Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Located deep in the Nubian desert, the Nabta Playa stone circle holds astonishing details of ancient astronomy.
Nabta Playa was once a large internally drained basin in the Nubian Desert, located approximately 800 kilometers south of modern-day Cairo or about 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, 22.51° north, 30.73° east. Today the region is characterized by numerous archaeological sites.
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Nabta Playa is a remarkable site composed of hundreds of prehistoric tumuli, stelae, and megalithic structures located in the Nubian Desert, approximately 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt.
The Early People of Nabta Playa
Although Nabta Playa currently lies within a dry and unforgiving desert, it was not always this way. Scientists have been able to determine that around 10,000 BC, a climatic change occurred over North Africa caused by a northward shift of the summer monsoons. This change brought enough rainfall to the region to fill a number of playas (dry lakes) for at least several months of the year, and thereby support life for both animals and humans.
Archaeological evidence appears to suggest that the first settlements of people in Nabta Playa arrived between 11,000 and 9,300 years ago. Wendorf, and ethno-linguist Christopher Ehret, have suggested that the people who occupied the region at this time were pastoral nomads, who may have set up seasonal camps, moving on again when the water dried up. People of this time herded cattle and made ceramic vessels. Although very few ceramics have been found from this time period, those that have are considered to be among the oldest identified in Africa.
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Between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago, the region suffered two major droughts which caused the water level to be significantly lowered. Nabta Playa became hyper-arid and virtually lifeless and the settlements were abandoned. However, the droughts eventually subsided and, after a 1,000-year hiatus, groups of people began returning to the Playa. It was from this time onwards, that the region saw the arrival of a substantially more complex and advanced society and it was during this period that most of the major megalithic structures were constructed. It is considered to be the height of human occupation at Nabta Playa.
Over several thousand years of habitation, the people of Nabta Playa constructed numerous megalithic monuments, including stone circles, underground tombs, huge stone slabs, and rows of stelae, which extend over about 2,500 meters. The megalithic monuments are among some of the oldest in the world, pre-dating Stonehenge by thousands of years.
The calendar circle
One of the most significant structures at Nabta Playa is a stone circle. Dating back at least 7,000 years, the stone circle is among the oldest of archeoastronomical devices, designed as a prehistoric calendar to mark two significant celestial phenomena – the summer solstice, which is associated with the onset of summer rains, and the arrangement of stars in the night sky, which they used to guide themselves across the desert.
The stone circle, which measures only four meters in diameter, is made up of a number of stones, including four pairs of larger stones, and then a series of smaller stones. In the centre of the circle are two rows of three stones. Using satellite technology, surveys by Wendorf and University of Colorado Professor, J. McKim Malville, revealed that two of the pairs align to form a north-south line, while the other two pairs form an east-west line. The east-west alignment is calculated to be where the sun would have risen and set from the summer solstice 6500 years ago.
Astrophysicist Thomas G. Brophy, former NASA physicist, suggests that the southern row of three stones inside the circle represent the three stars of Orion’s Belt, while the other three stones represent the shoulders and heads stars of Orion as they appeared in the sky thousands of years ago.