Nabta Playa is a large, complex archaeological site in the eastern Sahara in Egypt, where some of the earliest known evidence of domesticated cattle, pottery, and astronomical observatories in Africa have been identified. The site is one of several sites in the Nabta Playa-Kiseiba region, and they together represent some of the earliest roots of what would become predynastic and then dynastic Egypt.
Nabta Playa itself covers an area of some four kilometers in diameter, and excavations have been conducted at several locations within it since excavations began in the 1970s, led by a joint American-Polish excavation directed by Romuald Schild and Fred Wendorf.
Chronology of Nabta Playa
- Late Neolithic 6,500-4,800 uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago (RCYBP)
- Middle Neolithic 7,100-6700 RCYBP
- Early Neolithic El Adam phase, 9,800-7500 RCYBP (10,000-8750 cal BP)
Living at Nabta Playa
Excavations at several sites at Nabta Playa dated to the Early Neolithic have produced numerous hut foundations, several dozen hearths and tens of thousands of stone artifacts and bone fragments. Pottery fragments from Nabta Playa represent the oldest discovered in Africa to date, at site E-79-08 at El Adam Playa, within a feature radiocarbon-dated to 9820+-380 BP (calibrated to 10,000-8800 cal BP).
Evidence that Neolithic residents of Nabta Playa paid attention to movements of the stars is illustrated in the several structures, some of which could be designated astronomical observatories.
Subsistence data at Nabta Playa shows that the early Neolithic period (9800-8900 BP) people dined on gazelle, rabbit and (eventually) domesticated cattle. Throughout the Neolithic is evidenced a steady increase in the amount of time invested in gathering, pastoralism, and eventually agriculture. Cattle were likely domesticated in the region by ca 9,000 BP. Domesticated sheep and goats were obtained by the people at Nabta Playa from southwest Asia during the Middle Neolithic period.
The Late Neolithic period at Nabta Playa has evidence of millet agriculture, tombs, and megalithic structures, with the suggestion of ranking and ceremonialism found in elaborated tombs, differentiation in house and storage facilities, and megalithic stone constructions.
Archaeoastronomy at Nabta Playa
The oldest ceremonial structures which may be associated with astronomy are ten large tumuli built of sandstone blocks, located at the end of a wadi and oriented towards the north. The tumuli contained offerings of butchered cattle, goats and sheep. A tamarisk from the roof of one was dated to 7500-7400 cal BP.
A stone circle or cromlech, measuring 4 meters (13 feet) across, is probably the best evidence for astronomical observation. It has two sightlines, one pointed north, the other towards what would have been the rising sun at the June solstice. A hearth adjacent to the cromlech dates to 4800 BC.
In addition, there are about 30 complex megalithic structures at Nabta Playa, which were built between 4600 and 3400 BC. Of these, several consist of oval arrangements of large sandstone blocks, measuring between 5-7 meters long and 4-6 meters wide, oriented north-south or slightly rotated.
See the Guide to the Nabta Playa Kiseiba Region for additional information.
Johnson AL. 2002. Cross-Cultural Analysis of Pastoral Adaptations and Organizational States: A Preliminary Study. Cross-Cultural Research 36(2):151-180.
Jórdeczka M, Królik H, Masoj M, and Schild R. 2011. Early Holocene pottery in the Western Desert of Egypt: new data from Nabta Playa Antiquity 85(327):99-115.
Malville JM, Schild R, Wendorf F, and Brenmer R. 2008. Astronomy of Nabta Playa. In: Holbrook JC, Urama JO, and Medupe RT, editors. African Cultural Astronomy. Netherlands: Springer. p 131-143.
Wendorf F, and Schild R. 1994. Are the early Holocene cattle in the eastern Sahara domestic or wild? Evolutionary Anthropology 3(4):97-123.
Wendorf F, and Schild R. 1998. Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17:97–123.