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date: 18 January 2021

A Picture of Prehistoric Sudan: The Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Abstract and Keywords

The physiographic setting of the Nile valley, in Sudan as well as in Egypt, provides a nearly homogenizing factor in the cultural and socioeconomic development of Mesolithic and Neolithic prehistoric populations. Unfortunately, a dearth of prehistoric research has hindered the recognition of regional differences and our comprehension of the complexity of such development. Furthermore the past fifty years of archaeological investigations in prehistoric Sudan have not, paradoxically, pushed forward our understanding beyond A. J. Arkell excavations at the Khartoum Hospital site (1949) and Shaheinab (1953), the first prehistoric sites excavated in this region. This premise is necessary in order to advise of the volatility of the picture that can be drawn with the currently available data. The Mesolithic populations of the Sudanese Nile valley are characterised by their pottery production and associated with a hunter-gatherer-fishers economy. The Neolithization of the region is rooted in these groups, but the contribution of foreign influences cannot be ruled out.

Keywords: Sudan, Nile valley, Holocene, Mesolithic, Neolithic, environment, settlement, subsistence

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 1 Map showing most important sites and areas of Sudan.

It can be generally said that the birth of prehistoric studies in Sudan coincides with the discovery and excavation of Khartoum Hospital, the first Mesolithic occupation that was extensively investigated by A. J. Arkell (1949; see Figure 1) to leave space at the construction of the first hospital of the town. A few years after the excavation of the Khartoum Hospital Arkell approached another key site of the entire Nile valley, the Neolithic occupation of Shaheinab (Arkell 1953), located just north of Khartoum, on the west bank of the Nile.

Arkell’s fieldwork, notes, and observations still retain a great value for prehistorians working in the Nile valley. It was Arkell that first outlined the chronological divide between the Wavy Line (incised, see Figure 2a) and Dotted Wavy Line (see Figure 2b) pottery assemblages, the first as emblematic of the Early Mesolithic, and the second of the Late Mesolithic (Arkell 1953).

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 2 Sample of pottery decorations present in the Mesolithic production along the Sudanese Nile valley, including the Wavy Line (incised, a) and Dotted Wavy line (impressed, b) types.

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 3 Most typical decorations of Shaheinab Neolithic pottery. The zig-zag (wolf-tooth) pattern is common also to Neolithic of Nubian area.

Since then, prehistoric archaeological research in the country has had a long period of intense activity, albeit patchy. In fact, a few years later, with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, research concentrated mainly in the area of the II Cataract. Here, archaeologists had to face the difficulty, among many others, of setting into a chronological framework all the evidence documented from this terra incognita. The occurrence of a pottery strongly resembling that of Khartoum Hospital (Figure 2e, f), or similar sites located in Central Sudan (Arkell 1949, 1953), was probably a founding element. The sites producing this characteristic pottery were then affiliated with a new cultural phase called Khartoum Variant (Shiner 1968a; Nordström 1972). A clear Shaheinab relative was never found, but the Abkan culture, more or less contemporaneous, revealed at least one type of pottery with a similar decorative pattern, a zigzag (or wolf teeth) produced with a rocker technique (see Figure 3c), and a similar fabric (Shiner 1968b; Nordström 1972). However, the Khartoum Variant and the Abkan were both considered Neolithic and definitely of distinct origin. The Abkan was directly related to another cultural phase, the Qadan, a lithic industry dating at the very end of the Late Pleistocene (Shiner 1968b). Other, more or less contemporaneous groups and with similar, if not equal, cultural material are hiding in the Shamarkian and Post-Shamarkian industries identified in the Dibeira West District (Schild et al. 1968), on the west bank of the Nile.

The work of archaeologists in the Aswan High Dam Nubian Campaign was certainly hindered by the preservation condition of the sites in the area; many of them were surface concentrations and deriving from the admixture of artifacts produced in rather different chronological phases. Disentangling this palimpsest was probably one of the biggest difficulties archaeologists had to face. Supposedly the Qadan-Abkan philogenesis theory, which considers the Abkan a lithic industry directly related with the Qadan (Shiner 1968b), was the outcome of such circumstances (Usai 2008b).

At the end of the Nubian Campaign the interest over the archaeology of Sudan did not wane. In 1970 some scholars moved to the Southern Dongola Reach discovering other prehistoric occupations dating at the Early and Middle Holocene and related to the Mesolithic and Neolithic groups of Central Sudan, labeled as Early Khartoum related (Marks et al. 1986). An element characterizing the Mesolithic pottery production of this region, which bears similarities in decorative patterns to the Khartoum Mesolithic assemblage, is the wide use of vegetal temper compared to the prevailing use of mineral temper recorded in the II Cataract pottery assemblages and in the central Sudan. T. R. Hays (1976) proposed the terminology of “Khartoum Horizon Style,” suggesting that this label would underline the presence of generalized common traits more implicitly associated with the spread of new ideas than population migration. He also adopted the term “Karmakol” for the Khartoum related groups of the Southern Dongola Reach (Hays 1971). Neolithic groups bearing a pottery assemblage similar to that of Shaheinab Neolithic were, instead, called “Karat” (Marks and Ferring 1971). Not much evidence so strictly related to the “Khartoum Horizon Style” was, on the other side, detected along the Upper Atbara, in the area of Khashm el Girba (Shiner 1971) and Eastern Sudan (Fattovich and Piperno 1981).

Meanwhile, archaeological activity was picking up pace in the Central Sudan promoted by the Italian Archaeological Mission of “La Sapienza “ University of Rome, first at the Mesolithic site of Saggai (Caneva 1983) and afterward at Geili Neolithic site (Caneva 1988) and by the Section Française de la Direction des Antiquités du Soudan (SFDAS), which identified the first evidence of a Late Neolithic at Kadada cemetery (Geus and Reinold 1979; Reinold 2007) and subsequently another Early Neolithic cemetery at Ghaba, with cultural material slightly different from that evidenced at Shaheinab (Lecointe 1987). A cemetery more strictly related to the Neolithic Shaheinab stage is the one discovered and excavated from 1972 to 2003 by the Polish archaeological mission at Kadero (Krzyżaniak 1975; Chłodnicki et al. 2011), also located in the Khartoum region.

The excavation and publication of the Mesolithic sites of El Damer, Abu Darbein, and Aneibis on the confluence between the Nile and Atbara (Haaland and Magid 1995), of Shaqadud Mesolithic-Neolithic midden in the Butana (Marks and Mohammed-Ali 1991), and of sites on the Blue Nile (Fernandez et al. 2003) closed the most prolific period of prehistoric investigations along the Nile.

Meanwhile a new important chapter was opened by the German BOS and ACACIA1 projects in the Western Sudan, which provided an invaluable record of prehistoric to proto-historic occupations of a region, nowadays barely crossed by human beings, and an equally important record of paleo-environmental data (Klees and Kuper 1992; Keding 1996; Jesse 2003). Wavy Line and Dotted Wavy Line assemblages, all things considered similar to those of the Nile valley, were recovered in this area while the Neolithic ones tend to have a more local imprint.

Prehistoric research south of the Khartoum area was scarce and rarely systematic, although an important Mesolithic occupation was excavated on the eastern bank of the White Nile at Shabona (Clark 1989).

Between 2004 and 2008 the construction of a new Dam in the IV Cataract led to archaeologists working in Sudan concentrating in this region for a new salvage project. Apart from few preliminary reports (Usai 2003; Fuller 2004; Edwards and Fuller 2005; Godlewski et al. 2005; Chłodnicki et al. 2006; Dittrich et al. 2007; Osypiński 2010a, 2010b; Dittrich and Gessner 2014), the bulk of Early and Middle Holocene prehistoric evidence recovered has yet to be published.

Nowadays the prehistoric research in the Nile valley in Sudan is limited to three areas, the Kerma/Northern Dongola Reach (Honegger 2007, 2012; Salvatori and Usai 2008), the White Nile (Usai and Salvatori 2005; Salvatori et al. 2011, 2014), and, more recently, that of Sabaloka, at the Sixth Cataract (Suková and Varadzin 2012).

The Environment

The Mesolithic and Neolithic periods grossly correspond to the Early and part of the Middle Holocene phases, an epoch of important paleo-environmental changes for North Africa, changes that interwove strongly with the cultural environment. Influential factors of the period are the latitudinal variation in the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone), a northward movement of the monsoon front of more than 500 km, the migration of areas of low and high pressure, the wind circulation, the nature and position of the ocean circulation with anomalies in sea surface temperatures (Rognon and Williams 1977; Haynes 1987; Gasse et al. 1990; Petit-Maire 1991; de Menocal et al. 2000), all producing a wetter climate, the African Humid Period (AHP), overall a more favorable ecosystem for human beings.

This climate evolution is well documented by the fluctuation of many North African lake levels, and fluvial and marine cores (Gasse 1977; Gasse and Street 1978; Gasse et al. 1990; Gasse, 2000; Williams and Nottage 2006; Williams and Talbot 2009; Zerboni 2013; Williams et al. 2014, 2015a).

During the AHP, seasonal lakes developed in deserts, east and west of the Nile (Pachur et al. 1990; Pachur and Hoelzmann, 1991; for an overall view: Nicoll 2004 and Zerboni 2013), the Nile water discharge was higher than nowadays (Williams and Adamson 1982) and some important Nile tributaries were active, like the Wadi Howar, an important “road” to Saharan Africa, and the Wadi el Melik (Pachur and Kröpelin 1987, 1989; Pachur and Hoelzmann 1991). White and Blue Nile activity increased substantially with the White Nile 3 m/5 m above the modern maximum level (Williams and Faure 1980; Barrows et al. 2014) and the Blue Nile forming an alluvial fan in the Gezira (the land between the two Niles) with channels that were active at least until 5 cal Kyr/3000 BC (Williams et al. 2015b). By 8 cal Kyr/6000 BC the Blue Nile started incising its bed and abandoning progressively the paleo-channels system (Williams et al. 2015a).

There is an overall consensus in placing the beginning of the AHP around the 11-10 cal Kyr BP/9000–8000 BC, while the actual climatic regime seems more or less established by 4500 cal Kyr BP/2500 BC. However, the AHP was not continuous, and it was punctuated by some arid spells, whose effects were more or less intensive according to different landscape units (Zerboni 2013). An important rapid climate change, dating at 8200 cal Kry BP/6200 BC, was ubiquitous in North Africa and other parts of the world (Walker et al. 2012; Zerboni 2013) and may have impacted on humans contributing to reassessment of their subsistence system.

Spreading of floral and faunal assemblies typical of less arid ecosystems (savannah) was favored in the AHP. It is, in fact, suggested from pollen spectra obtained from sediments of lakes that a floral assembly similar to that we can find nowadays in the Ennedi-Darfur regions was present in areas as far north as the Selima oasis (Wickens 1982; Nicoll 2004) with Acacia, Commiphora, and Maerua dominating a complex that may have included also other perennials as Tribulus, Blepharis, and Chenopodiaceae-Amaranthaceae (Haynes et al. 1989). As an effect of the AHP, the Wadi Howar flowing to the Nile hosted a richer vegetation that can be described as woodland savannah (Neumann 1989). Archaeo-faunas in human occupations include species that nowadays find refuge in the humid regions of South Sudan, such as buffalos, elephants, hippos, giraffes, and crocodiles (Pöllath and Peters 2007).

For the human beings such dynamic new locations, around seasonal lakes or along rivers, may have provided an opportunity for enlarging their hunting-gathering and fishing catchment areas.

It must also be underlined that main Nile, White and Blue Nile incision starting from 8 cal Kyr/6000 BC may have contributed in draining flooded areas that became available to Neolithic societies for cultivation (Williams et al. 2015a).

The Mesolithic and the Neolithic: An Update


Although prehistoric research in the region may appear to be flourishing, our knowledge of Mesolithic and Neolithic in the Sudanese Nile valley has essentially remained bound to theories germinating from Arkell’s work and from the lack of well-preserved anthropogenic deposits. This has acted as the main constraint to understanding the dynamic of prehistoric populations of the Nile valley. Sites of these periods, in fact, often appear as huge surface artifact scatters, especially in northern Sudan, or, from the Central Sudan until the Atbara, as mounds with more than a meter of material and sediment accumulation but devoid of internal stratigraphy. Accretion/erosion, soil typology, site formation processes, and postdepositional damage have strongly influenced the quality of the archaeological record (Salvatori et al. 2011; Zerboni 2011; Salvatori 2012; Usai 2014) and, as a consequence, limited our comprehension and reduced interpretation to circular reasoning.

The distinction between Early and Late Mesolithic has been based on Wavy Line and Dotted Wavy Line pottery, while the characterization of these groups as sedentary is based mainly on the presence of pottery production, with a subsistence economy linked to hunting, fishing, and gathering, mostly inferred from the recovery of remarkable amounts of faunal remains and grinding stones from mixed deposits (Salvatori 2012; Usai 2014). Such unpatterned and unstratified data have also been used to describe in much a similar way hunter-gatherer-fishers communities living for more than two thousand years along a river stretching over a vast territory. Similarly, the development of Neolithic societies has been monolithically interpreted as a move to a pastoral way of life and used as the basis of social theories that may need to be revisited (Wengrow 2006: 13–71; Wengrow et al. 2014).2

In contrast, sites excavated in the Kerma/Dongola Reach region and the White Nile are bringing to light the dynamic character of these societies, as well as important regional differentiations that are opening up the possibilities for new interpretations.

The Kerma/Northern Dongola Reach

An important cluster of Mesolithic sites have been located and systematically investigated in the Kerma basin (Figure 1), a region mostly known for the “Kerma civilization,” as defined by George Reisner (1923). Among them, two sites in particular are of importance for this region, Wadi El Arab and El Barga (Honegger 2012, 2013). Wadi El Arab was occupied between 8300 and 5600–5400 BC, with the main archaeological occupation dating to ca. 7300–7000 BC. This site revealed several pits of domestic function, three probable habitation structures dug into the sand, some pebble concentrations, and possibly some graves (Honegger 2007, 2012, 2013). At El Barga extensive occupation dates back to 8000 BC with a main phase at 7300 BC. The site includes a habitation structure, a semisubterranean hut, pits excavated into the bedrock and containing pottery and faunal remains (Honegger 2006), a Mesolithic cemetery with approximately 50 graves (Honegger 2013; Honegger and Williams 2015), and an Early Neolithic cemetery, dating between 6000 and 5500 BC, the oldest so far discovered in Sudan, with 100 burials (Croevecour 2012).

A successive Neolithic phase, dating between, more or less, 5000 and 4000 BC was identified near the Kerma basin, in the Wadi El Kowi (Reinold 2001, 2004, 2006) and further to the south in the Northern Dongola Reach (Welsby 2001; Salvatori and Usai 2008), and it is represented mainly by burial grounds.

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 4 Chronology of the Mesolithic and Neolithic phases of Sudanese Nile valley according to data nowadays available.

A detailed chronological sequence, supported by a long series of C14 dates, covering the Mesolithic and Neolithic until the III millennium BC, has been reconstructed for this region with four Mesolithic phases and two Neolithic ones (see Figure 4) characterized by relevant differences in pottery production. Although based on careful field observations, the Mesolithic phase I of Wadi El Arab (Gatto 2013) is characterized on the basis of surface material and the site’s interpretation deserves some caution.

The Mesolithic sites and the Early Neolithic cemetery are located on the fringes of the alluvial plain, and this area seems to have been occupied until nearly 5500 BC. A nearly five-hundred-year gap separates this Early Neolithic cemetery of El Barga from other Neolithic sites located in the Wadi El Kowi and the Northern Dongola Reach, equating to a Middle Neolithic phase. Cemeteries and settlement traces of this phase are now located in the alluvial plain following the movement of the Nile River (Welsby et al. 2002; Honegger and Williams 2015).

The White Nile

The White Nile has only rarely been investigated by archaeologists, mostly concentrated in the areas north of Khartoum, but prehistoric mounds and scatters of archaeological materials copiously dot its landscape. A group of sites concentrates in an area called Al Khiday (Figure 1), named after the nearest modern village. Among the sites are three settlements, Al Khiday 1, 3 and 6, a multiphase cemetery also used as settlement functional area, Al Khiday 2, and another settlement functional area, Al Khiday 2B (Salvatori et al. 2011, 2014).

Al Khiday 1 and 3 appear as mounds with thick deposits (nearly 2 m at Al Khiday 3), part of which was greatly disturbed by a much later Post-Meroitic cemetery; the others have very slight elevation.

Al Khiday 1 has been the focus of several excavation campaigns (2004–2007) and an important laboratory for understanding site formation processes, at least in the Central Sudan region (Salvatori et al. 2011; Zerboni 2011). These mounds, Al Khiday 1 as well, appear covered by a huge concentration of pottery, lithics, grinding stones, and faunal remains dating to the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and later periods. Excavations at Al Khiday 1 proved that the upper 60/70 cm of the deposit, rich in prehistoric and later artifacts, is made of an unstratified, unstructured, aeolian-powdery grayish sediment of colluvial origin. It is mainly related to the collapse of Post-Meroitic tumuli later disturbed by much more recent features, grave pits and pits of unrecognisable function. Similar deposits were detected at the top of Al Khiday 3, also a mound, and at other sites on the White Nile (Usai and Salvatori 2006) and seem to correspond to soil descriptions of many other sites explored on the main Nile north of Khartoum (Salvatori 2012; Usai 2014).

The later use at Al Khiday 1 strongly affected the preservation of the Neolithic and Mesolithic occupations. However, two distinct Mesolithic phases have been preserved in the lower 30/40 cm of the deposit, with features never documented before. An Early Mesolithic phase dating between ~7000 and 6750 BC with some post-holes, fireplaces, and small pits, and two Middle Mesolithic phases dating between 6750 and 6500 BC and 6500 and 6200 BC, respectively, with circular huts, possibly semisubterranean, with built mud walls, and associated fireplaces (Salvatori et al. 2014).

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 5 The Mesolithic settlement phase at Al Khiday 2; a) pits in one section of the excavated area and b) the semi-subterranean hut with a fireplace in the centre, indicated by the whitish ashy area.

Al Khiday 2, located just 50 m north of Al Khiday 1 (see Figure 5), is a burial ground and a settlement. An area of more than 1250 m2 was excavated here and 190 graves belonging to at least three discrete phases (pre-Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Classic/Late Meroitic: Usai et al. 2010, 2014; Salvatori et al. 2011, 2014) were recovered together with considerable remains of a Middle Mesolithic settlement. This last one represents an extension of the village of Al Khiday 1, with 108 pits, for fireplaces or garbage, and an almost complete semisubterranean round hut with mud walls and a fireplace in the center.

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 6 One of the pre-Mesolithic burials recovered at Al Khiday 2. Burials of this phase are characterised by a peculiar ritual as individuals are buried elongated and face-down.

Among the burials those dating at the pre-Mesolithic are the most interesting for the funerary rituals observed with individuals in ~95% of all cases interred elongated and face down (see Figure 6). The skeletons are devoid of collagen and could not be dated by radiocarbon methods, but they stratigraphically precede the Mesolithic phase as in twelve cases the Mesolithic pits cut through the earlier graves destroying part of the skeletons (Usai et al. 2010: Fig. 3). The Neolithic burials, thirty-two in number, were in some cases furnished with grave goods of the Shaheinab cultural phase. The Classic/Late Meroitic burials (Usai et al. 2014) were more complex, with big subrectangular shafts incising the natural underlying sediments and a smaller chamber at their base (Usai et al. 2014). They quite often disturbed Pre-Mesolithic and Neolithic burials, as well as some of the settlement features.

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 7 Pits with dark fill and faunal remains partially in anatomic connection at Al Khiday 2B.

Another functional area was located at Al Khiday 2B, nearly 70 m north of Al Khiday 2. One of the peculiarities of this site is that the surface bears no evidence of the existence of any prehistoric feature (Salvatori et al. 2014). A total of twenty-four pits were located in this slightly elevated area, of which sixteen were excavated, and are characterised by a very dark fill and by the presence of fully articulated animal remains (see Figure 7).

Other Mesolithic settlements phases have been uncovered at Al Khiday 3, the other mound of this cluster of sites, by a test trench of 5 x 5 m. The first phase of occupation corresponds chronologically with the oldest phase at Al Khiday 1, as confirmed by radiocarbon dating (Figure 4), and dates around ~7000 BC. The overlying deposits correspond to a use of the area during the Middle Mesolithic, but here one more subphase could be recognized and one, in particular, is represented by a 30/40 cm thick deposit of shell accumulation, an interesting and unusual example of a continental shell midden along the Nile. Most of the shells are Pila wernei, a freshwater gastropod found also in the filling of some of the Al Khiday 2 and 2B pits, but never in such a quantity. Al Khiday does not seem to have been intensively occupied during the Neolithic times. At this period, however, dates Al Khiday 6, a large scatter of pottery, lithics, grinding equipment, and faunal remains all dating to the late Shaheinab subphase. The site has been systematically investigated, but unfortunately it seems to have completely eroded away. The few features located are highly ambiguous, and the possibility that such material dispersal is what remains of another burial ground more than a settlement cannot be excluded.

The Cultural Landscape

The Mesolithic

The evidence produced at Al Khiday permitted the establishment of a detailed Mesolithic sequence with a pottery seriation that has, for the first time, marginalized the dichotomic chronological division between an Early Mesolithic/Incised Wavy Line assemblage and a Late Mesolithic/Dotted Wavy Line one. Together with new evidence provided by the Northern region of Sudan and the Kerma area, as well as the reanalysis of a bulk of data collected along the Nile valley and in the deserts, it is now possible to attempt a reconstruction, while still a bit vague, of the distribution and characteristic of the Early Holocene hunter-gatherer-fisher groups bearing such distinctive pottery tradition.

In the process of reconstructing the evolution of these societies, a great contribution has been provided by another important group of sites located just north of the Sudanese-Egyptian border, in the Western Desert of Egypt, 100 km west of the II Cataract: the areas of Nabta playa and Kiseiba, thoroughly investigated by the Combined Prehistoric Expedition starting in the 1980s (Wendorf et al. 1980, 1984; Wendorf and Associates 2001). During the Early-Middle Holocene, these areas gravitated toward the Khartoum Variant cultural sphere (Gatto 2002, 2006; Usai 2004, 2005, 2008a), and they more or less correspond to the northernmost zone of the spread of the pottery-bearing hunter-gatherer-fishers of the Nile valley. Beyond this border a different situation has been described (Vermeersch 1978; Vermeersch et al. 2015).

Currently, the beginning of the Mesolithic can be pushed back to ~9000 BC (Honegger 2012, 2013), and these oldest phases have been recognized at Nabta/Kiseiba and Kerma areas. Meanwhile, the oldest phase recorded in central Sudan, at Al Khiday, dates to about ~7000 BC. Along the Nile stretch separating these two regions, sites where similar ancient dates have been recorded are located at the Nile-Atbara confluence (Haaland and Magi 1995) and north of Khartoum, at Sarourab (Khabir 1987). Unfortunately, these ancient dates are not associated with discrete archaeological deposits or contexts (Salvatori 2012; Usai 2014).

The sites of the Kerma area, Al Khiday and Nabta/Kiseiba, bear strong similarities in settlement structure and organization. Moreover, and more relevant, the establishment of a village with organized internal spaces coincides chronologically to roughly 7000 BC. At Nabta Playa and Al Khiday the village shows a similar plan with semisubterranean huts and pits. At Al Khiday, however, the functional areas with pits seem more complex, and pits with different fills corresponding to different functions are located in separate zones. At Al Khiday 2 most pits were filled with ash or mixed ash-sand deposits with burned stones and relevant amount of archaeological material; more rarely these pits have darker sandy-clay deposits and are rich in articulated faunal remains. Conversely, the last pit typology is very common at Al Khiday 2B, where the fill becomes more clayish and faunal remains in anatomical connections are the most common find. These numerous features, presently under analytical study for chemical, mineral, and microbotanical content tracing, suggest that the group occupied the area almost continuously. Some break in this continuity may have caused the physical and mnemonic destruction of spatial organization, and this may have caused the observed stratigraphic situation, with pits cutting each other. A small chronological difference could be established by pottery analysis, a difference that, unfortunately, cannot as easily be established with a wide series of radiocarbon dates based on terrestrial shells, mainly of the Pila species.

This evidence seems to indicate a more sedentary lifestyle in comparison with the earliest occupation phase. The more ancient levels recorded at Al Khiday are characterized by more ephemeral living structures, with post-holes and fireplaces in low depressions. A similar situation is recorded at Nabta/Kiseiba, while for the Kerma region it is not yet possible to measure any such change.

However, the Nabta/Kiseiba sites are claimed to represent the remains of a Neolithic population, and the authors identified here different phases: Early Neolithic of El Adam (~9000–8000 BC), Early Neolithic of El Ghorab (~7400–7200 BC), Early Neolithic of Nabta (~7000 BC), Early Neolithic of El Jerar (~6750 BC), followed by the Middle Neolithic of El Ghanam (Wendorf and Associates 2001). Their arguments are controversial and are based on a supposed very early presence of domestic cattle (Gautier 2001; Wendorf et al. 1984, 2001), which has been challenged by many on archaeological (Muzzolini 1993; Smith 2005; Usai 2005), archaeozoological (Linseele 2013; Linseele et al. 2014), and genetic grounds (Ascunce et al. 2007; Ho et al. 2008; Pérez-Pardal et al. 2010; Stock and Gifford-Gonzales 2013; Decker et al. 2014). Today, this evidence stands alone against a growing set of data suggesting a date at ~6200 BC for the introduction of domesticates into the Nile valley (Linseele et al. 2014; Vermeersch et al. 2015). It is also to be regretted that the cultural sequence suggested for the Western Desert is used uncritically for other Sudanese contexts only because of the presence of similar pottery, thereby producing a lot of confusion (Wolf 2004; Smith and Herbst 2005; Osypinski 2010b).

In the Kerma region the oldest evidence of domestic cattle comes from El Barga cemetery dating between 6000 and 5500 BC. A grave with a domestic cattle skull was recorded among others that displayed a set of burial offerings similar to those that become more common in the following Middle Neolithic phases. The limited amount of pottery recovered in this Early Neolithic cemetery retains characteristics typical of the Mesolithic tradition (Honegger 2005: Fig. 16).

On account of the records obtained from the Nabta/Kiseiba areas in the Western Desert, the Khartoum Variant of the II Cataract should be revisited and the strong relationship between the two phenomena brought to light (Gatto 2002, 2006; Usai 2004, 2005, 2008a). This now can be interpreted as evidence of seasonal movements from the Nile to the desert areas, where seasonal lakes developed during the Early-Middle Holocene.

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 8 Map showing distribution of sites with “Egyptian flint” and location of source area in the Western Desert in Egypt.

The mobility of these Early Holocene foragers for which hunting, gathering, and fishing were the main food-procuring activities, even if the few contested domestic cattle bones are considered, is suggested also by the circulation of a specific raw material. In many of the reports relating to Khartoum Variant sites located during the Nubian Salvage Campaign, both published and unpublished,3 there is mention of lithic artifacts made of “Egyptian flint.” This term identifies a very specific raw material, a light-brown to dark-gray opaque flint with a whitish cortex that originates from the Eocene Limestone Formations of southwestern Egypt. This raw material traveled as far south as the Dongola Reach (Sites R33 and R46 Usai pers. obs.; see Figure 8). A microstructural, compositional, and mineralogical analysis was performed on samples of “Egyptian flint” from the Western Desert and II Cataract sites, and this proved the same origin for all the material.4

Movements and relationship between Mesolithic groups in central Sudan is possibly indicated by the archaeometric analysis of pottery. Samples of pottery from Al Khiday were analyzed (Dal Sasso et al. 2014a), and an exogenous mineral component, whose nearest source is located in the Sabaloka area, nearly 100 km to the north, has been found consistently present in some specific types, namely the Wavy Line and the Rocker Stamp packed decorated ones (Salvatori 2012).

To understand the nature of these movements and relationships, we would need a larger series of archaeological observations, and nothing conclusive can be stated presently. In the absence of more substantial data we can only make some very cursory observations focusing on the analysis of pottery distribution at a relatively small regional scale. In central Sudan the most ancient pottery of the Early Mesolithic phase detected at Al Khiday, the Lunula type (Figure 2c), characteristic also for its fabric (Salvatori 2012; Dal Sasso et al. 2014a), seems present only at another one of the many Mesolithic sites located in the region, that is, Khartoum Hospital (Arkell 1949: Pl. 77.2). The Wavy Line and Rocker Stamp types, conversely, seem more ubiquitous and have a longer life span. The Early Mesolithic with Lunula type pottery should be associated with a sparser settlement pattern comprising more ephemeral habitation structures that were used by more mobile groups than the more stable Middle Mesolithic communities utilizing Wavy Line and Rocker stamp pottery and whose sites are located some 2 km from each other along the Nile and also in the interior (Salvatori 2012). This increase in the number of sites may also be interpreted as a demographic growth during the Middle Mesolithic period.

Studies on human remains have the potential to supply data in support of observations regarding mobility patterns and relationships among groups inhabiting the Nile valley, as well as areas to the west and east of it during the Mesolithic period. Unfortunately, not many cemeteries of this period are known in Sudan, except for El Barga (Croevecour 2012; Honegger and Williams 2015) and single burials located in a few other sites (Usai 2014). A cemetery claimed to be Mesolithic has been recently found in the Sabaloka area (Suková and Varadzin 2012; Suková et al. 2014), but no dates are available and the stratigraphic evidence seems questionable. At El Barga cemetery, individuals were buried in a flexed position, mostly (43%) with the head in the NW quadrant. They are quite robust and show affinities with other populations we know of from the Nile valley, such as those of Jebel Sahaba and Wadi Halfa (Wendorf 1968; Croevecour 2012).

At Al Khiday 2 cemetery the oldest recorded burials (N = 90 individuals), those buried elongated and face down (Usai et al. 2010; Salvatori et al. 2014), are considered pre-Mesolithic. Different dating methods have been tried but with no success. The lack of collagen and secondary carbonate replacement in bone apatite are responsible for this situation, as is common in arid environments (Dal Sasso et al. 2014b).5 In twelve cases the skeletal remains were found badly cut by the Mesolithic pits of the following settlement occupation phase, hence the label pre-Mesolithic.

Analytical instruments could be usefully applied to the anthropological material—strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon isotopes, genetic information, and so on, for instance, might provide data for our understanding of these prehistoric Nile valley societies.

The Neolithic

Together with the growing archaeo-zoological evidence, some anthropologic (Irish 2005) and current genetic information (Smith 2013) supports the hypothesis of a migration event, albeit with no replacement phenomena, from the Near East into the Nile valley. As mentioned earlier, the oldest trace of domestic animal in Sudan is from a grave recovered at the El Barga Early Neolithic cemetery. One hundred burials for a total of 105 individuals, with offerings including ivory and semiprecious stone jewelery, stone axes and shells (Honegger 2012), display a funerary ritual in a patent discontinuity with the previous Mesolithic one. This discontinuity also appears in physical respects, with the Neolithic individuals appearing to be more gracile than the Mesolithic ones (Croevecour 2012). However, as there is more than a millennial gap between the two populations, it will not be easy to establish whether the cause behind this should be looked for in genetic or environmental factors, or a combination of both. While it is too early to form any firm conclusions, it is nonetheless intriguing to note that there is a quasi-simultaneity among the 6200 BC arid spell that hit North Africa and other parts of the world (Walker et al. 2012), the presence of the oldest domestic small stock in the Red Sea Mountain from 6200 BC and other sites at nearly the same period (Vermeersch et al. 2015) and the earliest Neolithic cemetery of El Barga dating between 6000 and 5500 BC. Because of the putative early cattle domestic evidence of Nabta Playa, the hypothesis of a local cattle domestication and possible local neolithization process had been favored until recently. This was, alternatively, seen as an early animal-taming process that could have favored the adoption of a pastoral economy. Notwithstanding the emerging picture, clearly this theme needs further investigation as does the problem of the introduction of wheat and barley (Madella et al. 2014).

The occupation of the Kerma region shows a gap of nearly 500 years before the successive Middle Neolithic phase spanning from ~5000 to ~4000 BC (Salvatori and Usai 2007, 2008; Honegger and Williams 2015). This phase, while well represented quantitatively, is known only from funerary evidence. Many cemeteries were discovered in the Wadi El Kowi and Northern Dongola Reach (Reinold 2000; Salvatori and Usai 2008; Welsby 2001) and all along the Nile (Arkell 1953; Caneva 1988; Chłodnicki et al. 2011). The graves are richly equipped with pottery; stone implements; bone tools; jewelery made of elephant ivory or hippo tusks, amazonite, or other semiprecious stones; minimalist statuettes (Reinold 2000, 2004, 2007); and other objects illustrating the level of complexity reached by these societies (Reinold 2006; Salvatori and Usai 2008; Salvatori et al. 2016). Cattle horns, bucrania, recur in some graves and can be more numerous depending upon the status of the deceased as expressed by the surviving community.

The ritual of depositing one or more bucrania in graves, together with the “absence” of settlements, has led many scholars to describe these Neolithic groups as pastoralists. It is probably an erroneous view that does not take into account several important factors. First of all, bucrania are not evenly present in all cemeteries recorded in Sudan; second, these offerings may have the same symbolic character that have cattle horns representation in other Neolithic societies that are not necessarily homogenously labeled as pastoralists (e.g., Çatal Huyuk: Mellaart, 1967; Sardinian Neolithic Domus de Janas: Hodder 1990; Cauvin 1994; Tanda 2000). Hunting and fishing were still important (Pöllath 2008; Gautier and Van Neer 2011), and farming must have had a role that we cannot easily measure because of difficulties in tracing it from archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, the analysis of some deposits rich in phytoliths found in a Middle Neolithic cemetery, at R12, revealed the presence of wheat and barley, probably coming from a kind of vegetal pillows put under the head. This deposit has provided a date around ~5200 BC, anticipating the use of the cemetery originally stated at around ~5000 BC (Salvatori and Usai 2008) but, especially, antedating the appearance of domestic plants in the Nile valley of at least 500 years (Madella et al. 2014). The R12 cemetery produced 166 burials, within which vegetal pillows were recovered in six cases and bucrania in forty; bucrania and vegetal pillows were associated in some cases (Salvatori and Usai 2008).

It is most unfortunate that the reconstruction of the Middle Neolithic life should pass only through the funerary evidence. As mentioned earlier, the Neolithic settlements recovered until now in the Sudanese Nile valley appear as immense scatters of broken artifacts, and this is a fundamental discriminating factor. The material that we see transferred to the funerary sphere most probably masks a complex story of raw material procurement strategies, specialized skills and organization of labor, exchange networks and mutual relationships, social control, and so on, a complex world that is hard to reconstruct only from funerary behaviors.

The pottery production of the Middle Neolithic shows a clear break with the Mesolithic tradition, but because of the gap separating these two cultural phases we are not able to appreciate whether this is the outcome of an internal evolution or of other intervening variables. The Middle Neolithic can, furthermore, be divided into two phases: Middle Neolithic A (MNA) and Middle Neolithic B (MNB) (Figure 4). Also in this case the two pottery productions have quite distinctive meta-languages: the MNA being characterized by pottery with completely decorated surfaces and ovoid/spherical shapes and the MNB by pottery with decoration limited at the rim and more complex shapes, cylindrical, truncated-conical, and carenated ones (Figure 9; Salvatori 2008).

A Picture of Prehistoric SudanThe Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods

Figure 9 Nubian Middle Neolithic A and Middle Neolithic B pottery shapes and decorations.

The MNA pottery production, as documented at the R12 Nubian cemetery, contains some elements that can also be found in central Sudan Neolithic pottery production (Salvatori 2008). Neolithization of this region, for its later and almost sudden accomplishment (Usai 2006; Salvatori and Usai 2007), may be in fact seen as a phenomenon related to movements of Nubian populations along the Nile happening at ~5000 BC. This can probably be partially explained as a consequence of a weakening of the AHP that started with the 6200 BC arid spell. The northernmost part of the Sudan, where a Neolithic society first appeared, was affected by this climatic deterioration, and its successive worsening, before than the southern region. The weakening of the AHP advanced at a lower rate southward, toward central Sudan (Petit-Maire 1995). The data thus suggest that prolonged favorable climatic conditions in central Sudan might have granted persistence of a hunting-gathering-fishing Mesolithic economy for the local groups, compared to northern Sudan. Oxygen isotope data, a climatic indicator, from R12 Nubian population and Al Khiday Neolithic populations, if compared, seem to corroborate this situation (Iacumin 2008; Iacumin et al. 2016).

The only visible change in the socioecological system of the central Sudan Mesolithic communities produced by this 6200 BC arid spell seems to be fragmentation into smaller groups and a more mobile lifestyle (Salvatori 2012). Together with possible demographic and social demands, the strengthening of the aridity may have instigated the movements of Nubian Neolithic groups down the Nile into the more “conservative” hunter-gatherer-fishers territory. On the other hand, the Early Neolithic cemeteries excavated in central Sudan, among which Kadero and Ghaba were systematically investigated (Chłodnicki et al. 2011; Salvatori et al. 2016), do reproduce a Neolithic society that seems to differ from the Nubian one as the bucrania, a key symbolic element, were found only at Ghaba, where vegetal pillows were most important. Ghaba cemetery, in the Shendi area, north of Khartoum, produced 265 graves, of which only 3% had bucrania compared to ~24.1% recorded at R12 cemetery; conversely, ~14.7% had vegetal pillows (Salvatori et al. in press). No bucrania and no vegetal pillows were found at Kadero, located just north of Khartoum, where 218 graves were excavated (Chłodnicki et al. 2011).

The analysis of two of the Ghaba vegetal pillows revealed an unexpected phytolith assemblage in which wild plants dominate. However, domestic plants were also available, as proven by calculus analysis of a relevant sample of individuals (Madella et al. 2104). It is thus possible that the Neolithic groups of the Sudanese Nile valley were practicing a mixed agro-pastoral subsistence economy with a noteworthy contribution from hunting, gathering, and fishing. An imbalance of agriculture over pastoralism or vice versa could have also been dictated by water and agricultural and grazing land availability rather than local climatic conditions.

The Nubian Middle Neolithic groups evolved into the more complex pre-Kerma and, later on, Kerma societies. The path of this trajectory is not complete because there is a gap in the archaeological evidence between ~4000 and 3500 BC; such a period should presumably correspond with a Late Neolithic phase (Salvatori and Usai 2007; Honegger and Williams 2015). This phase on the other side is known in central Sudan, where it is represented mainly by a cemetery excavated in the Shendi region, north of Khartoum, at Kadada, of which only parts have been published (Reinold 2007), and by a few graves discovered at El Geili (Caneva 1988). The lack of a detailed publication leaves us unable to make any inference on this period after which in central Sudan is a completely dark age until the beginning of the Meroitic phase in the first millennium BC.

The Critique

The level of archaeological knowledge of the Sudanese Mesolithic and Neolithic periods allows us to only sketch out a rough draft rather than a picture with definite colors. Nevertheless, this draft defines clearly where research should focus. In regional terms there are areas of the Sudanese Nile valley that are still completely lacking archaeological investigation and constitute another terra incognita that may have surprises in store for us. Some topics, such as issues concerning plant gathering, on seasonal activities related to Mesolithic populations as well as many others related to the Neolithic ones can be only cautiously addressed. A more scientific and less ideological approach would also be needed for interpreting both older and new data from field research.

The analysis of the Mesolithic and Neolithic societies of the Sudanese Nile valley may contribute to the worldwide discussion of hunter-gatherer-fishers and on the processes that lead to the adoption of a food-producing economy. The Sudanese case is particularly interesting not only because of the noteworthy weight that the human–environment relationship exercised on these processes but also for understanding how social, economic, and environmental agents influenced the formation of a state-like society in the Nubian region (Bonnet 1989, 1991, 2001) and, apparently, to a disaggregated almost invisible world in the central Sudan. As yet, a single site can be placed into the post-Neolithic phase of central Sudan, and this was partially investigated by A. J. Arkell at Omdurman Bridge (Arkell 1953). Unfortunately, this site is now a military stronghold.


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(1) BOS stands for Besiedlungsgeschichte der Ost-Sahara, and ACACIA stands for Arid Climate, Adaptation, and Cultural Innovation in Africa.

(2) Consider Wengrow’s fascinating theory: “It is the domain of funerary, rather than domestic, activity that provides a window not only on to rituals that structured the human lifecycle, but also on to the wider range of social practices through which Neolithic communities established their stability in space and their continuity in time. The focus of these practices was not, I suggest, the house, but the bodies of people and animals, which themselves provided primary generative framework for configuring social experience” (Wengrow 2006: 69). This certainly deserves proper consideration. However, we find that it is deeply bound up in the assumption that “Upper Egypt and Sudan show little sign of a village-based existence” (Wengrow 2006: 27), a statement that, while balanced by descriptions of the actual evidence (Wengrow 2006: 27, 50), does not properly contemplate the possibility that postdepositional (and we would add wrong methodological approaches to field research) may have obliterated completely the domestic evidence left by the Neolithic populations of the Nile valley, especially in Sudan (Salvatori 2012; Usai 2014). Finally, this leaves us with the impression that the “evidence of lack” has been favored over the “lack of evidence.” It took more than fifty years, since Arkell’s work at Khartoum Hospital, to locate some structured Mesolithic villages in the Sudanese Nile valley (Honegger 2007, 2012, 2013; Salvatori et al. 2011, 2014). Can we rule out that remains of Neolithic domestic life are preserved somewhere in yet unexplored areas? Furthermore, other arguments that may undermine this theory, and more recent discoveries, are illustrated in the text.

(3) Author’s personal observation.

(4) The ongoing study, forwarded by Lisa Santello and Lara Maritan, University of Padova, was made possible by generous concession of samples from the British Museum that hosts Wendorf and Colorado collections from the Nile valley and Western Desert.

(5) Observation on stratigraphic relationship between graves and pit would suggest that these burials precede Al Khiday Mesolithic occupation by possibly a thousand years. Many of the pre-Mesolithic burials have been, in fact, located near the surface just several centimeters underneath the level where Mesolithic pits are encountered. The quite good preservation of the skeletal material, except for pit-cuts, and perfect anatomical connection suggest their burial dates were quite long before the Mesolithic; a series of observations would suggest the very Early Holocene as a possible date (Dal Sasso 2015).