Fayum- No need for crops?

fayum stemmedA bifacial spear point or a stemmed dagger (9x3xo,4 cm) from the Fayum (Faiyum) Neolithic A, found during the Excavations of 1925/26.

Along the shorelines of the Fayum Lake the remains of settlements of people who lived partly by farming are still preserved. In 1925/6, G. Caton Thompson and E. Gardner excavated several of these Neolithic sites (dated to about 5 k.a. BC) on the northern side of the ancient Fayum Lake, and found many evidences of agriculture.

In one area, for example, they found 165 pits, many of them lined with coiled straw “basketry” and some of them containing emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and barley (Hordeum sp.). These pits averaged 91–122cm in diameter and 30–61cm in depth. Inside some of the silos were agricultural tools, including a beautifully preserved sickle of wood and flint. So well preserved was some of the grain that investigators at the British Museum tried (unsuccessfully) to germinate it. In the sites near these silos are innumerable potsherds, hundreds of limestone grinding stones, sickle blades, and the remains of the domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and other animals that these Fayum people used to complement their grain crops.

These evidences from the Fayum are still among the very earliest signs of agriculture known in Egypt, but no evidence was found by Caton Thompson, or by any of the later researchers in this area, that the people living in the Fayum “invented” agriculture and made the transition to farming there. The wheat, barley, sheep and goats of the Neolithic Fayum appear to be of strains domesticated in southwest Asia, not Egypt, and there seems to have been a period between the hunter-gatherers and the first farmers when the Fayum was not occupied. So where did these Fayum farmers come from, and when? How did they initially take up agriculture? An ecological scenario has recently proposed by Shirai (http://www.aggsbach.de/2013/02/fayum-continued/) In this scenario specific Neolithic techniques were accepted in Lower Egypt not earlier than during the early 6th millennium cal. BC. This process was possibly triggered by a climatic and environmental change around 6200 cal. BC, that finally lead to the desiccation of the southern Levant, Negev and Sinai and to changes of the rain regime in these areas and in Lower Egypt. These changes enabled for the first time during the Holocene winter crops like Levantine wheat and barley to thrive Northern Egypt.

Anyhow, the answers to these questions, unfortunately, may be lost or deeply buried in the Nile alluvium. Because of the Nile’s scouring effects and because of the intensity of occupation and cultivation of the Nile’s margins, as well as the thick layer of silt that presumably covers the earliest occupations of the Delta and other areas of the Nile channel, very little is known about early agriculture in Egypt in areas beyond the Fayum and Merimde Beni-Salame.

The Fayum agriculturalists seem never to have made the transition to a fully agricultural way of life based on village communities, perhaps because the productivity of the lake and the continuous supply by fish  made agriculture a somewhat marginal improvement, but also probably because annual floods made the lake shore a less attractive farming area than the flood basins along the Nile itself.

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