A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Mapping of standing stones and megalithic structures at Nabta in the Nubian Desert, 500 miles south of Cairo, suggests that the Neolithic nomads who once inhabited the area were not only monitoring the heavens, but recording what they saw in monumental form. According to an article in Nature by J. McKim Malville of the University of Colorado, Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University, and others, the megaliths were placed in deposits that probably accumulated between 7,000 and 6,700 years ago in a playa inundated by summer rains.
Alignments of standing stones and megalithic structures (oval clusters of recumbent stones) extend for up to a mile, marking north and east as well as 24 to 28 and 126 degrees east of north, directions whose meanings are still being worked out. A ten-foot circle composed primarily of stone slabs has four "windows" marked by pairs of standing stones; the four are arranged in two pairs, one forming a north-south line of sight and the other a line stretching from 62 to 298 degrees east of north. The latter coincides approximately with the summer solstice sunrise 6,000 years ago, which would have fallen about 63 degrees east of north.
Malville and Wendorf speculate that the megaliths, "partly submerged in the rising waters of the summer monsoon," may have marked the onset of the rainy season and created "a symbolic geometry that integrated death, water, and the sun." They also suggest that the migration of these nomads north as the summer rains dried up about 4,800 years ago may have stimulated the development of complex cultures and degrees of social status in predynastic Upper Egypt. Within a few hundred years, the pharaoh Djoser built the first pyramid, the step monument at Saqqara.
Egyptologist Mark Lehner of Harvard University points out that other elements of the Nabta sites suggest connections with Egyptian patterns of thought. Malville and Wendorf had noted cattle tumuli and a sculptured stone "with some resemblance to a cow" at Nabta. "Cattle iconography was still extremely important to the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom," says Lehner. And, like several of the megalithic alignments and the solstitial window at Nabta, the temples at Abydos and the pyramids at Saqqara, Giza, and Abusir are arranged along roughly northeast-southwest lines. But Lehner urges caution in making a connection between Neolithic nomads and early Egyptian civilization: "It makes sense, but not in a facile, direct way--you can't go straight from these megaliths to the pyramid of Djoser."