North African Agricultural Civilization/Ancient Egyptians

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary

Part Four
North African Agricultural Civilization
— 14 —
Ancient Egyptians

Around 5000 B.C., when the Negroes of the upper Niger were apparently making their first experiements with the cultivation of plants, the inhabitants of the lower Nile were taking a parallel step. Sebilian, a Mesolithic hunting and gathering culture, was being replaced by Neolithic cultures, variously called Merimdean, Fayum, Tasian, and Bedarian, borne by people indistinguishable in physical type from the later Dynastic Egyptians. From adjacent Southwest Asia, where agriculture and animal domestication had already been practiced for perhaps 2,000 years, they borrowed the means and techniques of food production and freed themselves from their earlier dependence upon food gathering. Radiocarbon dating shows that they had made this advance by 4500 B.C.

Mummified Head of Pharaoh Seti I of the XIX Dynasty.
(Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.)

From the Egyptian Neolithic culture developed the so-called Pre-dynastic cultures—Amration, Gerzean, and Semainian—and then, around 3000 B.C., the civilization of Dynastic Egypt, marked by a further revolutionary advance to life in cities, differentiated manufactures, extensive trade, and the emergence of complex political institutions. A peak was reached during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2900-2550 B.C.) under the III and IV dynasties. After a recession, during which occurred the transition from the Copper to the Bronze Age, civilization again flowered in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2160-1780 B.C.) under the XI and XII dynasties. The third and greatest climax came in the New Kingdom or Empire (ca. 1580-1100 B.C.) under the XVIII to XX dynasties. Gradual deterioration followed, broken temporarily by the Saite Revival under the XXVI dynasty (ca. 663- 525 B.C.). In 332 B.C. Egypt fell to Alexander the Great, bringing to a close the Pharaonic period of Egyptian history and inaugurating the Greco-Roman period.
Egypt—being, in geographical terms, essentially an elongated river oasis through a desert—could contribute little out of her own plant and animal resources to the Neolithic revolution. She derived her domesticated species largely from parts of the Fertile Crescent lying to the northeast. We shall nevertheless designate them coilectively as the Egyptian complex since, from the point of view of the rest of Africa, Egypt was the funnel for nearly all contributions from Southwest Asia, whatever their specific point of origin, and the center from which they spread westward and southward to other parts of the continent. In enumerating below the elements of the Egyptian complex, we shall indicate for each the probable region of origin and time of adoption and shall exclude all elements introduced after the close of the Pharaonic period, since their spread has been due to other historical forces and can therefore give no measure of the influence of Egyptian civilization upon other African peoples.

Cereal Grains

Hordeum vulgare and H. distichum). Eastern origin, appearing in Egypt from the very beginning of the Neolithic period.
Triticum vulgare), including emmer (T. dicoccum) and spelt (T. spelta). This Middle Eastern grain likewise dates from the earliest Neolithic period in Egypt.

Legumes and Forage Crops

Alfalfa, or lucerne
Medicago sativa). Middle Eastern in origin.
Broad bean
Vicia faba or Faba vulgaris). Of either Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, this legume appears in Egypt by at least 2000 B.C.
Chick pea
Cicer arietinum). This Middle Eastern crop appears in Egypt relatively late in the Pharaonic period.
Chickling vetch
Lathyrus sativus). This Middle Eastern plant is late and may actually not have reached Egypt until the Greco-Roman period.
Trifolium alexandrinum). An indigenous Egyptian cultigen but relatively late.
Lens esculenta or Ervum lens). This Middle Eastern plant reached Egypt no later than 2000 B.C.
Lupinus tennis). An indigenous Egyptian cultigen.
Pea, or garden pea
Pisum sativum). An early introduction from the Mediterranean or the Middle East.
Vicia sativa). Introduced from the Middle East.

Tubers and Root Crops

Beta vulgaris). This Mediterranean plant is recorded in Egypt early in the second millennium B.C.
Chufa, or earth almond
Cyperus esculenta). An indigenous Egyptian cultigen.
Allium cepa). This Middle Eastern plant appears in Egypt before 3000 B.C
Pastinaca sativa). Mediterranean in origin, and perhaps late.
Raphamus sativus). This Middle Eastern root crop, which was both eaten and used as a source of oil, appears in Egypt by at least 2900 B.C.

Leaf and Stalk Vegetables

Cynara scolymus). Mediterranean plant, possibly introduced into Egypt in Greco-Roman rather than Pharaonic times.
Asparagus officinalis). Mediterranean in origin, this plant reached Egypt by at least the first half of the third millennium B.C.
Bressica oleracea). This Mediterranean plant was not introduced into Egypt until the sixth century B.C. The cabbage differs from other cultivated species of the genus Brassica in the number of its chromosomes, having nine whereas black mustard has eight, the turnip ten, and rape eighteen.
Apium graveolens). This Mediterranean plant first appears in Egypt late in the second millennium B.C.
Cichorium endiva). This Mediterranean plant is the “bitter herbs” of ancient Palestine.
Lactuca sativa). This Middle Eastern plant, apparently first cultivated for the oil in its seeds, dates in Egypt from at least the early third millennium B.C.

Vine and Ground Fruits

Grape, or vine
Vitis vinifera). This Middle Eastern plant dates from the earliest Dynastic period in Egypt.
Melon, or cantaloupe
Cucumis melo). This plant was introduced from the Middle East by at least 2000 B.C.

Tree Fruits

Amygdalus conmwnis). Introduced from the Middle East about 1500 B.C.
Malus pumila or Pyrus malus). Middle Eastern in origin and introduced about 1500 B.C.
Date palm
Phoenix dactylifera). An early introduction from southern Arabia.
Ficus carica). This Middle Eastern plant reached Egypt about 2000 B.C.
Mimusops schimperi). Indigenous to Egypt, this tree was cultivated from the third millennium B.C.
Morus nigra). Middle Eastern in origin and introduced relatively late.
Punica granatum). This Middle Eastern plant is first attested in Egypt about 1500 B.C.

Condiments and Indulgents

Pimpinella anisum). Meditcrranean in origin.
Black caraway
Nigella sativa). Of Mediterranean origin.
Carum carui). Mediterranean in origin.
Allium schoenoprasum). Introduced into Egypt from the Middle East.
Coriandrum sativum). This Middle Eastern plant was introduced into Egypt about 1000 B.C.
Cuminum cyminum). Probably Mediterrancan in origin.
Anethum graveolens). Of Mediterranean origin.
Foeniculum vulgare). Medirerranean in origin.
Allium sativum). This Middle Eastern plant reached Egypt by at least the beginning of the third millennium B.C.
Allium porrum). Middle Eastern in origin and very early in Egypt.
Opium poppy
Papaver somniferum). Middle Eastern in origin and probably very early since it also appears among the Neolithic lake dwellers of Switzerland.

Oil and Dye Plants

Limum usitatissimum). Probably an indigenous Egyptian cultigen. It is first attested in the 5th dynasty, when it was used primarily for linseed oil. After the 12th dynasty it was also used for its fibers.
Lawsonia inermis or L. alba). Introduced from India during the second millennium B.C.
Olea europea). Mediterranean in origin, its fruit was used from very early times as a major source of oil.
Brassica napus). A Mediterranean plant, probably first used for irs oil.
Crocus sativa). This dye plant was introduced from the Middle East in late Pharaonic times.

Domestic Animals

Felis domestica). Probably indigenous in Egypt, where it appears first to have been domesticated around 2000 B.C.
Bos taurus and B. indicus). Long-horned cattle date from earliest Neolithic times in Egypt, and short-horned cattle are nearly as early. The humped zebu breed was introduced in the sixteenth century B.C.
[For current research on cattle domestication read “Cattle before Crops…” — T.S. Bah]
Chicken, or barnyard fowl
Gallus domesticus). Originally domesticated in Southeast Asia, the chicken was introduced into Egypt about 1450 B.C. and independently into East Africa about a thousand years later.
Caprus hircus). Dates from at least the Predynastic period in Egypt.
Anser sp.). Occurs very early in Egypt.
Apis mellifera).
Equus caballus). Introduced into Egypt from Central Asia just before the middle of the second millennium B.C.
Arras boschas). Occurs very early in Egypt.
Sus scrofa). Dates from the earliest Neolithic period in Egypt.
Pigeon, or dove
Columba sp.).
Ovis aries). The hairy, flat-tailed sheep dates from the earliest Neolithic in Egypt. Woolly sheep were introduced from the Middle East about 2000 B.C.

The camel, despite is popular association with the pyramids, did not reach Egypt until the Roman period. On the other hand the donkey or ass (Equus asinus), though probably first domesticated in Ethiopia, was adopted by the Fgyptians early in the third millennium B.C. To complete the roster of plants cultivated in Pharaonic Egypt there should be added several which do not appear in the above list because they originated in Ethiopia or the Sudan or because they were independently introduced from India into Negro Africa.

Ricinus communis). Borrowed at an early date from Ethiopia.
Gosspium herbaceum). This Sudanic cultigen reached Egypt in the sixth century B.C.
Lepidium sativum). Ethiopian in origin, this plant probably reached Egypt in Pharaonic times, though it is not actually attested until the econd century B.C.
Lagenaria vulgaris). This Sudanic plant spread to Egypt during the second millennium B.C.
Gram or mung bean
Phaseolus aureus and P. mungo). A fairly early introduction from India.
Carthamus tinctorius). This plant, used both as a dye and for oil, was introduced into Egypt from Ethiopia about 1500 B.C.
Tamarindus indica). Introduced at an early period from the Sudan.
Citrullus vulgaris). This Sudanic plant spread to Egypt in the second millennium B.C.

Egyptian agriculture depended upon the waters of the Nile and the fertilizing silt deposited by its annual inundations. Retaining basins conserved water, and mechanical appliances like water wheels and the shadoof lifted it into irrigation ditches which carried it to the fields. The dependable and carefully regulated water supply, the automatic annual renewal of the soil’s fertility, and the use of plows drawn by oxen resulted in extremely intensive cultivation and high productivity. Cereal grains, particularly wheat, made the chief contribution to subsistence, followed in importance by the date palm, flax, and an array of legumes and forage crops. These last permitted animal husbandry, despite the desert environment, to play a significant auxiliary role in the economy. Cattle, sheep, and goats, the principal domesticated species, provided meat, hides, wool, and milk, from which butter and cheese were prepared. Oxen were used for draft, donkeys as beasts of burden, and horses eventually to some extent as riding animals. The pig had a curious history in Egypt. From a position of extreme importance at the beginning of the Neolithic period it gradually declined in significance, and records from the Dynastic period reveal the development of an increasing prejudice against it as an unclean animal.
With the establishment of agriculture and animal hubandry, hunting and gathering became insignificant as a source of food, although fishing retained some minor importance. Handicrafr specialization and trade, however, expanded enormously. Markets were general, and caravan routes radiated out in all directions. In the division of labor by sex the men did the herding, milking, and most of the agricultural labor.
There is no need to recapitulate here the more spectacular aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization—the monumental art and architecture, the extraordinarily expert craftmanship, the complex hierarchy of gods with animal attributes, the familiar but much overrated attempt to institute monotheism, and the morose preoccupation with death exemplified by mummification and the cult of Osiris. These matter are widely known, and fully reported in numerous scholarly and popular works, for the Egyptians were a literate nation, and their hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyri have left us a record of their life and thought infinitely richer than that of any other African people of the past.
We must, however, examine those aspects of culture which this volume attempts to cover for other parts of Africa, so that we may be able later to assess the influence of ancient Egyptian civilization elsewhere in the continent. This impact is to be sought first of all, of course, in the cultures of the peoples who bordered Pharaonic Egypt. These were four in number : the Berbers, who inhabited the Mediterranean coast and adjacent desert oases immediately to the west; the Beja, who occupied the arid region lying between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea to the southeast; the Nubians, who dwelt along the Nile to the south beyond Wadi Haifa; and, across a stretch of uninhabitable desert to the southwest, the Teda of Fezzan and Tibesti. The last two were Negro peoples with completely alien languages. The Berbers and Beja, however, were Caucasoid, like the Egyptians, and the three peoples spoke languages of different subfamilies of the same Hamitic stock, namely Berber, Cushitic, and Egyptian. Traces of borrowing from Pharaonic civilization discovered in the cultures of these neighboring groups may then be pursued into other areas as far as the evidence leads.
The ancient Egyptians laid no stress on premarital chastity. Marriages were arranged by parents, sometimes in childhood. Unions between full brothers and sisters were preferred in the roval family and also occurred among the nobility, but their frequency is difficult to determine because of the custom of applying the term “sister” to a wife or sweetheart, even tough she was not actually related. Since uncles also commonly married their nieces, in the upper classes, it is probable that even the lower classes did not extend incest taboos to first cousins. Marriages between non-kin seem to have involved some kind of a property transaction, presumably a modest bride-price. Monogamy strongly predominated. Polyandry did not occur, and polygyny was rare, although harems of concubines were common in the higher official circles . Newly married couple established an independent household, apparently in neolocal residence. Descent seems clearly to have been bilateral, even though a number of authorities have inferred matrilineal descent from the fact that funerary inscriptions more often cite the mother’s name than the father’s. Inherited family surnames were definitely lacking, and the sources yield no intimation of extended families, lineages, sibs. or clans.
The Egyptians lived in compact village, towns, and cities, in which the buildings were aligned on streets. They built stately palaces and temples of stone masonry, but the bulk of the population inhabited rectangular dwelling with walls of sun-dried brick and flat roofs. These commonly had two stories, sometimes more, and faced on a courtyard, of which walls often formed one or more sides. Settlements extended thickly along the banks and on the delta of the Nile River over the lower 600 miles of its course. The population of ancient Egypt has been variously estimated at between 2 and 7 million people.
The country, during most of its long history, was politically organized in a single, unified bureaucratic state under a despotic king or pharaoh. The ruler, occasionally a woman, was regarded as a god and the son of a god, and in recognition of his divinity all persons prostrated themselves in his presence. In theory he possessed absolute power, but actually, of course, his kinsmen, his officials, the army, and the priesthood exerted a substantial check over its exercise. Among the insignia of his high office he carried a scepter or mace, wore an animal tail around his waist, and bore on his head the uraeus or double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. A ruler was succeeded ideally by his eldest son, but civil wars between rival claimants and even usurpations by powerful commoners occurred with considerable frequency.
The pharaoh resided in a capital city, where he maintained an elaborate court and indulged himself in conspicuous consumption, constructing huge monuments, endowing temple , and distributing largesse among those who rendered him loyal service. He surrounded himself with personal attendants, including bodyguards, fanbearers, hurlers, scribes, a “bearer of the royal tool,” an “overseer of the royal wardrobe,” a “stable master of the great stable,” an “an overseer of the palace,” a “superintendent of the royal chamberlains,” and a “great steward of the Lord of the Two Lands,” who was charged with the administration of the king’s personal landed estates. Although the pharaoh maintained harems of concubines in various cities, he had but one legitimate Queen-Consort, commonly his own sister or half sister but sometimes a foreign princess or even a commoner. She kept a separate household and was endowed with independent landed estates administered by her own stewards. On the death of the king she preserved her independent status as the Queen-Mother of the new ruler.
At the head of the administrative hierarchy stood a vizier, or prime minister, who also served a chief justice of the kingdom and as governor of the capital city. During the New Fmpire, to which our data primarily pertain, there were commonly separate viziers for Upper and Lower Egypt, both reporting daily to the pharaoh. The heir apparent, or crown prince, enjoyed high status and not infrequenrly occupied important posts such as that of commander in chief of the army or that of a viceroy or a provincial governor. A “first king’s herald of His Majesty” was charged with the communication of royal decrees and with arranging interviews with the monarch. An “overseer of the granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt” and an “overseer of the treasury of silver and gold” exercised extremely important fiscal functions. Other prominent officials included a chief “overseer of cattle,” the “dispatch writer of the pharaoh,” the “chief taxing master of the entire land,” and two “overseers of river mouths” responsible for the supervision, respectively, of external and internal trade. The principal ministers bore the honorific title of “fanbearer on the right of the king” and formed a privy council which advised the monarch on appointments and other administrative matters.
From earliest times Egypt was administratively organized into a varying number of provinces, or nomes, each consisting of a sizable town and its environing territory and each headed by a governor, or nomarch, directly responsible to the vizier. A nome comprised a number of lesser districts with administrative heads, which in turn consisted of a number of villages with local headmen. At each level the responsible official combined judicial, military, and commonly also ecclesiastical functions with the bureaucratic ones of collecting and transmitting taxes and raising corvées for public works. Reforms under the New Empire created three great administrative regions— the delta and two divisions of Upper Egypt—comprising about forty fiscal districts each, and established “Kenbet courts” in each town to collect imposts and handle other administrative matters as well as to dispense justice. At each level of this bureaucratic hierarchy controllers, or overseers, reported through their superiors to the vizier and maintained granaries and treasuries, which served not merely as storehouses but also a repositories for land, tax, and court records.
The invaluable Wilbour Papyrus indicates that arable and pasture land under the New Empire was divided into plots averaging perhaps 10 acres but ranging from less than a single acre to more than 50. Many formed portions of the royal domain, but the great majority were owned by temples and shrines, endowed with land, herds, and slaves by previous pharaohs or occasionally by wealthy and pious laymen. No evidence suggests the reservation of special estates for the support of administrative officials, but private property in land certainly existed, although it constituted only a small fraction of the total. With few exceptions holdings were comparatively small, and they represented practically every class in society. The frequency of ownership by women suggests hereditary transmission; that by common soldiers and mercenaries suggests either payment or reward for services. The repeated distinction between “holders of land” and “cultivator” or “herdsmen” would seem to indicate widespread tenancy and a near absence of small independent farmers.
Viceroys administered conquered provinces. A ring of forrresses protected the boundaries of the empire and facilitated the collection of duties on imported and exported commodities. The army consisted largely of conscripts and of foreign mercenaries, although charioteers seem to have constituted an elite corps drawn from the upper classes. The pharaoh himself assumed over-all command of the armed forces, assisted by a supreme general and by lieutenant generals for both Upper and Lower Egypt. The infantry was divided into divisions of 5,000 men, brigades of 250, and companies of 50, each with an officer in charge. A prince of royal blood commanded the chariotry, which was organized into squadrons.
Far from being independent, the administrative, military, and ecclesiastical hierarchies formed together a unified monolithic structure. The pharaoh appointed all priests, and he bestowed all military promotions in person. Priests served on the “Kenbet courts,” provincial administrators functioned as chief priests, and local headmen commonly combined the role of prophet with their other activities.
Egyptian society exhibited a complex stratification into social classes: royalty but no hereditary aristocracy; a bureaucratic nobility comprising priests and military officers as well as administrative officials; a diversified bourgeoisie including scribes, teachers, merchants, and petty bureaucrats; an equally diversified class of specialized artisans; an agricultural peasantry reduced practically to the status of serfs; and a class of hereditary slaves composed of war captives and their descendants. Individual freedom was as lacking as in modern totalitarian states. The little man faced the constant threat of arbitrary exactions and of forced labor, and extant papyri contain detailed references to administrative oppression. The “splendour that was Egypt” had a broad basis in human misery.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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