The Relief of Gebel Sheikh Suleiman likely shows the victory of an early Pharaoh, possibly Djer, over A-Group Nubians circa 3000 BC, nearly dating back to the First Dynasty. This rock carving represents an Egyptian campaign into Nubia and was found near the second cataract of the Nile River.

The A-Group culture was an ancient culture that flourished between the First and Second Cataracts of the Nile in Lower Nubia. It lasted from c. 3800 BC to c. 3100 BC.[1]


Vessels of the A-Group, Musée du Louvre

In 1907, the Egyptologist George A. Reisner first discovered artifacts belonging to the A-Group culture.[2] Early hubs of this civilization included Kubaniyya in the north and Buhen in the south, with Aswan, Sayala, Toshka and Qustul in between.[1]

The A-Group population have been described as ethnically “very similar” to the pre-dynastic Egyptians in physical characteristics.[3] The A-Group makers maintained commercial ties with the Ancient Egyptians. They traded raw materials like incense, ebony and ivory, which were gathered from the southern riverine area. They also bartered carnelian from the Western Desert as well as gold mined from the Eastern Desert in exchange for Egyptian craft products, olive oil and other items from the Mediterranean basin.[1] The A-Group was essentially a Neolithic culture, though copper implements imported from Egypt are known from A-Group sites.[3][4]

A-Group dwellings consisted mostly of reed huts and rock shelters, with most settlements taking the form of temporary camp sites. The only known substantial settlement is at the site of Afyeh, where the remains of houses with stone foundation slabs have also been found.[5][6]

A-Group Nubians were semi-nomadic herders and rudimentary agriculturalists who also practised extensive fishing, hunting and gathering.[7] Evidence of agriculture first appears in the Terminal A-Group period, c. 3200-3000 BC (contemporary with Naqada IIIB).[5]

Excavation findings

A-Group incense burner found at Qustul

The A-Group makers left behind a number of cemeteries, with each necropolis containing around fifty graves. Most of what is known about this culture has been gleaned from these tombs, over 3,000 of which have been excavated. The burials are of two kinds: a more common oval pit, and a similar pit featuring a lateral funerary niche. Skeletons found within these graves were observed to be physically akin to their peers in Upper Egypt. The specimens typically had straight hair of a black or dark brown hue. On average, the men were 169.9 cm in height and the women stood around 155.5 cm. Some individuals were wrapped in leather and positioned on reed mats. All of the tombs contained various burial items, including personal ornaments, utensils and ceramics.[8]

According to a study of Nubian dental affinities by Joel Irish (2005), traits characterising Late Paleolithic samples from Nubia are common in recent populations south of the Sahara, whereas traits shared by Final Neolithic and later Nubians more closely emulate those found among groups originating to the north, i.e. in Egypt and, to a diminishing degree, greater North Africa, West Asia, and Europe. Irish concluded that “genetic discontinuity, in the form of population replacement or swamping of an indigenous gene pool, occurred in Nubia sometime after the late Pleistocene".[9]

In 2007, Strouhal et al described the physical features of ancient A-Group Nubians as "Caucasoid" which were "not distinguishable from the contemporary Predynastic Upper Egyptians of the Badarian and Nagadian cultures" based in reference to previous anthropological studies from 1975 and 1985.[10]

Dental trait analysis of A-Group fossils found affinities with populations inhabiting Northeast Africa the Nile valley, and East Africa. Among the sampled populations, the A-Group people were nearest to the Kerma culture bearers and Kush populations in Upper Nubia and to Ethiopians, followed by the Meroitic, X-Group and Christian period inhabitants of Lower Nubia and the Kellis population in the Dakhla Oasis, as well as C-Group and Pharaonic era skeletons excavated in Lower Nubia and ancient Egyptians (Naqada, Badari, Hierakonpolis, Abydos and Kharga in Upper Egypt; Hawara in Lower Egypt).[11]

In 2020, Kanya Godde analysed a series of crania which included two Egyptian (predynastic Badarian and Naqada series), a series of A-Group Nubians, and a Bronze Age series from Lachish, Palestine. The two pre-dynastic series had strongest affinities, followed by closeness between the Naqada and the Nubian series. Further, the Nubian A-Group plotted nearer to the Egyptians, and the Lachish sample placed more closely to Naqada than Badari. According to Godde, the spatial-temporal model applied to the pattern of biological distances explains the more distant relationship of Badari to Lachish than Naqada to Lachish as gene flow will cause populations to become more similar over time. Overall, both Egyptian samples included were more similar to the Nubian series than to the Lachish series.[12]

Excavations at an A-Group cemetery in Qustul yielded an old incense burner, which was adorned with Ancient Egyptian royal iconography. However, further research established the antecedence of the predynastic Egyptian regalia:

The earliest known examples of Egyptian royal iconography, such as, e.g., the representation of the Red Crown on a late Naqada I (c. 3500 BC) pottery vessel from Abydos or the triumphal scenes in the painting from Hierakonpolis Tomb 100 (c. 3400-3300 BC) are much older than the Qustul censer. It seems thus that it was the Qustul rulers who adopted symbols of royal authority developed in Egypt and not vice versa.[13]

More recent and broader studies have determined that the distinct pottery styles, differing burial practices, different grave goods and the distribution of sites all indicate that the Naqada people and the Nubian A-Group people were from different cultures. Kathryn Bard further states that "Naqada cultural burials contain very few Nubian craft goods, which suggests that while Egyptian goods were exported to Nubia and were buried in A-Group graves, A-Group goods were of little interest further north."[14]

Nubian excavations in Serra East found that the bodies buried in the A-Group cemeteries would lay on either side with their head facing south or east. Similar to that of a curled-up position, their hands could be found near the face and their legs folded-in upwards. Leather wrappings were also found in the burials as a means of clothing and bags. However, this leather wrapping was not typically found in more lavish cemeteries, such as Cemetery L at Qustul. As for distinct pottery styles, decorative vessels were more likely to be found in larger tombs at Qustul, whereas simpler burial arrangements contained ripple-burnished or simple vessels.[15] However, the archaeological cemeteries at Qustul are no longer available for excavations since the flooding of Lake Nasser.[16]

According to David Wengrow, the A-Group polity of the late 4th millenninum BC is poorly understood since most of the archaeological remains are submerged underneath Lake Nasser.[17]

Frank Yurco stated that depictions of pharonic iconography such as the royal crowns, Horus falcons and victory scenes were concentrated in the Upper Egyptian Naqada culture and A-Group Nubia. He further elaborated that:

"Egyptian writing arose in Naqadan Upper Egypt and A-Group Nubia, and not in the Delta cultures, where the direct Western Asian contact was made, further vititates the Mesopotamian-influence argument".[18]

Oshiro Michinori argued, in reference to the A-Group culture, that the external influence from Nubia on the formation of Ancient Egypt in the pre-dynastic period to the dynasty period predates influence from eastern Mesopotamia. He notes an increase in the appreciation of the contribution of Nubia in the south to Ancient Egyptian culture at the time of his writing. According to him, chiefs of the same cultural level as Upper Egyptian powers existed in Lower Nubia and exhibited pharaonic iconography before the unification of Egypt.[19]

A-Group linguistics

The linguistic affinity of the A-Group culture is unknown, but, according to Claude Rilly, it is unlikely to have spoken a language of the Northern East Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan. Beyond this Rilly states that "the range of possibilities remains wide" and includes: a language belonging to another (non-Northern East Sudanic) branch of the Nilo-Saharan family, a Cushitic language, or other Afro-Asiatic language.[20]

Debate about the origin of the first pharaohs

In 1980, archeologist Bruce Williams conducted an excavation titled “The Lost Pharaohs of Nubia,” arguing that the Egyptian pharaonic monarchy was situated in Nubia, rather than in Egypt during the times of the A-group. He based his discoveries at the Qustul cemetery on three archaeological finds: the size of the tombs, their plethora of contents, and royal iconography (such as pottery vessels and stone censers).[21] His claims, however, lead to criticism and defense from scholars such as William Y. Adams and Maria Carmela Gatto, respectively. Gatto argued that Bruce Williams explicitly denied making such a sweeping claim, saying that he was only trying to "raise the strong possibility that Egypt’s founding dynasty originated near Qustul and that the unification was accomplished from Nubia.” Gatto added that "Whatever the claim, the (for some scholars) inconceivable idea of a primary role for Nubia in the rise of the Egyptian monarchy has been reconsidered after more recent finds in Upper Egypt dating back to the Naqada I period the early manifestations of elite iconography." while noting "That the tombs found in Qustul were exceptional and comparable to those of the earliest Egyptian rulers remains, nevertheless, a fact."[22] While Gatto mentions that the tombs found in Qustul were comparable to that of Egyptian ruler's tombs, William Y. Adams suggests that the large size and contents of their grave support an approach different from that of Bruce Williams. He states that “The large tombs and their abundant contents may argue for a more stratified society than we had previously envisioned in the A-group period, but they are not evidence for a monarchical state.” Adams also argues that the Qustul incense burner found in the cemetery may be better suited to prove that the monarchy was situated somewhere near the Nile Valley instead of the monarchy being initially situated in Nubia.[23]

Bowl with exterior painted scallop decoration, Qustul, Cemetery V, tomb 67, A-Group, 3800-3000 BC, ceramic - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago
Decorated bowl of the A-Group, Musée du Louvre

Existence of the B-Group

The A-Group culture came to an end around 3100 BC, when it was destroyed, apparently by the First Dynasty rulers of Egypt.[1] Following the A-Group culture, Reisner originally identified a B-Group and C-Group culture that existed within Nubia. However, the B-group theory became obsolete when Henry S. Smith demonstrated that it was an impoverished manifestation of the A-Group culture.[24] With the existential crisis of the B-Group, it is suggested that these burials were simply poorer versions of A-group burials and that the span of the A-group culture lasted beyond 3100 BC.[23]


  1. ^ a b c d "Ancient Nubia: A-Group 3800–3100 BC". The University of Chicago. Archived from the original on 21 August 2016. Retrieved 1 July 2016.
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  3. ^ a b Mohktar, Gamal (1981). General history of Africa, II: Ancient civilizations of Africa. London: Heinemann Educational Books. p. 148. ISBN 978-0435948054.
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