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Human Environmental Interrelationships and the Origins of Agriculture in Egypt and Sudan

Summary and Keywords

Northeast Africa forms an interesting case study for investigating the relationship between changes in environment and agriculture. Major climatic changes in the early Holocene led to dramatic changes in the environment of the eastern Sahara and to the habitation of previously uninhabitable regions. Research programs in the eastern Sahara have uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence for sustained occupation during the African Humid Period, from about 11,000 years ago. Initial studies of faunal remains seemed to indicate early shifts in economic practice toward cattle pastoralism. Although this interpretation was much debated when it was first proposed, the possibility of early pastoralism stimulated discussion concerning the relationships between people and animals in particular environmental contexts, and ultimately led to questions concerning the role of agriculture imported from elsewhere in contrast to local developments. Did agriculture, or indeed cultivation and domestication more generally (sensu Fuller & Hildebrand, 2013), develop in North Africa, or were the concepts and species imported from Southwest Asia? And if agriculture did spread from elsewhere, were just the plants and animals involved, or was the shift part of a full socioeconomic suite that included new subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, technologies, and an agricultural “culture”? And finally, was this shift, wherever and however it originated, related to changes in the environment during the early to mid-Holocene?

These questions refer to the “big ideas” that archaeologists explore, but before answers can be formed it is important to consider the nature of the material evidence on which they are based. Archaeologists must consider not only what they discover but also what might be missing. Materials from the past are preserved only in certain places, and of course some materials can be preserved better than others. In addition, people left behind the material remains of their activities, but in doing so they did not intend these remains to be an accurate historical record of their actions. Archaeologists need to consider how the remains found in one place may inform us about a range of activities that occurred elsewhere for which the evidence may be less abundant or missing. This is particularly true for Northeast Africa where environmental shifts and consequent changes in resource abundance often resulted in considerable mobility. This article considers the origins of agriculture in the region covering modern-day Egypt and Sudan, paying particular attention to the nature of the evidence from which inferences about past socioeconomies may be drawn.

Keywords: Northeast Africa, origins of agriculture, early to mid-Holocene, domestic cattle, domestic caprines, fishing, Fayum


Northeast Africa experienced significant environmental changes spanning the period from the end of the Pleistocene through to the mid-Holocene. The African Humid Period induced the greening of the Sahara, and water flow in the Nile River shifted, changing the conformation of the Nile Valley and creating the Nile Delta. This period also saw the first evidence for the use of domesticated plants and animals. There is no indication for incipient agriculture in Northeast Africa at this time, so the evidence is largely in the form of inputs of domesticated plants and animals originating from Southwest Asia. Much scholarship has focused on how and why agriculture arrived in Northeast Africa from adjacent regions and from the links made between the arrival of domesticates and environmental changes. Some researchers see the environment as the major driver for both the diffusion of ideas and materials concerned with establishing agriculture and pastoralism in the lower Nile Valley and in adjacent desert regions. For example, some consider that a period of drier climate was the stimulus for the movement of herders from modern Sinai into northern Egypt, bringing with them domestic animals (Hassan, 2000; Vermeersch, 2008). Environmental change therefore caused one socioeconomic system to be replaced with another. However, characterizing the past in these terms, as the interaction of distinct groups of people who moved from place to place, replacing or combining with earlier populations, inevitably means that aspects of material culture and economy are interpreted using dichotomies; the use of wild plants and animals is contrasted with the use of domestic species, or sedentary settlement is contrasted with mobility. These ideas suggest that the introduction of domestic species entailed wholesale changes in society and the economy associated with changes or introductions of technology. This article proposes interpretative models assuming clear-cut relationships between economy, technology, people, and environment.

While archaeologists make use of such models to simplify varied sets of data and to more easily identify causation, these models also obscure variability which may indicate more complex forms of human interactions with the environment. What may seem a close correlation between, say, environmental change and the arrival of new peoples becomes less clear when additional data are included. As illustrated in the sections on evidence for pastoralism and domestic plant use, the paucity of data available for Northeast Africa is at times surprising. While more data are of course always desirable and therefore should not place limits on model creation, it is important to acknowledge the limitations that isolated datasets provide.

One of the challenges for archaeology is to correctly interpret evidence. For example, when does the presence of the first domesticated plants and animals indicate their first occurrence, and when does it indicate the first occurrence of places where this type of evidence is preserved? What gets preserved partly reflects the physical conditions into which archaeological material is deposited, but it also reflects why and in what contexts material was discarded. Both relate to the nature of the environment but in different ways. It is therefore important to be aware of the possibility of circularity in argument when considering the relationship between human economic activities, including the use of domesticates, and environmental changes. What may appear to reflect an economic response by people to a changing environment may in fact reflect the impact of environment on the conditions of preservation or the nature of disposal.

In the same way that data quantity has an impact on model creation, to interpret the influence of different contexts of disposal also requires the acquisition of large datasets from multiple locations. Although it is tempting to imagine how the origins of agriculture in Northeast Africa might be reduced down to one key find, the place where domestic wheat or barley was first sown or the time, and location when cattle were first domesticated, agriculture involving domestic species relates to a process, not an event, to human intervention into the life cycle of the species, the evidence for which can be acquired only by comparative analysis from multiple times and places. Therefore, it is not the domestic status of the species itself that is significant but the relationship between the introduced species and those species that were present before and after. As is discussed in this article, replacement of wild species by domestic forms is not indicated in Northeast Africa, so it is these interrelationships between humans and both domestic and wild forms that become critical to the assessment of human–environmental interrelationships and agricultural origins.

In the following the major environmental shifts that occurred during the early to mid-Holocene in Northeast Africa are outlined with a particular focus on Egypt. The evidence for domestic animals and plants is discussed, and then the relationships between these and wild plants and animals are considered. The Fayum region of Egypt is used as a case study based on a major study of the region. The review ends with a consideration of the significance of the variability apparent in human–environmental interrelationships for the development of agriculture in Egypt.

Early to Mid-Holocene Environmental Change in Northeast Africa

Investigation of early to mid-Holocene environmental change in Northeast Africa has a long history (Adamson et al., 1980; Butzer & Hansen, 1968; Hassan, 1981; Nicolson & Flohn, 1980; Wendorf & Hassan, 1980; Wendorf & Schild, 1976; Wendorf & Schild, 1998; Williams & Adamson, 1974). At a broad scale, occupation of the eastern Sahara is connected with the early-mid Holocene increase in monsoon intensity known as the African Humid Period (Kuper & Kröpelin, 2006). An increase in summer solar insolation lowered the atmospheric pressure over the Sahara, leading to a northward extension of the summer monsoon (Kröpelin et al., 2008; McGee et al., 2013; Shanahan et al., 2015; Tierney & deMenocal, 2013). This had the effect of “greening” the Sahara and thereby allowing expansion of human occupation into regions that today are arid desert (Kutzbach & Liu, 1997). Radiocarbon determinations obtained from eastern Saharan archaeological sites illustrate in a general way how occupation, abandonment, and subsequent reoccupation of locations occurred over time intervals that are consistent with the African Humid Period (Hassan et al., 2001; Kindermann et al., 2006; Marshall & Hildebrand, 2002; McDonald, 2009; Wendorf & Schild, 2001). For example, across the eastern Sahara, early Holocene evidence for an expansion of occupation shows a gradual retreat to the south and east as the desert began to dry out (Kuper & Kröpelin, 2006). However, both the timing and local impact of the African Humid Period varied, with the period ending earlier in the northeast than in areas to the south and west (Shanahan et al., 2015). Therefore, the specific ways in which human settlement can be correlated with large-scale environmental shifts like the African Humid Period is the topic of much debate (compare Manning & Timpson, 2014, with Vermeersch, 2015).

In addition, the River Nile has of course had a significant impact on human habitation. The Nile is the largest river in the world, and because of its latitudinal span across Northeast Africa, its flow and immediate environment were influenced by a range of climatic fluctuations during the Holocene. The river receives its water from three tributaries: the White Nile, the Blue Nile, and the Atbara River. Historically, the Nile also received water from tributaries that are now extinct, such as the Yellow Nile, which today is called the Wadi Howar (Hoelzmann et al., 2001; Keding, 1998). The river inundates annually in response to increased rainfall associated with the eastern African monsoon, although the White Nile also receives input from the western African monsoon (Williams, 2014). The position and intensity of the Intertropical Convergence Zone played a crucial role in Nile water flow and therefore local environment up and down the river, in much the same way that its movement during the African Humid Period had an impact on desert regions.

Geological records provide a history of fluctuations in the flow of the river, involving both the volume of water and the quantity of sediment (e.g., Ducassou et al., 2008; Hassan, 1986; Marks et al., 2016; Williams et al., 2006, 2010). This relationship between water and sediment volume in turn had a significant impact on the viability of agriculture for later Holocene human occupations, with the importance of the annual inundation well attested to in many later textual archives (e.g., Hassan, 1981, Hurst, 1952). In addition, early Holocene occupations in the Sudan, associated with the Khartoum Mesolithic, made use of Nile fluctuations for subsistence (Arkell, 1949, 1953—from Salvatori et al., 2011). Residual sandbars, remnants of the late Pleistocene meandering river channel, were occupied in the later Holocene, so they now partly preserve occupations that indicate seasonal fishing as well as wild plant and animal resources. The formation of seasonal swamps and palaeolakes along the White Nile may have provided niches for Holocene human exploitation of lacustrine resources, particularly during the African Humid Period when water was available (Cremaschi et al., 2006; Salvatori et al., 2011; Williams & Adamson, 1980).

Periods of incision and aggradation in the Nile Valley are believed to have played a role in the ability of the Nile Valley to sustain habitation but also in the preservation of the archaeological evidence of such habitation (e.g., Salvatori et al., 2011). Weldeab and colleagues (2014), for example, use variability in Ba/Ca levels obtained from cores drilled into the Levantine Basin to measure changes in Nile River discharge related to East African monsoon activity. They show a gradual transition from a relatively low Nile River runoff during the pre-Holocene to a peak in runoff around 10,100–9,100 cal bp. This, they argue, helps to explain the lack of evidence for occupation of the Nile Valley during the early Holocene when flood levels were likely to be high. It might not be that people left the Nile Valley in response to the amelioration of conditions in the eastern Sahara during the African Humid Period, as is currently favored (e.g., Kuper & Kröpelin, 2006) but rather that the Nile Valley was not conducive to occupation during this period. Subsequent to the high Nile flood levels, the Ba/Ca results indicate a long period of progressive decline in runoff over a period of 3,500 years. Evidence for the reoccupation of the Nile from around 7,500 cal bp therefore might reflect the weakening of the East African monsoon and consequently Nile floods, making the Nile Valley attractive once more to occupation, rather than simply increases in eastern Saharan aridity forcing people out of the desert and into the Nile Valley. However, it is also true that changes in the Nile flood levels likely had an impact on site preservation and visibility. It is difficult to know what is missing from the Nile Valley record because sites are buried below alluvium (Butzer, 1976; Hassan, 1981). Hence, the apparent lack of occupation during the early Holocene may also reflect an inability to detect evidence rather than its absence.

In the northern regions of the eastern Sahara, like the Fayum Basin discussed here as a case study, the increased moisture associated with the African Humid Period may have had relatively little direct impact. Rather, the southward movement of Mediterranean winter rains provided an alternative and potentially more significant source of moisture (Phillipps et al., 2012). During the early to mid-Holocene, eastern Mediterranean winter rainfall extended further south than today (Arz et al., 2003; Goodfriend, 1991; Hafez & Hasanean, 2000; Marks et al., 2016). From 7,000 bp, higher precipitation levels in the eastern Mediterranean indicate a decrease in temperature, while changes in Red Sea salinity suggest the southwards shift of Mediterranean winter cyclonic rainfall (Bar-Mathews et al., 1997). Lower sea-surface temperatures during the early to mid-Holocene could also indicate the influence of cold continental air masses during winter, resulting in increased winter precipitation falling further south than it does today. Such rains would have an impact on the vegetation as well as on the extent of animal resources.

However, in addition to the effect of any proposed changes in rainfall, changes in the environment, in the case of the Fayum, need to be interpreted in relation to Lake Qarun which is extant in the northwest of the basin. Floodwaters from the Nile Valley once entered the Fayum Basin at Hawara and caused fluctuations in lake levels. The 21st-century surface of the lake averages −44 m below sea level, but in the early Holocene the lake was considerably higher and therefore covered a much greater surface area than its modern extent. Working in the early decades of the 20th century, Caton-Thompson and Gardner mapped the Fayum Basin and recognized a series of shallow depressions along the Fayum north shore that they termed basins. Any flooding of the lake would have a significant impact on these basins, creating a range of microenvironments with associated lacustrine as well as land-based plants and animals (Phillipps et al., 2016).

Work on the history of Nile River flow suggests an increase in White and Blue Nile flow at approximately 6,560–6,250 cal bp (Williams et al., 2010). If it was times of lower rather than higher Nile flow and incision that were conducive to agriculture on the Nile floodplain and if via the connection to the Nile at Hawara Lake Qarun changed level, the local impact of changes in river flow must be considered in relation to the lake edge basins, in addition to evidence for winter rainfall.

Whatever the source of water, changes in water availability likely had an impact on local flora and associated local fauna. Hassan (1986, p. 497) discussed the potential issues that the presence of reed thickets along lake basin edges might impose for those intent on cultivation. Others have discussed the effect of lower sediment loads flowing into Lake Qarun with the Nile flood and the amount of the lake edge that was actually covered by floodwaters (Bard, 2008; Phillipps et al., 2016; Wenke, 2009; Wenke et al., 1988). In addition, the nature of the connection between the Nile and Lake Qarun must be considered, not only in relation to sediment deposition, but also to salinity levels of the lake itself, and as discussed in the Fayum case study, to the impact that any changes this might have on the behavior and abundance of fish.

From this discussion it becomes clear that multiple sets of relationships may have an impact on local environments and therefore socioeconomic practices. Certainly, large-scale environmental changes had an influence. The African Humid Period and its mid-Holocene decline leading to the hyper-arid Sahara of today marked a major change that had an impact on the people who lived in the region. But as the example from the Fayum illustrates, the nature of this impact depends on the local outcome, and this may be quite complex. Across the eastern Sahara, localized environmental responses to climate change during the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene are likely to have occurred, resulting in regional variability and asynchronous outcomes for human habitation (Maxwell et al., 2010; Williams, 2014). This is also true of the lower Nile Valley. People interacted with these past environments in a number of different ways visible at a local level. It is therefore important to understand the nature of these interactions, as well as environmental changes that had an impact on the way the archaeological record was deposited and preserved. Since the interest here is in the relationship between environmental change and agriculture, consideration is given first to the evidence for the use of domesticates, initially animals, followed by plants.

Evidence for Early Pastoralism

Evidence for the early domestication of animals, particularly cattle, has been used in many archaeological accounts over the last 40 years to support the idea that the first African food producers were herders rather than farmers (Close, 1996; Gautier, 1980, 1987, 2001, 2002; Marshall & Hildebrand, 2002; Smith, 1992; Wendorf & Schild, 1980, 1984, 1994, 1998; Wendorf et al., 1976). Early domestication of animals was not accompanied by the use of domesticated plants. Instead, a range of domesticated plant species, some imported from other regions and others indigenous to Africa, appear in the record but do so well after domestic animals were in use (Stock & Gifford-Gonzalez, 2013). Domestic animals, it is argued, provided a predictable, mobile food supply in regions of Northeast Africa that were experiencing considerable environmental variability in the early to mid-Holocene (Marshall & Hildebrand, 2002).

In this sense, the domestication of cattle permitted a delayed rather than an immediate return system in the sense that Woodburn (1982) defined the terms (di Lernia, 2013). Ethnoarchaeological studies support the notion that the manipulation of plants and animals in ways that may lead to domestication often relate to the desire to create a predictable and accessible food supply—a delayed return system (Marshall & Hildebrand, 2002). Plants, for example, may be moved close to habitations. Animals may be herded together and moved from location to location. Moving either plants or indeed animals in this way may lead to isolation of the gene pool as well as the selection of particular phenotypic characteristics. Such changes will at times lead to the types of genetic changes that indicate domestication. However, linking the creation of a predictable food supply with the presence, abundance, and distribution of archaeological remains of domestic animals and plants is more involved than it may seem. For example, summaries of the domestication process for animals in Southwest Asia suggest a long period of human involvement with animal species before the appearance of phenotypic changes used to define domestication genetically (e.g., Zeder, 2009, 2011). Indeed, some of the phenotypic changes once thought to be a marker for domestication are now interpreted to reflect the outcome of human management on particular groups of nondomestic animals (Zeder, 2006).

To understand the process of domestication, abundant archaeological remains are needed from a number of sites so that the range of relationships between people and animal and plant species can be understood. Unfortunately, in Northeast Africa, such abundant records are rare. This means that the apparent sequence of animal before plant domestic species use, and therefore the early rise of pastoralism, need to be carefully assessed. The issues involve on the one hand the significance of the absence of evidence. To what extent do the current age and distribution of domestic species in Northeast Africa represent the first appearance of domestic species? On the other hand, what is the relationship between domestic and nondomestic species use (di Lernia, 2013)? To what degree do the appearance and abundance of domestic species represent a fundamental shift in past socioeconomies?

Much discussion concerning domestic animals in Northeast Africa concerns the possible indigenous domestication of cattle. The archaeological basis for this in the early Holocene relies on faunal remains identified as domestic cattle from Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba where it was proposed that these remains date from the 8th–9th millennium bce. If correct, these cattle would be as old as or even older than Southwest Asian domestic examples. However, the status of the Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba cattle remains, as domestic Bos primigenius is controversial. Identification is based on two lines of evidence (Close & Wendorf, 1992; Wendorf & Schild, 1994). The first evidence is morphological, since the bones in question are thought to be more similar to those of wild or domestic cattle than they are to those of Cape buffalo or giant buffalo. The second is ecological, based on associated fauna (gazelles, hares, jackals, and tortoises), which are interpreted to indicate an environment too arid for cattle to survive without human management. Taken together, it is therefore suggested that the Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba cattle remains must be domestic. However, the inference of domestication based on both lines of evidence has been criticized (di Lernia, 2013). The size of the bones in itself is only partly diagnostic and may indicate the presence of wild rather than domestic cattle (Grigson, 2000) and the environmental reconstruction based on associated species may not be as limiting as proposed. Large animals like hartebeest and addax exist in association with the other animals identified; therefore, the presence of wild cattle rather than domestic cattle cannot be discounted (Smith, 2005).

There is also the issue posed by the lack of corresponding evidence from contemporary sites. More convincing evidence for domestic cattle is found later in time, around 6000 bce at Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba, but while bovid remains are found from a number of additional sites, it is not always possible to determine whether or not they represent domestic cattle (Linseele et al., 2014).

Other Egyptian Western Desert sites also have bovid remains but not always in large quantities when associated with early dates. At Djara, while bovid bones are abundant, these could not be identified further to species. At Dakhla, cattle bones are reported but without details as to the number and type of remains. The Wadi Bakht remains amount to five cattle tooth fragments and some unidentified bovid bones. No cattle were found at Farafra. Only at Kharga Oasis are cattle remains relatively abundant, with 600 bones identified as domestic cattle (Linseele et al., 2014). The Lower Egyptian sites record the presence of cattle, with remains found from the Fayum, Merimde, and El Omari, but the numbers are not substantial. In the Fayum, QS IX/81 near Qasr el-Sagha on the northwestern edge of the depression and dated to ca. 5350 cal bce produced some cattle remains which are likely to be domestic since they are similar in size to the smallest cattle from Merimde which are dated ca. 4900–4100 cal bce (von den Driesch, 1986). The best evidence for early cattle therefore comes from the Fayum, together with those from Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba dated to ca. 6000 bce.

In the Nile Valley, the earliest allegedly domesticated cattle remains come from Kerma and consist of a bucranium in a grave context at el-Barga dated to 7800 bp (Chaix et al., 2012; Honegger, 2004). It is suggested, based on the absence of wild aurochs in this region, that the remains must be from domesticated species (Honegger & Williams, 2015). Evidence for domesticated cattle, in addition to caprines, is found after 7000 bp (Middle Neolithic) in the Kerma region (Chaix & Honegger, 2014). Chaix and Honegger (2014) states that this is the result of a local cattle domestication process. Analysis of faunal remains from Wadi el-Arab, however, suggests that it is not clear whether these remains represent domestic or wild cattle as opposed to other large bovid species (Linseele, 2012; Honegger, 2014).

As it stands, this is slim evidence on which to base early domestication and development of a local pastoral socioeconomy based on cattle. In addition, genetic evidence suggests a Southwest Asian rather than a Northeast African origin for domesticated cattle, at least based on available analyses (Achilli et al., 2009; Caramelli, 2006; Bollongino et al., 2012; Stock & Gifford-Gonzalez, 2013 cf. Hanotte et al., 2002; Perez-Pardal et al., 2010). This has important implications for the later development of pastoralism and agriculture generally along the Nile Valley and subsequent “state” formation.

In contrast to cattle, the caprine remains are more abundant, and the evidence for early use is more secure. Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba has reliable dates ca. 7200 bp for caprine remains (Gautier, 2001), and similarly aged finds come from Sodmein Cave ca. 7100–7000 cal bp (Vermeersch et al., 1996), while Dakhla (McDonald, 1998) and Farafra oases (Barich, 2002) both have remains with ca. 7000–6900 cal bp dates. A recently reported date for an unfused sheep radius from the site of E29H1 in the Fayum returned a calibrated radiocarbon age range of 5673–5520 bce (95 percent confidence interval) (Linseele et al., 2016), and four other bones from the site were identified as domestic caprines. The E29H1 age is similar to dated deposits from QS XI/81 and QS IX/81 near Qasr el-Sagha on the north western edge of the Fayum which are dated to ca. 5400–5300 cal bce. These deposits produced caprine remains associated with hearths. With the cattle remains noted above, the Fayum is therefore one of the very few areas in Egypt with evidence for domestic animals prior to the 5th millennium cal bce and is discussed in more detail in the Fayum case study.

Further to the south, caprines, mainly in the form of sheep, are found at Nabta Playa in the Middle (6100–5400 bce) and Late Neolithic (5400–4650 bce) where they are more numerous than cattle remains. At Farafra oasis dated to the 6th millennium bce , from 78 identified bones, 15 are identifiable as sheep or goats (Linseele et al., 2014). At Dakhla, goat remains are reported from the Bashendi A period, though without details of their abundance or form (Churcher et al., 2008; McDonald, 1998, 2013—from Linseele et al., 2014). At Kharga Oasis, remains are abundant at KS43 dated to 4800–4400 bce (Lesur et al., 2011), with around 1,800 caprine bones identified in addition to 600 cattle bones noted earlier. Sheep are more frequent than goats among the identifiable remains.

In the Kerma region, evidence for caprines is more limited in the early Neolithic. However, they are present after 7000 bp, although faunal remains indicate a prevalence of cattle. This changes in the Late Neolithic after 6000 bp to a dominance of caprines over cattle (Chaix & Honegger, 2014). In the Lower Nile and Delta sites, caprines also outnumber cattle, but there is considerable variability in the relative proportions of the different domesticated species. At Merimde, in the earliest levels, sheep and goats predominate, followed by cattle and pigs. However, in higher levels, the pig is the most frequent domestic species. Among the caprines, sheep greatly outnumber goats. In contrast, the earliest levels at Sais show the predominance of cattle and pigs, with domestic caprines less common, although the number of pig remains increases in higher levels (Bertini & Ikram, 2014). Similarly, at El Omari pigs and cattle are more frequent than caprines. Pig remains are also present in the Fayum sites from both Kom K and Kom W where, based on new excavations, Sus scrofa (f. domestica) was identified. This identification is in line with material reported by both Caton-Thompson and Gardner (1934) and Wenke and colleagues (1988) based on earlier studies.

While the frequency of identifiable bones provides some indication of the relative importance of different species, these measures must be interpreted relative to both the preservation potential of the bone elements and the contexts in which they are found. Where an animal was killed, for what purpose, and how the bones were disposed of all have an impact on what is preserved archaeologically, along with postdepositional changes in bone preservation. The remains from Sodmein Cave provide an interesting example. Here caprine bone remains are present in three separate Neolithic deposits but total only 13 bones. In later phases of occupation, however, caprines are represented by thick dung deposits. Obviously, in this case caprines, at least in later parts of the sequence, are more frequent than the bone remains alone would indicate. Understanding the relative importance of different species requires that the impact of preservation be considered as well as the range of contexts in which remains are found. We consider this further in the Fayum case study.

Summarizing the evidence for the presence of domestic animals in the Northeast African early to mid-Holocene suggests two separate phases of use (Linseele et al., 2014). Evidence for an early Holocene domestication of cattle now seems unlikely. Therefore, the earliest phase of domestic species use likely dates to the 6th millennium bce, during which sheep, goats, and cattle are present, with all these species almost certainly being introductions from Southwest Asia, although there is debate about the pathway such an introduction followed—either a northern route across the Nile Delta or a southern route across the Gulf of Suez (Smith, 1984; Close, 2002). However, remains of these species come from only a small number of locations: Nabta Playa-Bir Kiseiba, the Fayum, and some of the desert oases sites. This places severe limits on the degree to which pathways for introduction can be reconstructed (di Lernia, 2013). As far as can be determined from the remains that are present, in none of these locations do domestic species represent the majority of the fauna. Instead, in many cases, wild game predominates in the desert sites, while fish are dominant in sites close to water bodies. For this time period, there is no evidence of the use of domestic plant species.

While the early use of domestic species might, as Marshall and Hildebrand (2002) and others (e.g., Clutton-Brock, 1989; Hassan, 2000; Wengrow, 2006) have suggested, reflect an early form of pastoralism intended to provide a “larder on the hoof” form of delayed return system in response to variable naturally occurring resources, the paucity of the evidence cautions against drawing too firm a conclusion. Broadly speaking, there is evidence for environmental variability during the earlier parts of the mid-Holocene as discussed. But it is the local impact of such variability that is important for resource extraction rather than regional environmental shifts per se. Based on the evidence available, it is difficult to demonstrate the early use of cattle herding; indeed, the evidence points to sheep rather than cattle in the Egyptian Western Desert as the more frequent domestic animal, with goats limited to the Eastern Desert. Cattle, while present, are not abundant. Caprines are more abundant than cattle in the Fayum, and in the Nile and Delta sites pigs are at times more numerically important (Linseele et al., 2014). Subsequently, there is evidence from a number of sources—rock art, funerary practice, pottery decoration, and settlement systems—for the movement of pastoralists with cattle and caprines south and west but not until around 3000 bce (di Lernia, 2013).

One of the issues connected with understanding the relative importance of domesticates in past socioeconomies is the division between wild and domestic species. To some degree, this division gains credence from the significance that domestic species take on in full agricultural economies that developed well after the initial use of domestic species. In these economies, a great deal of activity occurred related to the production, storage, and distribution of the resources that came from domestic plants and animals. Any change in domestic production levels therefore had dramatic effects because so many dependencies were built around the resource production involving domestic species. It was difficult, or in many cases virtually impossible to shift back to a dependence on nondomestic species once domestic species were fully integrated into the socioeconomy. However, such is not necessarily the case when the first domestic species became part of the socioeconomies in Egypt and the Sudan. During this time, to understand the inter-dependencies involved, it is necessary to consider domestic and nondomestic species together (see Fish and Nondomestic Animal Exploitation).

Evidence for Early Domestic Plant Use

As with animal domesticates, plants were not domesticated in the Northeast African region. Domesticated plants were instead introduced from Southwest Asia and are largely confined to the Nile Valley that formed an agriculturally productive zone once domesticates were introduced. This agricultural productivity was commonly thought to be accompanied by sedentary settlement, and this in turn was associated with increasing social complexity. This is partly due to the later process of state formation in Egypt, but there is very little evidence of such changes in social complexity in the millennium after the first evidence for Southwest Asian domesticates appear in the archaeological record.

Dental calculus samples from burials in the R12 cemetery site in northern Sudan provided wheat and barley chaff phytoliths. Although a specific species identification was not possible, it seems likely that the phytoliths came from emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccon) and hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare) since both of these species are present in the Fayum and Merimde sites further to the north. The phytoliths from Grave 46, dated to 5311–5066 cal bce, provide evidence for the earliest age for wheat and barley use in Africa (Madella et al., 2014). The date is older than those for wheat and barley use at sites in the Fayum depression and at Merimde. However, burials from R12 and the related cemetery site of Ghaba indicate that people exploited mixed stands of wild savannah grasses as well as wheat and barley. The evidence from Ghaba also suggests the consumption of legumes (Faboideae) together with other nonidentified starchy plants, indicating a broad-spectrum exploitation of plant resources.

In the Fayum, the Upper K Pits and the site of Kom K both provided remains of hulled barley and emmer wheat. The contents of the basketry-lined K Pits indicate that most of the pits were abandoned when empty; however, indications of the original fill of wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccon), barley (Hordeum vulgare ssp. vulgare), and seeds of Polygonum and Linum were present as remains hidden in the fabric of the basketry lining (Holdaway & Wendrich, 2017). Recent radiocarbon determinations obtained on basketry fragments from two of the Upper K pits (Pit 75 and Pit 68) indicate ages between 6200 and 6500 cal bp, more recent than the original dates obtained by Willard Libby from Caton-Thompson’s excavated material. It is not clear whether these pits were created for the storage of seed crop or for the preservation of a surplus to be used after the grains were harvested; however, the pits were accessed multiple times. Not all pits were constructed in the same way, nor were they all of the same size. When found archaeologically, the pits had been emptied. Ceramic storage vessels may also have been used to store grain, although no definitive examples are recorded (Holdaway & Wendrich, 2017). Equally uncertain are the specific locations in which people cultivated the wheat and barley stored in the K Pits, if these crops were indeed grown in the Fayum at all. The use of wheat straw in the Upper K Pits basketry and the presence of sickles among the stone artifact assemblages from the region support local cultivation, and it is possible that use was made of the shallow lake basins situated on the Fayum Basin north shore (Phillipps et al., 2016). If these basins inundated annually in concert with the Nile flood, the largest and shallowest of the lake basins would have been affected most by lake level changes and might have provided a suitable environment for lake shore agriculture. However, there is no direct botanical evidence that this occurred.

Barley is also present at Merimde and El Omari with 6 row barley identified at Merimde but with no subspecies identification possible at El Omari. Emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccon) is present at both Merimde and El Omari, and Cappers (2013) confirms the presence of T. aestivum ssp. compactum (Club wheat) at El Omari. The Western Desert sites do not contain evidence for domestic cereals, but like the Sudanese cemetery sites discussed earlier, there is evidence for use of wild grasses. At Nabta Playa, for example, the site of E-75-6 produced charred remains from 130 taxa, including wild sorghum and millet (Wasylikowa et al., 1997; Wendorf & Schild, 2001). Intensive use of wild plants is indicated at other Saharan sites such as Hidden Valley (Barich et al., 2012; Fahmy, 2014; Lucarini, 2014) and is inferred from the presence of grinding stones that are present in numerous Western Desert sites as well as in the Fayum in contexts older than those where domestic grains are found. This is also true of the late Pleistocene site of Wadi Kubbaniya, where recent analysis of grinding stones (Banks et al., 2013) support previous interpretations of wild plant exploitation (Barakat, 2002; Close, 1996; Wetterstrom, 1993). In summarizing the evidence for wild grass exploitation, di Lernia (2013) comments that rather than animal herding as a delayed return mechanism in the face of environmental unpredictability, the widespread evidence for wild cereal collection might be a better candidate for maintaining food security.

Considering the evidence for domestic plants and animals together, the presence of domestic grains is matched by an increase in the abundance of domestic animals, particularly pigs in the Lower Egyptian Nile Valley sites. This combination is only present at Kharga Oasis among the Western Desert sites where in general evidence for both domestic animals is sparse. Despite a great deal of research, the dataset from which to assess early Egyptian agriculture remains surprisingly meagre. This in part reflects site preservation, notably in the Nile Valley where it has been recognized for some time that many Neolithic sites are likely buried beneath more recent alluvium (e.g., Butzer, 1976; Hassan, 1981; Midant-Reynes, 2000). But it also likely reflects macro-botanical preservation since, like fauna, what gets preserved depends very much on how and where grasses were grown, stored, and processed. It is interesting to reflect on the evidence from the R12 cemetery. Until the results from the Madella and colleagues (2014) study were known, early use of barley and wheat was thought to be limited to Lower Egypt. Phytolith analysis from burials provided a previously unexplored dataset. As Madella and colleagues comment, the results indicate that crop production accompanied the use of domestic animals in what is today northern Sudan. A division between a more sedentary farming economy in the north and a more mobile pastoralist economy in the south now seems less likely (Holdaway & Wendrich, 2017).

Fish and Nondomestic Animal Exploitation

Sutton (1974) first coined the term “African aqualithic” to describe the use of wild aquatic resources during the early Holocene along Middle Africa’s “high lakes” and “longer rivers,” including the Upper Nile Valley, Sahel, and southern Sahara. Camps (1974) referred to this as the “Saharo-Sudanese Neolithic.” Since the publication of these initial studies, the importance of such resources has been discussed at length during the early Holocene. In contrast, the importance of aquatic resources in the in the Lower Nile Valley is at times underplayed.

Work on faunal material from the Fayum indicates that although domestic animals are present by 5400 bce, numerically fish dominate faunal assemblages both before and after this date. Therefore, rather than a fundamental shift in species composition brought about by the arrival of domestic species, the faunal spectrum for all prehistoric sites in the Fayum remains similar. Domestic species are an addition to rather than a replacement for wild species (Brewer, 1989; Wetterstrom, 1993). Fish are also present in high numbers at Merimde where they represent 11.5 percent of the identified remains in level I and up to 45 percent in the later levels. At Sais, what is described as a fish midden is dominated by catfish and tilapia, while at El Omari the fauna also contains a large number of fish consisting mainly of deep-water species. At the Badarian site of Maghar Dendera 2, fish are also predominantly deep-water species from the Nile River’s main channel.

Fish are unsurprisingly rare or absent from the desert sites, with the clarid bones found at Kharga Oasis thought to be imports from the Nile (Lesur et al., 2011). A few bones from marine fish are found in the faunal assemblage from Sodmein Cave. In the desert sites nondomestic land animals predominate. At Djara, for example, desert antelopes (addax, oryx, and gazelle) and many unidentifiable bovids are found. Kharga Oasis shows a similar dominance of gazelle accompanied by hare, Barbary sheep, and ostrich. The same is true at Nabta Playa, although the proportion of hunted animals decreases over time. At Sodmein Cave, hunted animals include cat, rock dassie (Procavia capensis), and gazelle. Although the specifics of the faunal assemblages show variation, the overall pattern is one where locally available animals are the primary prey targets. When domesticates become available, as noted, they form an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the nondomestic species. This raises the question about what changed around 4000 bce when settlement patterns shifted, and there is evidence for both increased occupation of the Nile and a greater reliance on the use of domestic grains to produce such staples as bread and beer.

Pennington and colleagues (2016) relate changes in the rate of sea-level change and the consequent effect these changes had on delta environments as well as shifts from reliance on fishing to greater dependence on agriculture. They contrast what they term a period of large-scale crevassing, characterized by frequent avulsion of river channels and consequent rapid floodplain aggradation, with slower aggradation once sea levels stabilized that they term a meandering river. The transition between these two states, which Pennington and colleagues date to 4000–3000 bce, saw a drop in the nutritional abundance of deltas like the Nile Delta, and it also saw a change in the distance over which habitats change. During the large-scale crevassing period, fertile soils occurred in short disconnected patches, with fish resources also distributed in patches across the delta. This changed during the meandering river period when stable areas of soil increased in size. Pennington and colleagues (2016) argue that these changes may help to explain less economic dependence on fish during later periods and greater reliance on crops. The shift to the incorporation of domestic species cannot therefore be attributed to their arrival, neither animals nor plants, since as the review above indicates, these species were present for a considerable period during which nondomestic species continued to be significant. As the use of domestic grains in the Fayum indicates, technologies like basket-lined storage pits for grain and sickles for harvest existed before this shift, so the cause equally does not relate to technological invention. Nor can the shift be equated with a single environmental change since, as discussed earlier, a series of environmental changes brought on by climatic shifts occurred across Northeast Africa in the early to mid-Holocene. Rather than one primary cause for the shift to a dependency on domestic species, causation is better seen as a series of interacting processes, both cultural and natural, including the type of shift that Pennington and colleagues discuss, which altered the dependencies between people and the range of resources they exploited. How these interdependencies might be understood is illustrated by summarizing a case study based on work in the Fayum.

The Fayum Case Study

In the early 20th century, Caton-Thompson and Gardner (1934) identified a number of locations across the Fayum Basin north shore attributed to the Neolithic period, particularly the sites of Kom K and Kom W, and the K Pits. However, despite the long-held interest in these sites, the majority of Fayum north shore records consist of surface scatters of stone artifacts, ceramics, faunal material, and the remains of heat retainer hearths. Surface deposits are ubiquitous along the Fayum north shore but differ in density and composition. Studies of the distribution and composition of the surface remains provide insights into past landscape use. They also provide a range of new contexts that have changed previous inferences derived only from stratified deposits. Chronology provides one example of how new radiocarbon determinations from surface hearths changed older interpretations of a pronounced period of activity in the first half of the early Holocene (ca. 9200–9000 cal bp), followed by a period of abandonment and then reoccupation during the mid-Holocene (ca. 6550–6100 cal. bp) (Wendorf & Schild, 1976; Hassan, 1986). There are now a number of hearth ages from the latter part of the early Holocene (from ca. 8500–7500 cal bp) that show how from this period until 6000 bp, there was frequent activity across the north shore (Holdaway & Wendrich, 2017). With this new evidence, the older division between an early Epipalaeolithic and a later Neolithic, which separated wild from domestic resource use, can now be seen as a product of the limited number of dates obtained in earlier studies from stratified deposits. Fish can now be shown to be the predominant faunal resource during all periods in the Fayum (Linseele et al., 2014).

It is possible that grinding stones were in use throughout much of the history of occupation in the Fayum since their presence need not relate solely to the presence of domestic grains. While the grinding stones themselves cannot be dated, they were potentially in use throughout much of the early to mid-Holocene. If so, then, they may indicate the extended use of wild grains to which domestic forms were added around the mid-Holocene.

As discussed earlier, domesticates likely played only a minor role in the Fayum where faunal assemblages are dominated numerically by fish. Tilapia and clariid catfish found at Kom K are most often large, sexually mature specimens, captured when spawning in shallow waters during periods when the north shore lake basins were flooded from August to September (Linseele et al., 2014). The eastern basins were shallow and lacked steep shorelines receiving water from the lake only during periods when the Nile flooded (Phillipps et al., 2016). Topographic variability likely influenced the impact of fluctuations in lake level whether they occurred annually or over broader time scales. Water depth, size, and energy (i.e., wind action) variability between the basins also likely affected the types of vegetation and fauna found both around and within them. This may be significant in relation to the resources available to inhabitants of the northern shore, as particular fish species have well-documented habitats that differ, including seasonal spawning. Vegetation may additionally have facilitated or at times limited access to the lake and basin shores, and this was also likely variable.

It is not known whether storage locations for grain were created for seed crop or surplus to be used after the grains were harvested. Older studies suggested the use of the lake margin to cultivate cereals, the annually receding floodwaters providing irrigated sediment (Caton-Thompson & Gardner, 1934; Wenke et al., 1988). However, it is the shores of the lake basins, particularly the largest and shallowest basins L, K, and X, that potentially provided a suitable environment for lake shore agriculture, although there is no direct evidence that this occurred (Phillipps et al., 2016). The influence of rainfall and the natural channels provided by wadis for soil irrigation also needs to be considered (Phillipps et al., 2012). The Fayum was abandoned around 4000 bce and not reoccupied intensively until Greco-Roman times. This raises the question of why, if lake edge agriculture was productive, did it not continue? One possibility is that during this period the lake was too high, and as a consequence regions close to the lake became unsuitable for cultivation (Williams, 2009). Alternatively, it might not be the domestic crops at all that were the driver for abandonment, particularly since as it is far from clear how significant domestic species were in early socioeconomies. If the numeric predominance of fish in faunal deposits does indeed equate with their economic importance, then the impact that any changes in lake and lake basin levels had on fish abundance might be more significant for human use of the region. Although it is not known where people moved to after they left the Fayum, they may have moved into the Nile Valley proper. This has obvious implications for the development of agricultural practice, since in the Nile Valley they likely encountered an environment that was somewhat different from that of the Fayum (Pennington et al., 2016).

Searching for the origins of agriculture understandably focuses attention on the plants and animals that were domesticated since contemporary agricultural systems are by and large based solely on domestic species. But as already discussed, domestication alone does not explain the advent of complex systems of food production, storage, and distribution. In the Fayum region in particular and in Northeast Africa more generally, it is important to understand the sets of relationships that involved both domestic and nondomestic plants and animals. The Fayum was occupied by people from the beginning of the Holocene, and the archaeological record they left indicates that they moved into and out of the region on many occasions. Faunal remains indicate that fish was likely an attractive resource, with people taking particular advantage of the availability of large adults during certain times of the year. Domestic animals came to be part of the socioeconomy, although the earliest remains are too isolated and poor in numbers to make accurate estimates of their importance or indeed the way in which they were tended. Later in time, domestic grains were added together with a wider range of domestic species; however, the exploitation of fish continued. Storage facilities were also added in the form of basket-lined pits and possibly the use of large ceramic jars. If indeed ceramics were used for storage, then these facilities were distributed at a number of places across the Fayum north shore. Evidence for mobility continues even after domestic plants are added (Phillipps & Holdaway, 2016). At least initially, the dependencies introduced by the need to cultivate, harvest, and store grain were not sufficient to fundamentally change the nature of settlement. However, around 4000 bce occupation of the Fayum cease, around the time that evidence for the Predynastic settlement in the Nile Valley begins.

By understanding the relationship between the Fayum basins and the behavior of the fish species that were exploited, it is possible to begin to appreciate the dependencies between fluctuations in the Nile and associated inundation of areas adjacent to Lake Qarun, particularly the north shore lake basins. People who exploited the seasonal abundance of fish would link a number of other activities to the timing of this resource. Some of these activities no doubt involved domestic plants and animals. If wheat and barley were grown locally, then it is reasonable to suggest that seasonal shifts were also important for these resources. Winter rains, for example, may have been important for grain production (Phillipps et al., 2012). It seems unlikely that fish disappeared from Lake Qarun around 4000 bce, but if, as Williams and colleagues (2010) suggest, Nile River levels changed, then it is possible that some combination of abundance and easy of capture shifted. These changes may have in turn had an impact on the viability of growing grain and tending domestic animals such as sheep and to a lesser extent pigs and cattle in ways similar to those that Pennington and colleagues (2016) discuss. It is the interrelationships among these variables that is important rather than the significance of any one of them individually. In this sense, environmental change did not “cause” the abandonment of the Fayum; it simply changed the conditions that made a particular socioeconomy viable.

The reasons why people with domestic plants and animals abandoned the Fayum are in one sense not so different from the reasons that they adopted the use of domestics in the first place. As the evidence indicates, the arrival of first domestic animals and then plants did not usher in a socioeconomic revolution. The major economic and settlement pattern components continued relatively unchanged. Rather than seeing domestic plant and animal use as a revelation, their arrival indicates a particular set of conditions that made their use desirable within the established socioeconomy. There evidently was nothing about the use of sheep that made the exploitation of fish unproductive. People continued to move, as indicated by the use of portable material culture like stone artifacts, so domestic animals were presumably able to move with them. Even the introduction of domestic grains did not seem to limit mobility, so the establishment of a storage technology (the basket-lined pits) could be integrated successfully with movement and fish.

Consequences of Agriculture

The introduction of domesticated plants and animals from Southwest Asia had a lasting impact on Northeast African socioeconomies. These species made their way into the Upper Nile Valley and were eventually combined with other species domesticated in Africa to form economic systems suited to particular environmental regimes (Fuller & Hildebrand, 2013). In Egypt, continued reliance was placed on a combination of cereal and domestic animal species but in combination with wild resources, in particular fish (Brewer, 2007; Brewer & Friedman, 1989; Gautier & Van Neer, 2009). The drying of the Sahara after the African Humid Period is often considered the catalyst for the Egyptian Nile Valley’s population increase, social complexity, state formation, and ideology, in addition to stimulating changes in economic structure that ultimately sustained a pharaonic civilization (e.g., Kuper & Kröpelin, 2006). The movement of mobile pastoral populations from the desert into the Nile Valley occupied by populations practicing Southwest Asian systems of cereal cultivation is often interpreted to have led to the creation of the unique Dynastic agricultural system based on seasonal irrigation via flooding of the Nile River (the décrue system—broadcast sowing of grains into fields as the floodwaters receded). However, research suggests that influences from the Upper Nile Valley may have played a more critical role than previously thought (Wengrow, 2006; Wengrow et al., 2014; Gatto, 2011). Rather than a simple process of cultural assimilation from Southwest Asia, the development of the system of agriculture in the Lower Nile Valley was likely complex, regionally variable, and temporally dynamic, and ultimately it does not permit simple characterization during any period.

Much is made of the role of environmental management, agricultural productivity, surplus, and differential access to resources in processes of state formation (e.g., Allen, 1997; Butzer, 1976; Kemp, 1989; Wittfogel, 1957, see also Köhler, 2010). While economic systems, including trade, undoubtedly played a role in Egyptian state formation, alternative models have also been considered. These approaches emphasize earlier changes in social organization and ideology during the Predynastic period, especially the development of cattle pastoralism (Wengrow, 2006), which, as noted in the section on pastoralism, is evident after 5000 bp. Motifs associated with cattle occur frequently in Predynastic and Dynastic imagery, commonly associated with notions of power (Hendrickx, 2002; Hendrickx et al., 2010; Wengrow, 2001). Thus, although the evidence for cattle pastoralism in the early Holocene is poor, its presence in later times is much better attested. Wengrow and colleagues (2014) link the development of pastoralism with the development of relationships between people and place through elaborate funerary rites, collective feasting, and repeated use of burial grounds.

Cereal cultivation may have equally played an important role in the development of Dynastic ideology. Agriculture in the Nile Valley required clearance of vegetation growing along the river margins (Butzer, 1976; Williams, 2009). In parts of the Nile Valley, topography consisted of small natural basins suitable for modification to retain water (Brewer, 2007; Hurst, 1952; Said, 1962; Trigger, 1983, p. 14). In other places, wadi assisted water runoff provided irrigation for agriculture (Hoffman, 1982, p. 141; Kemp, 2006, p. 75). The Scorpion mace-head, dating to Naqada III (ca. 3000 bce) (Davies, 1992) shows the king about to break a dyke open to allow the floodwaters through. The depiction suggests that the act must have held some importance, just as the flow of the Nile was crucial to the stability of agricultural systems and political unity in later pharaonic Egypt (Allen, 1997; Hassan, 1997; Krom et al., 2002; Stanley et al., 2003). In a similar way, wild food resources may also have held ideological significance. For example, the name of the first king of Egypt, Narmer, means catfish, which may emphasize the continued significance of fish in early Dynastic economies, or at least its ideological role (Wilkinson, 2000).

Throughout all Dynastic Egypt and into the Greco-Roman period, climate and environment remained important to the sustainability of the agricultural systems that emerged throughout the mid-late Holocene (Butzer, 1976; Hassan, 1997). Attempts to quantify Nile flow and predict agricultural outcomes became of critical importance (e.g., Bell, 1970), and catastrophic failures, presumably as a result of environmental conditions, are recorded in a number of contexts (e.g., Butzer, 1984; Hassan, 1955, 1997). In contrast, desert regions once inhabited during the early Holocene held limited evidence for occupation thereafter, mostly confined to the desert oases and trade routes across the Sahara. Dynastic ideology posited the desert as a binary opposite to the Nile; rather than the predictable and sustaining river, the desert became dangerous and unpredictable. Containment of this chaos and unrule by the king became a recurring theme in Dynastic iconography (Kemp, 2006; Hendrickx, 2006; Wilkinson, 1999).


Northeast Africa was affected by significant environmental change during the early to mid-Holocene, a time period that also saw the beginnings of agriculture. However, any simple causal relationship between the two is difficult to sustain because of both the variability indicated in the local expressions of environmental change and the variable ways domestic plants and animals were incorporated into local socioeconomies. Older notions of a replacement of hunter-gatherer-based economies with a package of domestic species and associated technologies are not supported by the evidence. Instead, domestic species were an addition to socioeconomies based on the exploitation of a variety of wild plant and animal species. Environmental changes certainly played a role in economic change, but in case studies like the Fayum, this role was the outcome of a complex set of interrelationships between people, wild and domestic species behavior and productivity, and local environments.

While it is tempting to discuss the origins of agriculture in relation to single data points, issues concerning the absence of evidence related to the contexts in which such evidence is preserved mean that such temptations should be avoided. Suggestions of early cattle pastoralism in Egypt is a good example. Based on a comparison of the evidence from numerous sites, it is caprines rather than cattle that appear to be used first and at a later date than initial indications of domestic cattle use once suggested. There is thus no reason to suggest an early pastoralist cattle-based economy in Northeast Africa. The use of domestic animals does appear to be earlier than the use of domestic plants, however, even here issues of preservation must be considered. As the phytolith evidence from the R12 cemetery site indicates, the presence of species may depend on which depositional contexts are available and , of course, on which contexts are investigated.

In later periods, a variety of sources indicate how the interrelationships between people and both domestic and wild species together with the environment involved aspects of ideology. It is reasonable to expect that similar types of relationships existed in earlier periods, even though the specifics of these relationships might be different. For example, the predictability of the Nile versus the unpredictability of the desert in Dynastic times was likely reversed during the early Holocene, potentially associated with changes in ideology. It is to be expected that these types of shifts would add to the complexity with which humans interacted with the environment.

The contemporary view of the development of agriculture in relation to environmental change in Northeast Africa is more complex than that discussed by a previous generation of archaeologists who saw the arrival of agriculture as a replacement of the use of wild resources induced by environmental change. The current view instead indicates the complexity of human–environmental interactions, of which the development of agriculture was a part. This should come as no surprise. Human interactions with plants and animals and the environments in which they are found is indeed a complex process wherever it occurs, and it has important implications for considering such interactions in the present and into the future.

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