c.3300-3000 BC), lend strong support to the idea that the ancient Egyptian state did not emerge peacefully out of the prehistoric past, even though some scholars argue these objects have more to do with royal ideology than reality. The most famous of these artefacts, the remarkable Narmer Palette – discovered in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) in 1898 by Frederick Green and James Quibell, and doubtless familiar to readers of AE – is replete with images connected with violence, warfare, and conquest: a towering King Narmer about to dispatch a kneeling prisoner with his mace; two naked men, next to a symbol for a fortified town, lying dead below the king’s feet (one of whom appears to have been castrated); two rows of ten decapitated (and castrated) corpses; and a rampaging bull attacking a fortified town.
Also found in the Main Deposit with the Narmer Palette were two ceremonial stone maceheads: one associated with King Narmer, the other with the somewhat mysterious King ‘Scorpion’. Although not as explicitly militaristic in their iconography as the palette, the two maceheads feature images that suggest the conquest of enemy peoples. On the Narmer Macehead, the king can be seen wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and sitting on a canopied throne. Three upright bearded figures approach him, with a bound and kneeling captive depicted behind and below them. A cow and goat below the upright figures may be interpreted as a record of the spoils of war. On the Scorpion Macehead (which is more fragmentary), there is a striking depiction of a group of rekhyt-birds hanging by their necks from a row of standards, representing vanquished enemies.
Two other superb ceremonial objects of the late Naqada culture are undoubtedly worth mentioning: the Gebel el-Arak flint knife (found at Abydos) and the Battlefield Palette (perhaps from Abydos as well). On the front or obverse side of the latter, bound prisoners are depicted along with several naked individuals who lie slain on the ground. One of these is being eaten by a lion (perhaps representing a victorious king); vultures and a raven can be seen feasting on the dead too. The Gebel el-Arak knife is something of a prehistoric masterpiece. At the top of the obverse face of its ivory handle, male combatants wielding clubs, maces, and knives are depicted, while below them is a scene showing slain figures between rows of boats, quite possibly representing drowning men and a naval battle on the Nile. Jack Josephson and Günter Dreyer have made the interesting suggestion that these scenes depict warfare between the rival Naqadan polities of Abydos and Hierakonpolis, and that the former was the eventual victor. Whatever the truth, the burials and fine ceremonial artefacts briefly discussed here represent just a small part of a much larger body of archaeological evidence that illuminates the darker side of life in the lower reaches of the Nile Valley during the later prehistoric period. The evidence reminds us that we should be wary of donning glasses of a rosy hue when looking back from our own troubled times to the distant past.
• I Crevecoeur et al. (2021) ‘New insights on interpersonal violence in the Late Pleistocene based on the Nile Valley cemetery of Jebel Sahaba’, Nature: Scientific Reports.
• R Friedman (2014) ‘Violence and climate change in prehistoric Egypt and Sudan’, http://www.britishmuseum.org/blog/violence-and-climate-change-prehistoric-egypt-and-sudan.
• J Marcus and K V Flannery (2016) ‘Fred Wendorf, 1924-2015’, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences.
Julian would like to thank Isabelle Crevecoeur for kindly supplying the Gebel Sahaba images used in this article.