Gash Civilization Thrives in Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The location of the Gash civilization, at a delta and the crossroads of several cultural zones, made the area an important center of trade.

Summary of Event

The Gash civilization was established east of the confluence of the Atbara and Nile Rivers. It emerged from a coalescence of populations using the land in the greater Butana Delta. The people of Gash were a combination of hunting-gathering populations and peoples from at least one of the Nubian chiefdoms that emerged adjacent to the important land routes to the Red Sea. Located at the crossroads of several cultural zones, the Gash society was able to exploit trade opportunities between the river delta lands and the plains west of the Red Sea.

Although the Gash civilization coincided with the Egyptian empires and Kerma’s political occupation and control of Upper Nubia in the one thousand years between 2500 and 1500 b.c.e., the Gash political empire can be divided into four distinct periods, each lasting several hundred years. The first period was the early Gash civilization, 2700-2300 b.c.e. The middle Gash civilization, from 2300 to 1900 b.c.e., roughly corresponds to the First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-c. 2055) in Egyptian historiography. The third period, the late Gash civilization, lasted from about 1700 to 1400 b.c.e. After 1400, Gash continued to exist as a distinct culture but was increasingly politically dependent on the emerging kingdom of D’mt, as it was referred to in ancient south Arabian script. The first three periods of Gash development are defined based partially on the types of cultural influences and developments that took place internally and partially on the economic interdependence that developed between this small kingdom and larger states such as Egypt and Nubia, Kerma, Napata, and Meroë. Gash owes its prosperity to its geographic location, which was a benefit because of the fluctuations in Red Sea trade routes. In certain eras, Gash traded primarily with the northern trade circuit, and in other eras, it depended more on the southeastern networks.

The early Gash civilization arose from the settlement of Butuan (Butana) descendants in the Gash Delta lowlands perhaps as early as the fourth and definitely by the third millennium b.c.e. The Butuans had been hunters and gatherers but began to domesticate cattle and grains south of Egypt. There is some archaeological evidence that camels may have been domesticated in this region as early as the fourth millennium b.c.e. Evidence that camels were kept more regularly as domesticated pack animals in this region can be traced back as early as the second millennium b.c.e. The transformation of economic practices and proximity to emerging kingdoms produced a hierarchy in the proto-Gash settlements.

Archaeological evidence of the hierarchical bureaucracies that began to emerge includes lidded pots, maces, staffs, and other such regalia and material culture common to chiefdoms or kingdoms. There is an increased presence of stones marking burial sites and of large residential settlements in the archaeological record beginning with the era designated the early Gash civilization. This archaeological evidence supports the idea that there was a shift in types of material wealth and settlement patterns that accompanied the more sedentary lifestyle of the Gash civilization, which emerged with less food collection and more food production.


Gash Delta trade was tied early on to activity in the kingdoms of Egypt and later Kerma in Upper Nubia. Lucrative interregional trade in ancient times was important to political power. Despite its apparent dependence on Egypt and Kerma, trade in the Gash Delta survived the political and economic collapse of those larger and more powerful states. After 2300 b.c.e., traders of the delta region were able to tap into the trade networks in the southeast on the Ethiopian plateau. By shifting from the northern Red Sea networks to the networks on the western edge of the northern Ethiopian plateau (modern-day Eritrea and Tigray), the Gash Delta continued to participate in and benefit from Red Sea trade. Red Sea trade in the fourth and third millennia b.c.e. linked Africa and Arabia in trade exchanges that were accompanied by cultural influences in both directions.

Two separate and distinctive northeastern African pottery styles were traded to the western shores of Arabia via the Gash Delta. The two potteries are known to scholars as Kerma pottery and Tigray pottery. The earliest Tigray pottery created and unearthed in this coastal region has decorative motifs that appear to be variants of one widespread complex. The Kerma style displays signs of Egyptian influence that were most likely brought in through Gash imitation and innovation of the Egyptian fashion. The coastal pottery complex has been dated to between the late fourth and mid-second millennium b.c.e.

The Gash Delta was the intermediary territory that linked the Horn of Africa, the Sudan, Arabia, and Egypt in a complex multiethnic cultural and economic exchange. The Gash civilization was geographically well positioned to act as the liaison among these various cultures of the greater Red Sea region, and it was sufficiently diverse and pioneering to act as mediator in the transmission of cultural knowledge and ideas.

The western part of the Tigray region was associated with Gash Delta culture, and the eastern part belonged to a cultural complex that had links with Nubia and lands across the Red Sea. The eastern and western regions of Tigray were united under the monarchy of D’mt centered in the northern Ethiopian plateau (this area is now known as Eritrea and Tigray). The time referred to as the age of the pharaohs in Egypt was preceded by a period of smaller chiefdoms and kingdoms that benefited from Red Sea and interregional trade. Throughout the time of the pharaohs, there were in fact a number of smaller states, that were able to thrive and perhaps challenged or acted as a counterbalance to Egyptian power outside of the center of the pharaoh’s state. At the same time, settlement in the Nile-Red Sea corridor on the borderlands of what became the Nubian and Egyptian kingdoms contributed to the significant outcome of stratified and hierarchical social systems among the Gash.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abdel-Magid, Anwar. Plant Domestication in the Middle Nile Basin: An Archaeoethnobotanical Case Study. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. Focuses on archaeo-ethnobotany of the Nile region, giving a historical sense of ancient plant cultivation in Sudan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A historical account of ancient African towns that draws from archaeological data. Includes a section on ancient Egypt and surrounding urban towns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fattovich, Rodolfo, Andrea Manzo, and Donatella Usai. “Gash Delta Archaeological Project: 1991, 1992-1993, 1993-1994 Field Seasons.” Nyame Akuma 42 (December, 1994): 14-18. This article is somewhat technical and gives an archaeological perspective on the Gash Delta. Fattovich has produced numerous other works on the history of populations and state formation in the Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A general textbook on African history from ancient times to the twentieth century.

Categories: History