The Nile Valley’s first farmers and bottlenecks

by Edward Pegler on 25 February, 2010

Why did the inhabitants of the ancient Nile valley take so long to start farming and what does it say about Demic Diffusion?

The margins of the Egytpian Nile (by

The Nile valley is a fine thing. A narrow corridor straddling the great Sahara desert, it is, strangely, a perfect place to farm. Until the construction of the Aswan Dam the annual flood’s timing, unlike Iraq’s, made it relatively easy to grow crops on its riverbanks without complex irrigation.

In history the Nile valley was also (ignoring the relatively minor oases) the major overland lifeline between the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. As such it was not just an avenue for communication. It was also a bottleneck along which almost all trade passed between the two areas. Admittedly, much of the good stuff, ivory, gold and slaves, went north. There is little evidence of what went south.

The ancient kingdoms of Egypt and, to the south, Kush controlled much of this trade until the end of the first millennium BC. At this time Arabian and Greek sailors, travelling down the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean and down the East African coast, broke their monopoly. Kush did not last much longer after this although the cities of the Nile delta, Alexandria, Cairo and Fustat, sitting at the head of the Red Sea trade routes to Europe, survived very well indeed.

Naqada’s Late Farmers

Map of the Nile valley and adjacent area

Bizarrely, although there’s limited evidence of agriculture around the Nile delta around 5000 BC, there is little evidence for agriculture or settlement anywhere along the Nile valley before around 4000 BC (the “Naqada” culture). Compare this with the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where agriculture started around 8500 BC, four thousand years earlier. Now consider that the two are less than 300 miles apart at their closest points across the Sinai Desert.

There is evidence before 4000 BC of trade, both on the Nile valley and in the surrounding desert, both in attractive stone and shells… perhaps even pottery. This trade stretched over hundreds of miles. So why, in this perfect place, did agriculture apparently start so late?

Possible Reasons

Jared Diamond suggests that Egypt and Sudan had few suitable indigenous plants for domestication. It was, he argues, not until the arrival of wheat and barley from the Middle East that agriculture could start here. Perhaps the physical barrier of the Sinai desert held up this process by about four thousand years.

Now it may or may not be true that there were no suitable plants for domestication. A much bigger problem is that it is possible for people in the Fertile Crescent to bypass the desert by travelling over the sea. Farming of Middle Eastern crops had already started in Cyprus shortly after it started in the Middle East (around 7000 BC). This is just as far away as the Nile valley and is also separated by sea. It’s possible that it even reached the Nile delta itself by around the same time, although there is currently little evidence. Therefore this cannot be the reason.

A second possibility is that people on the Nile valley did farm much earlier but the evidence has not been found. This is a genuine possibility as the Nile valley is subject to constant erosion and deposition. Indeed, around the delta it is necessary to dig deep trenches to find early sites. Being of limited extent, it has also experienced repeated building and agriculture on the same land.

In fact sites older than 4000BC have been found near the Nile valley, if not always in the valley floor. However, these sites do not show evidence that they are anywhere near agricultural communities or permanent settlements. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the population seems to have been quite mobile.†

Badarian Cattle Herders?

Even through they did not take up agriculture, there is some evidence that people in the Sahara Desert around the Nile valley may have taken up cattle herding around 6000 BC (some say there is evidence for much earlier cattle herding, but this is generally disputed). The similarity of these “Badarian” cattle herding cultures along the length of the Nile suggests that they were a highly mobile population.†

There is an interesting aspect to all this. How is it that the Sahara was even being considered as a place for cattle herding at this time? It is now desert and cattle herding is simply not possible there at all.

The Wet Sahara

Recent climatic evidence from Ralph Kuper and Stefan Kröpelin* shows that from the early Holocene (8500 BC) the Sahara became much wetter than it is now. Whether people were foragers or pastoralists, this made it possible to live away from the Nile valley. Between 5500 and 3500 BC the Sahara either side of the Nile started to dry out again.

But if the lands around the Nile were much wetter at this time then the Nile valley would not have been a vital lifeline. People would not have needed to journey along it to cross the desert because there was no desert. Traders, whether pastoralists or foragers, could have moved where they liked, traded where they liked, without being forced along the river. Without a concentration of trade, there would be no concentration of people and hence no lack of food.

The timing when the Sahara’s was drying out (5500-3500 BC) seems to match the time that the people of the Nile valley finally took up farming. The final phase of desiccation of the desert continued until 1500 BC.

Farming and “Demic Diffusion”

The conventional argument about the expansion of agriculture, known as Demic Diffusion or the “Wave of Advance” theory, states that agriculture gradually spread in all directions (climate and land permitting) from its source in the Middle East. This is generally put down to population pressures in the farming community causing them to spread out.

However, if the history of the Nile above is correct (and this is a big “if”) then there seems to be no reason why agriculture could not have spread to the lower Nile valley by, say, 7000 BC. The land was fertile, the crops largely suitable.

Now I wouldn’t be surprised if there was limited agriculture being conducted on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt at this time (the evidence is buried deep and difficult to find). Certainly, there was coastal agriculture in Libya by 7000BC. However the fact that there is no agriculture in the Nile valley before about 4000 BC seems significant and, to me, argues against Demic Diffusion.

To explain the absence of agriculture before 4000 BC, Diffusionists have argued that the Nile might have been more prone to violent flooding at that time. To me this seems a weak argument as violent floods would still wash down fertile silts. People would just need to farm them further away from the river banks. This won’t stop all settlement or farming.

Two arguments seem to be possible to explain the evidence of the Nile valley. In both arguments, people do not choose to farm but are forced to by circumstances.

The first is that the cattle herders of the desert were forced to farm because the Sahara was drying out and people were descending in droves on the narrow Nile valley. Population pressure made them take up farming just to survive. This is certainly reasonable. I think it would be argued for by many people.

But there is an alternative argument. The drying out of the Sahara made the Nile the one fertile corridor through the landscape. As such it became a bottleneck, funnelling north-south trade through this narrow corridor. Trade attracted traders and craftsmen to settle here. Others would come, hoping to be part of this “wealth”. This generated the population pressures that initiated agriculture (see “Trade and Farming”).  Continued desiccastion led rapidly to the organisation of the first states in the fourth millennium (as argued by Kuper and Kröpelin*). I don’t say that this argument is right but it seems to fit the facts as well as any other.


Diamond, J, 1997, Guns Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Vintage, pp480.

*Kuper, R. & Kröpelin, S. 2006, Climate-Controlled Holocene Occupation in the Sahara: Motor of Africa’s Evolution, Science 313, p803-807.

ºBarker, D. 2006, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers? Oxford, pp589.

†Wengrow, D. 2006, The Archaeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa 10,000 to 2650 BC. Cambridge, pp343.

Additional Reference useful page on Predynastic imagery.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

daniel March 5, 2010 at 2:22 am

A well thought through and researched article. The two arguments you put forward would not have to be mutually exclusive.

In any case I would expect there to be evidence of agriculture in the valley before this, but maybe it was limited and because of the constant flooding it is just not there anymore. The violent flooding of the Nile doesn’t provide much of a reason to there not being any farming I would have thought, but I do not know what evidence is used to support that claim. While I agree with your hypothesis I don’t agree that no farming before 4000BC in the Nile can be used to argue against Demic Diffusion, that seems a step to far.


Edward Pegler March 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Dear Daniel

Fair point, and I think as an individual case it doesn’t argue against it. Certainly there are many interpretations which can be justified on the current evidence.

Thanks for the link by the way.



Dave Roberts March 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm

An excellent article. I totally agree. I would argue that agriculture should not be perceived as the great cultural and technical ‘achievement’ it is usually described as…. but rather as a pragmatic, practical and perhaps the only workable solution to population pressures whether or not caused by climate change. A million years or more of purposeful human wandering (which humanity is very well physically and psychologically suited to) would have been very difficult to abandon and indeed would not have been abandoned without compelling reason.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention but it is also the father of change and evolution. If the Sahara had remained rainy indefinitely then the inhabitants would not have taken to agriculture even if farmers from the fertile crescent had dumped the seeds in their lap!

The Pharaonic emblems of Bull’s Tail, Crook and Flail which lasted from early pre-Dynastic times throughout Pharaonic history shout loudly at us down the centuries that the Ancient Egyptians themselves were well aware of their origins as livestock herders and drovers.


Edward Pegler March 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Dear Dave

Thanks for your positive comments. Nice to see other people thinking in similar terms.



daniel March 3, 2010 at 9:31 am

very interesting article, i’m going to enjoying following your blog, keep up the thought provoking work


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