Nabta Playa reportedly predates all other astroarchaeology sites and is aligned with the summer solstice. Nabta Playa may be the earliest known human structure with astronomical alignments.
Before the invention of clocks, the movement of the planets marked divisions in time. A sundial marked time during daylight. The solstices and equinoxes signaled when to plant crops or when to move the herds to a different pasture. Planets bore the names of deities. In some cases and times, the planets may have been those deities. Modern Pagans follow the lunar cycle and the modern Wheel of the Year. A variety of Pagan traditions link the elements with the four directions. The movements of the sun and moon permeate Pagan practice, ancient and modern.
Who built Nabta Playa?
Between 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.E., groups of Neolithic people built about 35,000 megaliths in Europe. Other groups of Neolithic people built Nabta Playa, a megalithic ceremonial center, around 5000 B.C.E. They built it on the shores of a now-vanished lake, “Lake Nabta” in the eastern Sahara. That lake only existed for the four-month-long rainy season which began with the summer solstice.
According to archaeologist J. McKim Malville, a nearby cemetery showed relative equality in grave goods. This relative equality indicated minimal social stratification. The cemetery, Gebel Ramlah, contained elaborate burials, indicating a certain amount of prosperity, at least by Neolithic standards. The burials also showed that people had had good health and a strong aesthetic sense. Two populations shared the cemetery: North African Mediterranean people and sub-Saharan African people.
History of the Nabta Playa ceremonial center
In 1998 anthropologist, Fred Wendorf, defined a regional ceremonial center as “a place where related but widely separated groups gather periodically to conduct ceremonies and to reaffirm their social and political solidarity.” He reported that many African villages still have them.
Wendorf reported that people began to build Nabta Playa after tropical rains moved northward. The land began to support some flora and fauna. A temporary lake had begun to form. From 6100 to 5600 B.C.E., this area developed into a ceremonial center. Evidence of ancient cattle (aurochs) and goats began to appear around Lake Nabta. These herders built small seasonal camps around the lake.
Even after the rains moved northwards, droughts still occurred. A severe drought from 5600 to 5500 B.C.E. drove people to abandon this site. These cattle herders faced the challenge of less available water. This challenge pushed these herders to develop new ways to locate and manage water. That severe drought may have stimulated other cultural, intellectual, and social changes. When people returned to Nabta Playa after 5400 B.C.E., they had developed a more complex culture. Wendorf suggested it may have been more complex than that of the Nile Valley.
The climate changed again around 3400 B.C.E. Lake Nabta began to dry up permanently. The Sahara took over. People abandoned the site, never to return.
What structures did Nabta Playa contain?
Stonehenge is one structure within a rich, monumental complex. Nabta Playa is the name for an entire ceremonial complex of many structures.
A “wadi” refers to a valley that had once been a riverbed but has since dried out. Archaeologists named one wadi, “valley of the sacrifices.” That wadi channeled water to the temporary lake. Archaeologist, J. McKim Malville and colleagues reported a finding of 10 tumuli (burial mounds) in this wadi. Parts of butchered cattle, goats, and sheep were buried in these tumuli. The oldest contained the skeleton of a young cow. Its skeleton had a north/south alignment. Its head lay to the south. These tumuli dated to 5000 to 5500 B.C.E.
That wadi ended in sandy knoll. On that knoll, people had built a circle of stones, the calendar circle. It has a diameter of 4 m (13 ft). It has two intersecting sets of two pairs of upright stones. One pair aligns on a north-south axis. The other pair has a more or less east-west axis. The stones on one side of a pair face the stones on the other side. Those pairs of standing stones enclose a space too narrow for group processions. Archaeologists theorize that those pairs of standing stones formed “gates for viewing.” The “gate for viewing” on the east/west axis aligns with the summer solstice.
Some modern people had “added” stones to the site. Authorities have moved this calendar circle to the Nubian Museum in Aswan to maintain its integrity.
Some of the other structures at Nabta Playa are listed below.
Wendorf reported that about 1 km (0.6 miles) south of a large settlement lie 30 complex structures, 500 m long (~1,640 ft) by 200 m wide (~656 ft). Each of these 30 structures frames an oval area, rough 5 m long (~16 ft), and 4 m wide (~13 ft). In their center lie horizontal stone slabs. Archaeologists have excavated just two of these. Both sat atop “table” rocks shaped like mushrooms. These table rocks lay two to three and a half meters below the surface.
Malville reported that about 500 m (~1,640 ft) west of the most western monoliths, the Ring Hill sits. It has a diameter of 17 m (~55 ft). A grave shaft lies to the east of this ring. It contains the skull of a three-year-old boy, dated to 3500 to 3200 B.C.E., about the time that people abandoned the site. The grave appears to align with the rising sun on the equinox.
People dragged the stones from over 1.6 km (~1 mile) away. The largest of these stones reached 2.7 m (~9 ft) in height. People had carved images on these stones. Some rocks had carvings of fish from the Red Sea, indicating possible trade or migration.
Nabta Playa may have linked the farmers of the Nile Valley with the pastoralists of the eastern Sahara. This would be consistent with the skeletons found in the nearby cemetery.
After Nabta Playa
After Lake Nabta dried up, neither people nor their herds could survive in the area. They migrated away. Some people returned to Nubia. Other people may have settled in the Nile Valley, contributing to its dynamic culture. Wendorf argued that certain aspects of Egyptian culture derived from Nabta Playa. Within a few hundred years of people abandoning the “Lake Nabta” complex, Djoser built the first pyramid.
According to Wendorf, the Nabta Playa influenced the Nile Valley, not the reverse. He described the traditional relationship between herders and farmers as a “tense harmony.” Sometimes that harmony would break down or weaknesses emerge. When that happened, the more complex society at Nabta Playa may have had an advantage. They may have conquered parts of the Nile Valley.
Certain similarities exist between the culture at Nabta Playa and that of Egypt. Nabta Playa, the Temples of Abydos, and the pyramids all show similar alignments. The number of cattle bones and burials show the importance of cattle in Nabta Playa cosmology. In contrast, cattle had minimal importance in Neolithic Egypt. Yet, a major cult grew up around the cow-goddess Hathor, mother of Horus. The Old Kingdom, from 2600 to 2100 B.C.E. had a great deal of cattle iconography. The herders of Nabta Playa may have been the source of that cattle cult in Egypt.