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Ancient Egypt's transition to statehood happened faster than thought

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Egypt is often cited as the first example of the textbook definition of a state: a political institution that has territorial borders. But an exact timeline for the mighty state’s formation has been elusive, as estimates for King Aha’s ascension have varied, putting it somewhere between 3400 to 2900 BC.

In part, the wideness of that range has been due to inexact methods of dating Egypt’s major plot points. Since about 1899, Egyptian funeral pot styles have been used to distinguish one predynastic or dynastic period from another. But that method of dating provides just a relative timeline of Egyptian history, no absolute dates, says Dr. Dee.

“Ceramics, stone artifacts and the like can only ever offer ordering information. This pot comes before that pot etc.,” said Dee. “Information like that is not anchored in any way to the calendar time-scale.”

In the latest research, the team, all from Britain, revisited the Egyptian timeline with radiocarbon dating. About 100 samples of organic material, including hair and bones, were collected from ancient settlement Tell es-Sakan, in the Gaza Strip, and museum collections. Much of the material was buried with the kings of Egypt, providing telling data points for when those kings died and their reigns brought to a close. Remains from basketry and seeds found in graves were also used as data points for predynastic Egypt.

The radiocarbon data was then combined with previous estimates for pivotal Egyptian dates and then fed into a mathematical model, which generated the probabilities that certain events happened within certain timeframes.

In the new timeline, the date at which pastoralists settled down into villages, marking the second half of the Egyptian predynastic period, is plotted about 200 to 300 years later than it had appeared on previous timelines, which had put the date at about 4000 BC. At the same time, the model calculated a 68 percent chance that the beginning of King Aha’s rule was sometime between 3111 and 3045 BC, with a median date of 3085 BC.

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