Artifacts discovered in and around the narrow floodplain that surrounds the Nile’s eastern and western banks, from the rocky, turbulent First Cataract in the south to the wide, fan-shaped delta in the north, indicate an early human presence and dependence on the land.
As early as 700,000 years ago, the unique geography of the world’s longest river facilitated the distribution of Homo erectus, or “upright walking man,” through eastern Africa into the Levant, modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and much of southeastern Turkey, India, and eventually to Java, where the most recent Homo erectus fossils have been discovered.
Unfortunately, no such fossilized remains have yet been discovered in the region that would later be known as Egypt.
However, the uncovering of uniquely pear-shaped, flaked, flint hand-axes is considered to be related to Homo erectus indicating that these early nomadic hunter-gatherers traversed the valley for thousands of years.
The environment surrounding the river at the time resembled savannah rather than the dry, desertified climate we know now, and enormous populations of
gazelle, hartebeest, gigantic buffalo, and other grazing animals offered an abundant food source.
Homo heidelbergensis, which shared some characteristics with Homo erectus but had a larger braincase, coexisted with its possible ancestor for at least 500,000 years, until around 200,000 BCE, and must have passed through the Nile Valley because evidence of its presence in the Levant dates back to 790,000 BCE.
Homo heidelbergensis may have been more communal than its predecessor, as evidenced by the construction of hearths and the demonstration of the first human-made fire.
They were also more inventive, substantial innovations to the flint hand-ax, as well as the production of wooden spears, point to the growth of early human hunting abilities.
In this case, Homo heidelbergensis is credited with becoming the first big game hunter.
While Homo heidelbergensis withstood darker evenings and freezing winter temperatures in Europe and the northern Mediterranean region around 400,000 BCE, delicate evolutionary genetic mechanisms were at work. One result of these events was the emergence of a new branch of the Homo genus, Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals as we have come to know them.
The name Neanderthal comes from the Neander Valley in Germany, where their remains were first identified, as well as parts of southwest and central Asia, where the discovery of their more sophisticated stone tool technology, called Mousterian, as opposed to Homo erectus archaic Acheulean hand-ax technology, attests to their presence.
Neanderthals lived in a little more polished, but not drastically different, style than their ancestors.
They lived in a community, constructed shelters, regulated fire, and hunted large animals with spears.
Forensic research of Neanderthal skeletal development reveals that Neanderthals utilized these spears by thrusting rather than throwing, implying two things:
To succeed, Neanderthals had to get up and personal with their prey on a regular basis, and they had to hunt collectively in bigger groups.
The Neanderthal tool scraper, used to extract animal meat from skins that were discovered in Western Sahara near the Nile Valley, indicates the existence of Neanderthals from roughly 70,000 BCE to 43,000 BCE.
Unfortunately, the apparent disappearance of Neanderthals from the Nile Valley region after that time overlaps with the appearance of the first modern humans, the effect of whose earlier Cognitive Revolution enabled them to outcompete their genetic cousins, drove them to extinction.
After around 30,000 BCE, there is no trace of Homo neanderthalensis in the fossil record elsewhere in the world.
Where did these new kids on the block come from?
The Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia witnessed what has proven to be a watershed moment in world history, close to 200,000 years ago, with the first appearance of Homo sapiens, dubbed ‘Anatomically-Modern Humans’ to distinguish them from later, post-cognitive-revolution Homo sapiens sapiens, dubbed modern humans, appeared between 70,000 BCE and 30,000 BCE in Eastern Africa.
The former shared many of the cultural qualities of their Homo heidelbergensis ancestors, but they didn’t seem to create much of a genetic ripple until the Cognitive Revolution.
“But then beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things,” says Harari. Concerning those who remained in Eastern Africa after the departure of Homo sapiens bands during the second “Out-of-Africa” event around 65,000 BCE, and who migrated into the Nile Valley around 43,000 BCE, archaeological evidence reveals dramatic advances in tool technology and construction, hunting practices, pottery crafting, pigment grinding for cosmetic and ceremonial uses, and burial of the dead.
Western Sahara was rich with flora during the time of the Out-of-Africa migration, circa 65,000 BCE, due to cyclical climatic and environmental cycles that transformed the once-arid region into lush savannah.
That cycle had reversed itself when Homo sapiens first arrived in the Nile basin, bringing the return of dry and less livable conditions beyond the valley’s outskirts.
Despite the fact that climate change lowered Nile river flow during this time period, evidence suggests that men employed fishing to produce food for their families.
The people lived in smaller groups of 25-50 individuals. They were still hunters and gatherers, but their bigger brains and cognitive hardwiring enabled them to innovate in terms of subsistence practices and technology.
Men, for example, had shifted away from cutting chert blanks, which would eventually be fashioned into primitive axes and blades, in favor of more durable and sharper materials like obsidian, flint, or quartzite.
During this period, mankind figured out how to construct a sickle, which they used to harvest wild crops.
The agricultural revolution was thousands of years in the future!
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