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In 2006, researchers pointed to data from 150 sites across the eastern Sahara that showed the region underwent significant desertification over several centuries, beginning about 5300 B. Conditions became so arid that even once-inhabited oases and highland refuges were abandoned by 3500 B. — just as previously nomadic populations were settling into Nile Valley farming communities, driven to the fertile floodplain by the encroaching desert.“There was a drying up of the Sahara, and people headed to the Nile Valley, that’s true,” says Dee. The people settling the Nile Valley already shared long-term cultural identities that tied them more closely together than anything to do with climate change.” The overall pace of desertification quickened about 3800 to 3700 B.The study Buckley and colleagues published in the journal PLOS One showed that mummification was established much earlier in Egypt than we knew — as early as 4300 B.
C., after the foundation of the Egyptian state, as previously thought.
The findings also complement a new and more precise chronology for ancient Egypt, published in 2013 by another group of researchers.
The Role of Climate in a Rising Culture But why did nomadic herders, ranging for millennia across much of what is now Egypt and northern Sudan, choose suddenly to settle and begin intensive agriculture in the relatively restricted area of the Nile Valley?
Some archaeologists believe that climate change was the catalyst.
They pinpointed the start of the Naqada period to approximately 3800 to 3700 B. When looking back over millennia, a couple of centuries might seem like a modest change.
But the absolute chronology’s new start date of the Naqada period, 3800 to 3700 B.“It’s not surprising that they could bind together so quickly,” says Dee.“You could see in the culture they already shared the start of what would become a culture around the king, entombing him in grand pyramids.” Buckley agrees, noting that the ingredients he identified in the mummification materials — including some sourced from as far away as modern-day Turkey — indicated a sophisticated culture with established rituals and symbolic values attached to materials used in preparing the dead for burial.C., the date of the onset of the agricultural, Nile Valley-based Naqada period, according to the absolute chronology.In an intriguing way, Buckley’s chemical analysis of funerary textiles also supports the idea that it was climate change that forced the nomadic herders into farming the Nile Valley instead.What Buckley’s analysis revealed surprised even him.The components of the toffee-like material, and their relative proportions, were nearly the same as the recipe of a mixture applied to textiles during mummification at the height of the practice in Egypt, around 1500 to 1000 B. In addition, certain ingredients, such as resin from coniferous plants, showed evidence of being heated and processed before application, confirming that collecting, making and applying the concoction were intentional acts, not merely an accident of nature or guesswork. They were conducting experiments and making observations,” says Buckley.By contrast, the period between the establishment of permanent settlements and intensive agriculture in Mesopotamia and the rise of the ancient Sumer civilization as a unified political entity was nearly two millennia.Again, Buckley’s chemical analysis of those toffee-like bits provides a clue as to how prehistoric Egyptian society coalesced so quickly.The analysis proved that the practice of mummification was already established as early as the fifth millennium B. and that the core recipe already had been worked out and would remain nearly unchanged throughout the course of the civilization.That implies that the scattered, nomadic herders of the early Badarian period were not so disorganized, or so primitive, as archaeologists had commonly believed. (left), human settlements, indicated above by red dots, were established throughout the area. C., as the desert encroached, settlements clustered in the fertile Nile Valley.“They were incredibly complex,” says Michael Dee of the University of Oxford, a co-author of the first absolute chronology.