Although we are accustomed to reading about Egyptian kings and great pharaohs, about gigantic monuments such as pyramids and mastabas, Egyptian civilization did not emerge out of nowhere but developed from prehistoric cultures around the Nile Delta.

The oldest, and perhaps one of the most enigmatic, which is considered the origin of the later Egyptian civilization, is the Merimde culture that flourished approximately from the end of the sixth millennium B.C. to the beginning of the fourth millennium B.C.

Its name comes from the archaeological site of Merimde, located near the village of Benisalame about 45 kilometers northwest of present-day Cairo, discovered by archaeologist Hermann Junker in 1928.

Merimde Site
Merimde Site. Credit: Giulio Lucarini / Egypt Exploration Society

Junker excavated the site until 1939, but the results were never published because all the documentation was lost during World War II. It was necessary to wait for the excavations of the German Archaeological Institute between 1977 and 1982 to obtain the first systematic studies.

According to Joanne M. Rowland, the Neolithic settlement of Merimde is unique, as it provides the oldest evidence of a constructed Neolithic settlement in North Africa. It consisted of small wattle-and-reed huts initially and adobe later, with round or elliptical plans, and its inhabitants engaged in agriculture and livestock farming, with no apparent social differentiation among them.

They stored grain in large jars 2.4 meters in diameter buried in the ground and distributed throughout the village, and supplemented their diet with hunting and fishing. From the beginning, cattle were predominant, and their numbers increased over time. Fishing became a crucial activity, with evidence of hunting hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and turtles, and the consumption of river mollusks. This focus on aquatic resources highlights the adaptation of the Merimde people to their environment and their ability to exploit Nile resources.

Another view of Merimde's idol's head
Another view of Merimde’s idol’s head. Credit: Prof. Mortel / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

They made bowls and basins of pottery surprisingly created without additives to harden the clay, an advanced technique for their time. Among the small artifacts they created are human idols, bull figurines, jewelry made from freshwater shells, and ostrich egg beads. These objects indicate an extensive exchange network reaching the Red Sea, as many of the shell species found are not native to the region.

One of the most intriguing findings of the Merimde culture is the lack of cemeteries. Instead, the dead were buried in front of their former homes, in oval pits in a fetal position facing the entrance, without any grave goods or offerings. Children, probably not yet considered full members of the community, were simply thrown into the settlement’s waste pits.

Most of the skeletons buried this way and found during excavations were dolichocephalic, meaning their skulls were longer than normal in relation to their width, a common trait in predynastic Egyptian cultures.

Another of Merimde's heads
Another of Merimde’s heads. Credit: Prof. Mortel / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

The Merimde culture shows an interesting transition of cultural influences. Initially linked with Southwest Asia, its connections shifted toward the African sphere until it consolidated as an indigenous Neolithic culture of Lower Egypt, influencing later Neolithic cultures such as Fayum-A and Maadi.

Merimde art is characterized by terracotta figurines, such as the well-known idol head dated to the fourth millennium B.C., which constitutes the first human representation found in Egypt. Carved with just five schematic holes representing the eyes, nose, and mouth on an oval block, it was probably used in religious rituals on some support. Some researchers believe that the head, measuring about 12 centimeters, was complemented with hair and beard made of feathers inserted into the small holes around the face. Other heads or faces resemble masks, but all seem to have had a ritual use and are, according to Carlos Blanco, difficult to interpret due to their grotesque appearance.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 25, 2024: La enigmática Cultura Merimdense, el origen de la civilización egipcia

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