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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Importance of Nubia: A Link between Central Africa and the Mediterranean (5)

Nubia is so situated that it ought to provide more well-dated information than any other African country concerning the historical links between Central and North Africa and between the east and west of the continent.
By: S. Adam and O.J.Vercoutt
Edited by Alula Berhe Kidani
Nubia is so situated that it ought to provide more well-dated information than any other African country concerning the historical links between Central and North Africa and between the east and west of the continent.
An important archaeological find in 1961-2 has helped to cast a little more light on the background of the history of the Nubian Corridor during this obscure period. A settlement of the Egyptian Old K i n g d o m was discovered at Buhen, with Pharaonic seals, some dating from the end of the fourth dynasty, but most from the fifth dynasty. This settlement was linked to a group of furnaces used for smelting copper.
The discovery reveals, first, that the Egyptians did not depend solely on Asian copper - from Sinai in particular - and that they had already something of great importance: that the Egyptians had been able - or had been obliged - to introduce smelting techniques in the upper Nile valley.
The Buhen find proves that African copper was produced at this time. But to produce copper you must first discover and then mine the vein, build special furnaces and supply them with a suitable fuel, make meltingpots, cast the metal and refine it at least to a certain extent before finally making it into ingots. T h e Nubians could hardly have watched all this going on, even if they were not actively engaged in it, without acquiring at least a basic knowledge of metallurgy. This early introduction to metallurgy, in the middle of the third millennium before our era, is probably the best explanation for the skill they showed some 500 years later (around —2000) in making copper objects as well as in handling gold.
A little before —2200, this obscure period drew to a close, and we again c o m e across information from both archaeological and literary sources. The Egyptian documents of the sixth dynasty, the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom , include several accounts of expeditions into Upper Nubia (see Chapter 9). At the beginning of this dynasty these expeditions were clearly of a commercial nature, and peaceful: the Egyptians sought to obtain in Nubia the scarce types of stone needed for royal buildings, or simply wood . The y employed a technique which was to be used again later: they looked for scarce or bulky goods and woo d at the same time.
Wood from the upper valley was used to build boats which then transported the heavy goods back to Egypt, where the fleet of boats was dismantled and the woo d reused for other purposes. Clearly this commerce also furthered the circulation of ideas and techniques in both directions. The Egyptian pantheon even acquired a n e w African deity, D e d u n , provider of incense. To improve their communications with the south, the Egyptians dug out navigable channels in the rapids of the First Cataract at Aswan ; this policy, initiated in the third millennium before our era, was to be continued by the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom and later by those of the New Kingdom .
Egyptian expeditions also took the land routes as well as routes along the river valley. At that time these were certainly not desert tracks, because the Neolithic humid phase had barely ended; the journey south, if not in the shade, must have abounded with springs and water-holes, since pack animals such as asses, which need regular supplies of water, were in normal use. It was along one of these tracks, the so-called oasis route, that asses transported incense, ebony, certain oils, leopard-skins, ivory and so forth to Egypt. Recent discoveries suggest that at least one such road began at the Dakhilah oasis, the oasis of Khargah being still a lake. Unfortunately, Egyptian texts do not tell us what the Egyptians gave in exchange for the goods they brought back, nor do they state exactly where they got their supplies, which is still more unfortunate. The y mention a number of African place names, but specialists are still uncertain where these are located. Here, too, much could emerge from the systematic archaeological exploration not only of the Nubian part of the Nile valley south of the Second Cataract but also - and this is perhaps more important - of the land routes to the west of the valley, which link the chain of 'Libyan' oases with Selima and the valleys or depressions leading to Ennedi, Tibesti, Kordofan, Darfur and Lake Chad.
Whether they followed the valley or went overland, it seems very likely that, from these early times, the Egyptians were already in touch with Africa south of the Sahara, and that the 'Nubian Corridor' played an important part in these contacts. Under Pepi II, towards —2200, an Egyptian expedition brought back from the distant south a 'dwarf for the sacred dance' (see Chapter 9). T h e word used to describe this person is deneg, whereas the usual term employed for a dwarf in the hieroglyphic texts is nemu. We might well wonder - and the answer is likely to be positive - whether deneg refers in fact to a P y g m y . If this is so – and the translation deneg = Pygmy is now broadly accepted - the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom must have been in direct or indirect contact with this race from the equatorial forest. Even if the Pygmies' habitat extended m u c h farther north than it does today, which is possible and even likely, because of the different climate during the third millennium, this area would still have been very far to the south of Nubia. We can therefore conclude that the Egyptians of the Old K i n g d o m had contacts with Central Africa, and that Nubia and its inhabitants did m u c h to make such contacts possible.
In any case, contacts between Egypt and Central Africa probably go back a very long way, since the word deneg occurs in the Pyramid texts. Admittedly, there is a great deal of disagreement as to w h e n these texts were written, but even if we take the most conservative estimate they could not be later than the fifth dynasty, and it is very probable that they are much older.
Thus , in the sixth dynasty at the very latest, the Egyptians knew of the existence of Pygmies. This is confirmed by a sixth-dynasty text which relates that a deneg had already reached Egypt in the time of the Pharaoh Isesi, the last king but one of the fifth dynasty. This Pygmy had been found in the land of Punt, which suggests that his homeland must have been very far to the south of Nubia, since Punt must be somewhere along the coast of Eritrea or Somalia. Here, too, the 'dwarf dancer' must have been acquired for the Egyptians b y a third party. In each case the probable presence of Pygmies in Egypt implies that there were contacts between the lower Nile valley and sub-equatorial Africa.
At the end of the sixth dynasty, in the reign of Pepi II, the peaceful relations between Egypt and Nubia, based on mutual interest and the Pharaohs' need to have free access to the resources of the distant regions of Africa, appear to deteriorate. Texts written towards the end of Pepi II's reign hint at conflicts between Egyptian expeditions and inhabitants of the Corridor. For example, an Egyptian leading an expedition was killed during his journey south, and his son had to moun t an attack to recover the body and bring it back for ritual burial in Egypt.
It is difficult not to see a connection between this tension and the changes which began to affect the climate towards —2400, which certainly led to population movements . Up to —2400, the whole area between 15° and 30 o north was more humid than today and hence habitable. Even if it was not densely populated in relation to its size, this area must have supported a large number of inhabitants.
But the climate gradually became dry, and drove these people to take refuge in more hospitable regions: the south and, of course, the Nile valley, Egyptian iconography seems to have perpetuated the memory of these migrations. It is about —2350, at the time of the fifth dynasty, that the theme of cadaverous shepherds first appears in the scenes of daily life painted on the mastabas. It is tempting, indeed more than tempting, to see in these famished figures nomadic or semi-nomadic shepherds w h o had fled the encroaching desert to find food and work in Egypt.
There thus seems no point in looking - as has been done - for a distant origin of the so-called C - G r o u p peoples (see Chapter 9) w h o appear towards—2300 in the Nubian Corridor. These people had in fact been close by and were only driven to settle in the valley by the change in climatic conditions.
But these migrants from the encroaching desert must have had to struggle against those already living by the river - and the texts from the end of the sixth dynasty might well be an echo of this antagonism.
How’ve r this maybe, these new peoples were descended directly from the A - Group as archaeological sources m a ke clear. The y kept up the tradition of mutual exchange with the lower Nile valley, and later served as intermediaries between Africa and the Egyptian and Mediterranean civilizations.
From —2300, so far as archaeology can tell, the population of the Nubian Corridor split up into several 'families'. Thoug h closely related, they each had their o w n material culture - pottery, types of instruments, weapons and tools - and their o w n burial rites - type of tomb , the arrangement of the tomb , furniture inside and outside the sepulchre, etc. T h e similarities, however, far outweigh the differences: the important place of livestock breeding, the widespread use of the red pottery with a black border, 'tumulus'-type graves, and so forth.