Thebes and the Nubian MSA


thebes msa aggsbach

This is a Middle Paleolithic core (diameter ca. 8 cm) from Thebes, with the typical glossy chocolate patina. Surface findings of these area represent Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic artifacts from several “Nubian” and “local” complexes. Paleolithic artifacts from Thebes are part of many important prehistoric collections in the western world (for example: Regarding the prices for such artifacts, the “Thebes Provenience” must have a magical name for collectors (

The famous archaeologist Worsaae first drew attention to flint tools discovered on the borders of Egypt in 1867. In the following years Arcelin, Hamy and Lenormant reported further examples. An influential publication came from the famous John Lubbock in 1875: “Notes on the Discovery of Stone Implements in Egypt”.  Despite such reports, several prominent Egyptologists argued that the flint implements recovered had only been used during the Dynastic Period for the construction of tombs or had been employed during mummification rituals. Flint during the Dynastic periods was ideologically connected with the goddesses who are the Eye of Re, with Re himself, with snakes and lions as recently shown by Carolyn Anne Graves-Brown.

The man who drew renewed attention to a possible Pleistocene age of “Egyptian Cherts” in 1882 was A.H. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (On the discovery of chert implements in stratified graves in the Nile Valley near Thebes; 1882). Similarity between European and Egyptian artifacts did not suffice, therefore finding artifacts in a stratified context became increasingly important. Egyptologists played a significant role in this debate, as they were involved in many excavations, some of which supplied good evidence for the antiquity of stone artifacts.  It was CG Seligman an anthropologist with very broad interests, who continued the work of Pitt-Rivers during the early 20th century, especially around Abydos and Thebes. Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum houses seventeen collections of Paleolithic material from Egypt, comprising a total of 1009 objects, which were described in detail by Milliken (2003).

Paleolithic research in Nubia and Upper Egypt became a more and more  systematic enterprise during the last decades: International Teams led by Fred Wendorf (Southern Methodist University; with Romuald Schild, Angela Close and Anthony Marks) and Pierre M. Vermeersch and Philip Van Peer (University of Leuven) made important contributions in this field. Compared to the money and efforts, that were invested into Classic Archeology of dynastic Egypt, the funding of Paleolithic research remained relatively poor. Nevertheless a complete new narrative of the Egyptian Paleolithic emerged. The results of several surveys and excavations over an enormous time span of at least 500 k.a. and over such a large area inevitably remain ambivalent and sometimes even confusing.

Genetic and fossil evidence is interpreted to show that archaic Homo sapiens evolved to anatomically modern humans solely in Africa, between 200 k.a and 150 k.a ago, that members of one branch of Homo sapiens left Africa by between 125 and 60 k.a ago, and that over time these humans replaced earlier human populations such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. The Nile valley is one of the possible routes for the migration of Homo sapiens to Eurasia, the other routes being the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and the Maghreb and Mediterranean coast. In his seminal article of 1998, Van Peer argued for the presence of two distinct Middle Paleolithic complexes in the upper and middle Nile valley in Egypt, the Red Sea hills and desert oases of the eastern Sahara. It has to be mentioned that up to now, the chronology underlying his assumptions is not very well established and mainly based on the stratigraphy of Sodmein cave, Taramsa Hill 1 and Bir Tarfawi14. After Van Peer, the early Nubian Complex during OIS6 at Sai Island (Northern Sudan) may have based on a developed Lupemban lithic technology. Recently Nubian Complex reduction strategies were also detected in Dhofar, southern Oman and central Arabia. If such technological traits really indicate the migration of Homo sapiens from East Africa to the Nile and the Arabian Peninsula via Bab-el-Mandeb strait (and later to Eurasia; “out of Africa 2″) remains unproven.

Nubian Complex industries are characterized by a highly standardized method of a preferential Levallois reduction method, a regional variant of the preferential Levallois method for producing Levallois-points. There are two sub-types of Nubian Levallois core preparation, referred to as Nubian Type 1 and Type 2 (

Blade technologies are also present at some sites. The early Nubian Complex is distinguished by a higher frequency of Nubian Type 2 cores in conjunction with bifacial foliates, thick scrapers and handaxes. The late Nubian Complex, on the other hand, shows a predominance of Nubian Type 1 cores and a complete absence of bifacial reduction. Late Nubian Complex assemblages have been found in stratigraphic succession overlying early Nubian Complex horizons at Sodmein Cave and Taramsa Hill 1 in Egypt; in both cases separated by a chronological hiatus. The early Nubian Complex roughly corresponds to early OIS 5 or even OIS 6, while numerical ages for the late Nubian Complex in northeast Africa fall in the latter half of OIS 5. Nubian Levallois core preparation strategy is suggested to be technologically dissimilar to the Levallois point-producing industries found at nearby Levantine Levallois-Mousterian sites, which are broadly characterized by preferential unidirectional-convergent and centripetal reduction systems, but a direct comparison of the operational sequences between these regions has not be published yet. It should be mentioned that unequivocal Nubian cores are known from the Tirat- Carmel and Yabroud. Overall is not clear if the term “Nubian complex” really clarifies the archaeological record or even obscures the complexity of multiple events during the evolution of our ancestors.

Other Middle Paleolithic entities without the characteristics of the Nubian Complex, mainly based on a common Levallois technology during OIS 5 and later are known in Egypt and have been called: Local Nilotic Complex with (a)Denticulate Mousterian (K-Group), (b) Khormusan, (c) Halfan and (d) Idffuan.

A late Middle Paleolithic ensemble, dated by OSL to 50-70 k.a. was found at a chert extraction site in the Nil-valley at Taramsa 1 superimposing one early Nubian ensemble with handaxes, foliates and Nubian points and a younger one without bifacial pieces but the persistence of Nubian technology . The Tarmasan is characterized by a Levallois reduction system that is transitional to the systematic production of blades.  “there was a clear tendency towards blade production from large cores, where, instead of obtaining a few Levallois flakes from each individual core, a virtually continuous process of blade production made it possible to create a large number of blades from each core” (Vermeersch and Hendrickx 2000) .This ensemble  with a changing Levallois production is not unlike the transitional assemblages known in the Negev at Boker Tachtit.

A nice narrative: AMHs are migrating from East Africa to the Nile and the Levantine corridor to Eurasia- But- please remember that Rouse (1958) proposed the principle that migration had to be demonstrated case by case and that in the absence of evidence one should always assume that migration had not occurred. The main points of his argument were that (1) an in-migrating group must be identified as an intrusive unit; (2) the unit must be traceable to a homeland; (3) it must be determined that all archaeological occurrences of the unit are contemporaneous; (4) favorable conditions for the migration must be identified; and (5) other hypotheses, such as diffusion, and acculturation and transculturation, must be tested and rejected. Please decide for yourself if Rouses criteria are fulfilled for any route, that has been proposed for the migration of AMHs out of Africa.

riversFrom: A.H. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers: On the discovery of chert implements in stratified graves in the Nile Valley near Thebes (1882).


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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One Response to Thebes and the Nubian MSA

  1. Pingback: C.G. Seligman and the Paleolithic of Egypt | Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog

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