First Great Expansion of Berber Peoples Across North Africa

The Berber tribes, inhabitants of the increasingly arid Sahara to the west of the Nile Valley whom the Egyptians grouped under the ethnonym Tjemehou, began to expand into the Nubian Nile Valley during the late Old Kingdom period.

Summary of Event

Between 6000 and 2000 b.c.e., pastoralism developed in the eastern Sahara. At sites such as Nabta Playa and at other more permanently watered regions of the eastern Sahara, cultures in close contact with the Nile Valley developed, but there is at this time no certain evidence of Berber linguistic or ethnic associations for these groups. Nevertheless, groups inhabiting the Western Desert—some of them perhaps Berbers—were of considerable importance for the development of ancient Egyptian culture.

Certain of the early Nilotic cultures, from Khartoum in the south to Badari and Deir Tasa in the north, have many features in common and show affinities with later Nubian cultures. Archaeological evidence suggests that one of these earliest predynastic cultures, the Tasian (c. 4000 b.c.e.; first identified at Deir Tasa), may link the early Nilotic cultures and connect them with groups in the Western Desert. Groups such as the Tasians, operating in the southwestern desert with connections to the Nubian and Egyptian Nile Valley, were perhaps the most prominent agents linking the southern and western Neolithic with the Nile Valley.

The development of pharaonic administration around 3250 b.c.e. contributed to a growing rift between the Nilotic Egyptians and the people of the Western Desert. An early ceremonial cosmetic palette depicts the destruction of strongholds in Tjehenu-Libya. The Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Pepi I (r. c. 2321-2287 b.c.e.) fought a campaign in the region of the Libyans. Slightly later, the Sixth Dynasty Egyptian explorer Harkhuf (fl. c. 2300-c. 2200 b.c.e.) encountered a Nubian army on its way to chastise a group of people the Egyptians called the Tjemehou, usually translated as “Libyans.” The Tjemehou threat to Lower Nubia coincided with increasing aridity in North Africa and the Near East, and Tjemehou pressure on the Upper Nile Valley continued during Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-c. 2055 b.c.e.). This was a time of disunity and rampant militarism in Egypt proper. The arrival of the Tjemehou in Nubia during the late Old Kingdom corresponds to the appearance of the C-Group (the designation for a Nubian cultural phase, c. 2300-c. 1550 b.c.e.) culture in the archaeological record of that area.

Archaeologically, the C-Group culture that appears in Nubia during the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period shows affinities with cultures of the Western Desert. Surviving Berber loan words in Nilotic Nubian languages more recently spoken in the major centers of C-Group occupation—between the Second and Third Cataracts—suggest that the C-Group spoke a Berber language. The Egyptian term Tjemehou may in fact represent the Egyptian designation for Berber-language speakers, corresponding to the term “aamou” for speakers of Semitic languages.

Late in the reign of Amenemhet I (r. c. 1985-1956 b.c.e.) during the early Middle Kingdom, his son Sesostris I (r. c. 1971-1926 b.c.e.) fought against northern Tjemehou, apparently to the northwest of the apex of the Nile Delta. Probably as part of a defensive system planned in the face of potential Tjemehou aggression, Amenemhet I had already constructed at least one fortress in the southern Wadi an-Nazrnn, west of the southern Nile Delta (apparently a western counterpart to Amenemhet’s defensive network called Wall of the Ruler, established in the eastern margin of the Delta).

The C-Group in Nubia appear to have contributed soldiers to the Egyptian armies fighting in the internal conflicts of the First Intermediate Period, and later may have formed the core of Upper Egyptian armies. The great Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-c. 1650 b.c.e.) fortresses of the Second Cataract region in Nubia were built initially to control the Nilotic homeland of the settled C-Group, perhaps the southern Tjemehou, in Nubia.

The earliest C-Group sites appear all to be on the west bank of the Nile. C-Group burials were for the most part round tumuli with dry stone exterior walls, occasionally incorporating small external chapels. The C-Group lost any political power in Nubia with the Middle Kingdom conquest and the late Middle Kingdom expansion of direct Egyptian control over Lower Nubia up to the fortresses at the southern edge of the Second Cataract. The C-Group culture was increasingly influenced and overlaid by Kerma culture, and with the Egyptian return to Lower Nubia in the early part of the New Kingdom (c. 1570-c. 1069 b.c.e.), the discernable C-Group culture disappears.


The C-Group people, apparently a Berber-language-speaking population, entered the Nubian Nile Valley in significant numbers during the late Old Kingdom and contributed to the highly militarized society of Egypt in the First Intermediate Period. Early Middle Kingdom Egypt constructed complex fortresses in Lower Nubia in order to dominate the major settlement areas of the C-Group and to ensure a perpetual supply of Nubian troops for the Egyptian army. The C-Group appear to have contributed Berber loan words to later Nilotic languages of Lower Nubia.

Further Reading

  • Barker, G. “Prehistoric Settlement.” In Synthesis, vol. 1 of Farming the Desert: The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey, edited by G. Barker, et al. London: UNESCO, 1996. Pages 83-109 provide a brief overview of the north-central Sahara and the archaeological remains of probable Berber speakers.
  • Bates, Oric. The Eastern Libyans: An Essay. London: MacMillan, 1914. An important work that remains the best overview of Libyan culture using Egyptian and classical textual sources and archaeological remains.
  • Behrens, P. “Language and Migrations of the Early Saharan Cattle Herders: The Formation of the Berber Branch.” In Libya Antiqua, The General History of Africa: Studies and Documents 11. Paris: UNESCO, 1986. Pages 29-50 give an English summary of longer German-language studies by Behrens, in which he summarizes the linguistic evidence for the identity of the Tjemehou with Berber-speaking groups.
  • Bietak, M. “The C-Group and the Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia.” In Nubian Culture: Past and Present, edited by T. Hägg. Stockholm: Sixth International Congress for Nubian Studies, 1987. Pages 1-17 include a useful overview of these two Nubian cultures.
  • Spalinger, A. “Some Notes on the Libyans of the Old Kingdom and Later Historical Reflexes.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 9 (1979): 144-157. A useful overview of Libyan and Egyptian interrelationships, based primarily on Egyptian textual sources.
  • Williams, B. B. “Serra East and the Mission of Middle Kingdom Fortresses in Nubia.” In Gold of Praise, edited by E. Teeter and J. A. Larson. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations 58. Chicago: Oriental Institute Press, 1999. Pages 435-449 provide an overview of the purpose and functioning of the great series of Middle Kingdom fortresses near the Second Cataract.
  • Zarattini, A. “The Hypothesis of the Saharian-Sudanese Unity.” Origini 12 (1983): 252-271. A study, primarily on the basis of ceramic remains, of the archaeological interrelationships of Nilotic and Western Desert “Nubian” groups.