Science & Tech

Discovery in the River Nile's evolution reveals why Ancient Egypt was so prosperous

Discovery in the River Nile's evolution reveals why Ancient Egypt was so prosperous

Discovery in the River Nile's evolution reveals why Ancient Egypt was so prosperous


Ancient Egypt might have to thank the River Nile for all its success after new research into the famous river highlights the role it played during the historic time period.

A study from the University of Southampton explains, "Although the Nile is one of the largest rivers in the world and played a central role in ancient Egyptian life, little is known about its response to climatic change during the Holocene."

But “climatic and environmental changes have shaped the landscape of the Egyptian Nile Valley over the past 11,500 years, including the civilisation of ancient Egypt,” the authors write, meaning that the river's evolvement during ancient Egypt could be what helped pharaonic society to prosper.

“UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Karnak and Luxor temples [are] located east of the present Nile and the royal cult temples and necropoleis [are] on the western desert margin – places that were both physically and mythologically connected to the fluvial landscape,” the authors write. “In addition, it is possible that the changing environment also impacted the regional agro-economy, which was of critical importance to the success of the ancient Egyptian state.”

There is a significant lack of research on the river and hardly any on how the Nile reshaped itself over time, meaning this study is a big step in the field. But this also means there is a lack of data required to make reliable reconstructions of the Nile's evolution possible.

In an attempt to overcome this technological gap, the team sought the information themselves.

“We drilled 81 boreholes, many by hand, across the whole Nile Valley near Luxor – a genuine first for Egypt,” explained Dominic Barker, a Technician in Archaeology at the University of Southampton and one of the co-authors of the paper.

“Using geological information contained within the cores, and dating the sediments using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence we were able to piece together the evolution of the riverine landscape.”

They then discovered that roughly 4,000 years ago, the Nile underwent a sudden, significant change in its behaviour and environment. After being quite narrow for 7,500 years, it shifted. Large amounts of sediment were being deposited on the valley floor, building up the riverbed and helping stabilise and greatly increase the surrounding floodplain.

“The expansion of the floodplain will have greatly enlarged the area of arable land in the Nile Valley near Luxor (ancient Thebes) and improved the fertility of the soil by regularly depositing fertile silts,” explained Benjamin Pennington, a Visiting Fellow in Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Southampton and co-author of the paper.

It's not certain what prompted such a change, but researchers think it has to do with the Sahara desert, and its shift into the sandy expanse we know today. As well as, of course, human settlements in the area.

The shift to the Nile seems to have have occurred roughly exactly at the shift from the Old to the New Kingdom – a time when Egyptian civilisation went through a period of never-before-seen prosperity and achievement.

“No specific causal links can be inferred between this shift and any contemporaneous social developments,” warned Pennington. “[But] the changes in the landscape are nonetheless an important factor that need to be considered when discussing the trajectory of Ancient Egyptian culture.”

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