This is the final part of my review of Robert Bauval’s and Thomas Brophy’s 2011 book Black Genesis, about the “black” origins of Egyptian civilization. In this episode, the cows come home.
The authors correctly note that Nabta Playa contains the oldest evidence for cattle domestication yet found, and they offer some interesting material—drawn largely from previously published reports—about the culture of Nabta Playa and their rituals surrounding cows. The authors then suggest that this directly contributed to ancient Egyptian cow rituals. (Note: Not all archaeologists agree that Nabta Playa’s cows were domesticated.) This is certainly possible, but rituals related to cattle can be found wherever cattle were domesticated, and at roughly the same time that the Nabta Playa people were ritually burying cows (and indeed for a thousand years before), the people of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia were also worshiping bovines, in the form of bulls, a prominent religious symbol. Given the widespread veneration of cattle in the Neolithic, more is needed to draw a direct line from Nabta Playa to the Pharaohs.
The authors then apply known Egyptian ideas, such as the identification of the Big Dipper as a bovine thigh, backward to hypothesized Nabta Playa beliefs and, in circular fashion, use this hypothesis as proof of influence from Nabta Playa on Egypt.
I’m not opposed to the idea that the Neolithic cultures had sophisticated mythologies that incorporated star lore. Nor am I opposed to the idea that the Neolithic cultures bequeathed some of that to their successors, who, adapting and evolving over time, eventually gave rise to Ancient Egypt. But the authors seem single-mindedly focused on Nabta Playa without even a tentative acknowledgement that Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt (the Nile Valley) had their own Neolithic cultures, about whose rituals and beliefs little is known, but which must also have contributed to pre-dynastic Egypt. Surely they had equal opportunity to study the stars.
The authors paint an entirely hypothetical picture of the Nabta Playa hearing rumors of a “wonderful river” and traveling there when the desert claimed their oasis, sparking cattle herding and megalithic architecture in the Nile Valley. This hypothesis, the authors note, is supported by Egyptologists, and they quote Romuald Schild (Polish specialist in the Paleolithic), Fred Wendorf (SMU archaeologist), and Fekry Hassan (London University Egyptologist) to that effect. The authors fail to note that Mark Lehner, a leading Egyptologist, saw a connection between Nabta Playa and later Egyptian cult beliefs, though with reservations:
Cattle iconography was still extremely important to the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. [A connection] makes sense, but not in a facile, direct way—you can’t go straight from these megaliths to the pyramid of Djoser.
Damn! I wasted a whole book review, when I could have just published that 1998 comment and called it a day.
Let’s stop here and review: Bauval and Brophy assert that academia refuses to recognize the Nabta Playa people’s influence on pre-dynastic Egypt because they are racists, yet Bauval and Brophy learned about the Nabta Playa people’s influence on pre-dynastic Egypt from academics who did the work on which they are piggy-backing, and one of the leading Egyptologists agrees with this! So what exactly are Bauval and Brophy arguing about?
Next we tour Elephantine where Bauval and Brophy over-interpret the evidence. Egyptian temples of Satis there were built and rebuilt over time, in slightly different positions. Archaeologists determined that the changing position reflected the changing position of the star Sirius, to which each temple was aligned. Bauval and Brophy want us to see that as evidence of thousands of years of tracking Sirius in recognition of precession; however, the evidence more parsimoniously suggests that when new temples were built, they were aligned to Sirius at the time of construction. Sirius changed position, so each new temple’s axis did, too, without any need to recognize that Sirius was moving, or how fast. The change from one temple to the next was so small (a few degrees at most) that the builders of any one temple might never have noticed. The oldest Satis temple was dated to 3200 BCE, which is about the time the Nabta Playa people vanished, which suggests to some that an influx of their ideas led to the building of the first temple.
However, the authors then suggest that the Nabta Playa people set about monitoring the Nile floods using the star Sirius and inventing rituals tied to this, as though no one had been living there before them or might have had a passing interest in the life-giving annual flood.
The authors try to relate this to the Egyptian calendar, suggesting that just as most modern calendars are dated from “a historical person” so too must the Egyptian calendar’s Year Zero coincide with a real event. Of course, there is an obvious rejoinder to this: The Hebrew calendar takes its start date from the alleged creation of the world in 3761 BCE. The Byzantine calendar did the same, from a creation date calculated at 5509 BCE. Neither of these, of course, bears any relationship to known historical events, nor were there either Jews or Byzantines to observe anything in those times.
The authors, based on Bauval’s flawed Orion Correlation Theory, claim that the Nabta Playa people held 12,280 BCE to be the Year Zero of their calendar, plus or minus a few years. Of course this sort of wrecks the Orion Mystery idea that the Orion Correlation points to “precisely” 11,450 BCE (or 10,500 if you’re Graham Hancock) as the Year Zero, but what’s a millennium between friends if your entire argument is based on “astonishing” levels of precision? Thus it is almost humorous when they imagine the early Egyptian architect Imhotep using the “records” of Nabta Playa to “correct” the Egyptian calendar.
In support of their view that the pyramids were meant to signal a Nabta Playa heritage, the authors simply lie: “…here is, too, the nagging fact that no mummy or corpse was ever found in the Great Pyramid or, for that matter, in any other royal pyramid in Egypt.” This is false. In 2009—before this book was written—the remains of Queen Seshseshet were found in a sixth dynasty pyramid. Minutoli found a mummified human foot and golden sandal, as well as a skull, in Djoser’s pyramid in 1821, a discovery confirmed by the retrieval of more bones by Dr. Jean-Philippe Lauer, including the other foot and an arm. Burnt mummified human remains were also found in the Red Pyramid. And the list goes on. As I pointed out before, the Arabs also recorded finding mummies in the pyramids that they opened, which, of course, they removed.
Since Bauval and Brophy clearly failed to do even cursory research, I stopped doing even cursory reading of their failed idea and skipped to the next claim.
Their further elaborations on the “mysteries” of the Egyptian calendar have no direct connection to Nabta Playa and are recycled from earlier books by the two authors. They are therefore padding—as indeed is much of this latter section of the book, which has veered off into completely different territory from the earlier section and makes no direct connection to Nabta Playa, “Black” people, or anything else that so obsessed the authors in the first five chapters. The authors carry the story down to Roman times at great length, but with little evidence to connect any of their astronomical mysteries back before dynastic Egypt. The Dendera Zodiac (c. 53 BCE), for example, is as far removed from Nabta Playa (c. 4300 BCE) as we are today from the Great Pyramid’s construction, and therefore has little to offer in explaining the mystery of the “Black” origins of Egypt.
The authors also expect to believe that the Egyptians inherited stellar religion from the Nabta Playa people and also received solar religion from them, too, two millennia later when they “rediscovered” the Nabta Playa people’s “solar” temple at the so-called Djedefre’s Water Mountain in the Fourth Dynasty and suddenly started worshipping the sun. Somehow the Nabta Playa immigrants just forgot about the whole solar cult as soon as they hit the Nile? It makes my head hurt, especially when the authors now have the “Black” people “telling” the Egyptians about their various cults. I thought the argument was that they were the Egyptians—wasn’t that the point of the endless chapter on melanin levels and who counts as a true “Black”?
I’ll let Bauval and Brophy conclude with their parting words, whose weird racial import must be experienced firsthand:
We now can look with even greater awe at the wonderful legacy of ancient Egypt—especially at those imposing pyramids and temples—and see in them a very ancient message that was written in the stars, a message that directed us to faraway places in the desert and to a time when hardy and intelligent black-skinned men planted a seed that grew in the Nile Valley to give rise to a wonderful civilization. We know that from now on Egypt will never be the same for us, for when a Black Nubian or African passes us by, we will see in him or her, as surely as we see in ourselves, the reflection of a common Black genesis.
What could I possibly add to that?
Instead, I will point to a few pertinent facts: Robert Bauval has apparently abandoned his beliefs from Keeper of Genesis (Message of the Sphinx) that there was a lost super-civilization responsible for Egypt, and in The Orion Mystery that Edgar Cayce had accurately predicted that the lost records of Atlantis were hidden at Giza. (Even in Orion he was already downplaying the ancient alien ideas of Robert Temple which he admitted inspired his pyramid quest.) Thomas Brophy has jettisoned his claim from The Origin Map that Nabta Playa represented the galactic wisdom of the aliens. Here, the two ascribe Egypt to a culture they admit to have been Neolithic, whose only distinguishing feature for them is how “Black” the people were.
So, if the authors were completely wrong about the major assumptions they once made about the past, but refuse to acknowledge or explain this—indeed, they actually cite and rely on the accuracy of their earlier books—why should I now trust their supposedly superior judgment over that of actual archaeologists and Egyptologists? Were they wrong in the past, obfuscating now, or what?
Nabta Playa is really interesting on its own as a major Neolithic culture, fully deserving of its own book. As one possible thread in the tapestry of proto-dynastic Egypt, it is also worthy of note, but not like this. There are too many conjectures and too much reliance on dubious computer simulations. Nabta Playa is not the origin point of civilization—Göbekli Tepe has older and more spectacular megalithic architecture, even using the older dates for Nabta Playa given in Black Genesis, and civilization arose independently in several places—and to promote it to the focal point for religion, culture, and history does a disservice to Egypt, to the ancient people of the Sahara, and to the readers.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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