Some 20 years ago, in the Egyptian desert about 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel, Fred Wendorf noticed a group of large stones on the site of an ancient lake bed. Reasoning by their appearance that they must have been brought there at some time in the past, he began excavations. What he uncovered was the oldest-known astronomically arranged megaliths, predating Stonehenge by over 1000 years.
The term playa refers a basin that holds water seasonally. From about 11,000 to 5,500 years ago, Nabta Playa was an important ceremonial center for a variety of ancient tribes that lived in this once-habitable desert. Today it is a harsh and unforgiving region, but around 12,000 years ago a shift in the regional monsoon pattern brought a modest but life-giving 10-15 centimeters of rain per year to the region. Playas like Nabta would remain filled with water for months, and tribes of the desert would congregate around it, holding ceremonies and building impressive stone structures. Today there are dozens of archaeological sites located on and around it.
The ceremonial hub of Playa Nabta may have been nine three-metre tall unshaped sandstone slabs that have a north south alignment. During the rainy season they would have been partially submerged in the lake. About 300 meters north is a “calendar circle”, consisting of a set of small sandstone slabs arranged in a circle about 4 metres in diameter. Amongst them are four pairs of larger upright slabs, two of which line up north-south, and two of which line up east-northeast to west-southwest. This would have aligned them with the sunrise of the summer solstice about 6,800 years ago – of great significance to the Nabta people as it marked the beginning of the all-important monsoon season.
About 300 metres north of this Wendorf and his crew discovered a burial chamber that contained not human remains as expected, but those of a cow. Despite the wealth of human artifacts at Nabta, no human remains have yet been found. But the cattle burial, which was in a clay lined chamber and contained a large, ritually killed bull, is an indication that the peoples of Nabta had a cattle herding, nomadic culture a bit like the nomadic people of southern Sudan or northern Kenya today.
About 4,800 years ago the weather patterns shifted again, and the area returned to its previous hyperarid state. Human habitation ceased, and exactly where the cattle worshippers of Nabta migrated to remains a mystery. But archaeologists note with interest that religion in the Old Kingdom which rose a few hundred years later in the Nile Valley had a prominent place for cows as never before. Hathor, for example, the ancient Egyptian deity for love and beauty, had a woman’s body and a cow’s head. What influence, if any, did the builders of the Nabta megaliths have on the future builders of the Pyramids?