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Ancient Egypt's transition to statehood happened faster than thought

A new paper reports that Egypt’s transition from a smattering of villages to one of history’s most enthralling political states took just 600 to 700 years.

By / September 4, 2013

Egypt morphed from a collection of villages into a true political states in 600 to 700 years, a new paper reports.

Enric Marti/AP


Sometime in the 4th millennium BC, the pastoralists that had canvased the Sahara desert, packing up and moving in search of new hunting game, began to cluster around the Nile River Valley. There, the people rigged up villages and put down cereals plots. Life achieved a new, more regular, rhythm.

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And in that same millennium, King Aha, the first of the eight dynastic rulers, ascended to power and pulled together those villages into a state: Egypt.

Now, a new paper published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A suggests that all this happened much faster than previously thought. According to the new research, Egypt’s transition from a loose collection of villages to one of history’s most enthralling political states took just 600 to 700 years, in dramatic contrast to the much longer transition in neighboring southwestern Asia.

“What we find is actually this period was shorter than people imagined,” said Michael Dee, a researcher at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the lead author on the paper, in an email. “Also, we find that the process was very different in Egypt from Mesopotamia – causing one to wonder whether there is a 'formula' for state formation, or whether each early state developed in its own way.”

Egypt is often cited as the first example of the textbook definition of a state: a political institution that has territorial borders. But an exact timeline for the mighty state’s formation has been elusive, as estimates for King Aha’s ascension have varied, putting it somewhere between 3400 to 2900 BC.

In part, the wideness of that range has been due to inexact methods of dating Egypt’s major plot points. Since about 1899, Egyptian funeral pot styles have been used to distinguish one predynastic or dynastic period from another. But that method of dating provides just a relative timeline of Egyptian history, no absolute dates, says Dr. Dee.

“Ceramics, stone artifacts and the like can only ever offer ordering information. This pot comes before that pot etc.,” said Dee. “Information like that is not anchored in any way to the calendar time-scale.”


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