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The Saharan Origins of Ancient Egyptian Royal Symbols

The same array of symbols, with no functional reason for being the same, seems to converge around the Wadi Draa in the Western Sahara and a zone encompassing Lake Nasser in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE. This evidence is so varied that it may point at a weave of influences and displacements in the ancient Sahara, and, more specifically, at a journey on the same scale as the Gypsies’ exodus from India to Europe that may have added an ingredient to the cultural mix which gave rise to pharaonic civilization: the Horus-Osiris myth which became the ideological underpinning for cyclical kingship.

This lecture’s radical hypothesis grew out of a study of the distribution of sculptural forms and conventions across the Sahara. That effort led to the definition of a number of sculptural families whose ranges overlap in some cases. The discovery of some sculptures, which hybridize aspects of two or more sculptural families that come from the same area, indicates that those particular families might be related to one another as part of an evolutionary continuum or as contemporaneous expressions of the same culture.

In two perplexing cases, the same diverse array of symbols, with such cross-links and no functional reason for being the same, seem to converge in separate zones in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE. The only surprising thing about this is that the two zones are 3500 km apart - one around the Wadi Draa in the western Sahara and the other in a zone encompassing Lake Nasser in Egypt and Sudan - instead of being nearly contiguous.

If there were only one or two bodies of convergent evidence, it would be easy to dismiss the similarities as being the products of unrelated cultures, which were drawn, for utterly different reasons, to similar forms, instead of proof of a link between them. But there are just too many overlapping resemblances. Some of them probably derive from the spread of pastoralism and its cultural baggage from Nubia to the Maghreb from 6000 to 5400 BCE. These similarities fit the kind of evidentiary model left by a gradual and bushy expansion, since they are connected by intermediary links.

Another set of similarities – which includes grinding platforms with low relief, inwardly spiraled snakes on their backs, that occur in the western Sahara as part of a tradition of decorated querns, and northern Nubia, where there was apparently no such tradition – seem isolated at the two extremities of the desert, although they are nearly identical. This suggests that they fit another kind of evidentiary model created by a rapid displacement.

The lecture will show how the distribution of this set of similarities leads to the conclusion that some symbols, include falcon imagery, probably went eastwards, rather than westwards, around 4000 BCE. If this interpretation is correct, the appearance of such resemblances along the Nile may represent the arrival of refugees fleeing worsening conditions as the Sahara became more arid by retracing the steps of their pastoral ancestors less than two millennia before. If this flight from an environment, which was becoming hostile because of climate change, actually took place, the journey would have been as long as the Gypsies’ from India to Europe. It would also have been extremely hard, since the last leg of the exodus would have been across the part of the Sahara that was drying up the fastest. By 3600 BCE, it was no longer even possible, because the route was barred by the formation of a 500-km-wide corridor of impassible wasteland, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Darfur.

The lecture will conclude by showing how this primeval exodus apparently left its mark on Egyptian mythology while adding a major new ingredient to the cultural mix that gave rise to pharaonic civilization: the Horus-Osiris myth. This myth, which may memorialize the journey, provided Egypt with the cyclical concept of kingship that helped it to last for millennia.


Duncan Caldwell’s prehistoric research has ranged from the development of new perspectives on human evolution to the discovery and interpretation of prehistoric art – and covers decades in the field in Africa and Europe. His peer-reviewed publications range from re-interpretations of Neanderthal morphology to multiple studies of Paleolithic feminine imagery. Despite all the time he has spent re-examining previously discovered art, he is somewhat unusual among researchers in the amount of time he has devoted to actual prospecting for new art caves – leading to the discovery of dozens of sites from the Sahara to central France. Moving beyond discovery and interpretation, he was also in the vanguard of several archaeological conservation efforts. In 1995, he founded Prehistoric Art Emergency, which launched petitions against the destruction of the richest ensemble of open-air Paleolithic art in Europe by a dam project in Portugal. Its efforts contributed to the decision to make the entire zone a UNESCO World Heritage Site and archaeological park – after millions had been spent on making coffer dams and turbine tunnels. More recently, in 2005 and again in 2006, he organized and led an archaeological survey of the eastern Sahara by French prehistorians and Egyptologists that has been generating publications, which are changing our understanding of Saharan prehistory and the origins of Egyptian civilization. He is a Fellow of the Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, a referee for several peer-reviewed journals, and has been an organizer or speaker at numerous conferences, including one in Egypt, where he served on the editorial committee for a symposium at Nagada, which was organized by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He is also a visiting lecturer in the doctoral module at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and has contributed to numerous exhibitions, including ones at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Katonah Museum of Art, Centre Européen de Recherches Préhistoriques, Musée de l’homme de Tautavel, and National Museum of the Dominican Republic.

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This lecture will be Live Streamed at
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Date: 5/20/13

Time: 6PM Check In, 7PM Start

Location: New York City Headquarters, 46 East 70th St., New York, NY

Member Ticket Price: Free

Guest Ticket Price: $20

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