Nabta Playa: Ancient Astronomy in the Nubian Desert

Nabta Playa is a remarkable site composed of hundreds of prehistoric tumuli, stelae, and megalithic structures located in the Nubian Desert, approximately 100 kilometers south of the Tropic of Cancer in Egypt.

Sometimes called Egypt's Stonehenge, it was an important ceremonial center from 11.000 to 5.000 years ago. Archaeological discoveries reveal that the people of Nabta Playa had much more advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics than previously thought possible.

By the 5th millennium BC these peoples had fashioned what may be among the world's earliest known archeoastronomical devices (roughly contemporary to the Goseck circle in Germany and the Mnajdra megalithic temple complex in Malta). These structures include six alignments extending across the sediments of the Playa, containing a total of 24 megaliths, moved to the site from an open sandstone area about half a mile away.

Like the spokes on a wheel each alignment radiates outward from a complex stone structure in the centre. One of the megalithic alignments is parallel to the rising point of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

About 300 metres north of these mega stones the 'calendar circle' (see image above) is located. This stone circle is very small compared with the great structures of Stonehenge and Carnac but it demonstrates similar astronomical affiliations. In this calendar circle, Egypt's earliest astronomical measuring device marks the rising position of the Sun at summer solstice.

At the western edge of Nabta Playa the Saharan pastoralists constructed some 30 megalithic structures as well, consisting of both surface and subterranean features. A shaped stone, which bears some resemblance to a cow, was unearthed from one of these megalithic structures.

The ancient nomads of Nabta Playa moved across trackless oceans of sand, and they must have found the stars to be as useful for navigation as did those who attempted to find their ways across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ultimately they were drawn to the playa because of the promise of water, which began to accumulate in the Nabta Playa basin around the time of summer solstice.

From about 65,000 years ago until about 12,000 years ago the Nubian Desert was hyper-arid, perhaps even drier then today. Changes began when the summer rains of tropical Africa began to move northward, bringing sufficient moisture for a variety of sahelian grasses, trees, and bushes to grow and for a few animals to exit, mostly hares and small gazelle, but also small carnivores.

The people of Nabta Playa dug deep wells that held water throughout the year, designed their villages, and by the 6th millennium BC, they sacrificed young cows and buried them in stone-roofed chambers lined with clay. The degree of organization and control of Nabta Playa's complex society, not previously seen in Egypt, may have contributed to the development of high culture along the Nile.

It has been suggested that Nabta Playa's cattle cult marks an early evolution of ancient Egypt's cow goddess Hathor, the mother of the Sun as well as of Horus. In spite of this symbolic significance of cattle in the Old Kingdom, they did not play a significant role in the economy. Thus, cattle worship may have been part of the heritage passed on by Saharan pastoralists to the great kingdoms of the Nile Valley.