Daily Life

Agriculture and Diet

Click here for larger view. Geographical map of Nubian.
Nubia map

Agriculture along the narrow strip of the Nile Valley provided the people of Kush with their necessary food supply. Each year the Nile flooded Upper Nubia providing silt for the fertile agricultural lands. The Kushites used the Shaduf, i.e. a traditional device operated manually for raising water from a lower depression to a higher depression where the water is distributed to other depressions to irrigate the field/s, for watering their farms.1 Sometime in the late Meroitic period, the Kushite farmers began to use the Saquia, i.e. a water wheel brought to Sudan from Southwest Asia.2

There are numerous hafirs, i.e. depressions dug on flat grounds to collect rain water, discovered in Sudan including in Musawwarat es Sufra.3 However hafirs would not have always provided enough water for watering the farms. The only known Kushite dam used for water storage was found at Shaq el Ahmar.4

Nomads wandered the semi-arid regions on both sides of the Nile Valley with their flocks in search of good pastures. In some senarios, the nomads and the farmers of Kush have benefited from each other, i.e. exchanging animal products for agricultural produce and the vise versa. The farmers of Kush allowed the nomads to herd their flocks on harvested farms so that the dung of the animals would fertilized the farms.5

Relief from Jebel Qeili in Nubia (modern day Egypt near the Sudanese border), depicts Nubian king Shorkaror as being offered a hand full of sorghum by an unknown Nubian god.
Nubian king

The main food crop grown in ancient Sudan seems to have been sorghum; evidence for this is found in Kushite pottery. Ambitions to expand in agriculture might have been the primary reason behind the expansion of the Kushite kingdom in eastern Sudan, particularily in the Buttana region. As a matter of fact, it is evident from the haffirs dug there, in the Meroitic period, that the Kushite kingdom had controled the Buttana region. There, sorghum is easily grown.Wheat and barely were also grown but in more limited amounts than sorghum. Archeological excavations indicate that peas and lintels were also existent.

Date is a sweet fruit that grows in palm trees. Dates are one of the most available fruits along Sudan's Nile Valley. A realistic description was provided by the Roman Geographer Strabo in the second century CE:

"The Aethiopians [Kushites] live on millet and barley, from which they also make a drink; but instead of olive-oil they have butter and tallow. Neither do they have fruit trees, except a few date-palms in the royal gardens." (Strabo xvii Ch. 2: 2)6

In the sixth century CE, the Nubians were well known by the Arabs for their good date-wine production.7 Date-wine is a common traditional drink in North Sudan today. The extensive production of a different palm fruit called doam is also evident from New kingdom Egyptian relieves in which ancient Nubians are depicted carrying as gifts to the Egyptian pharaohs. Other fruits may have included oranges, tamarind, and grape-fruits which are extensively grown in Sudan today.

One non-dietary crop that is widely grown in Kush was cotton. Just like today, cotton was used for domestic cloth making and was possibly transported to other locations. Cotton clothes were found abundantly in Kushite graves, including the cemeteries at Kerma.

Meroitic pot showing anatidae birds. 1st century CE. The University of pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Other than agricultural products, the Kushites ate a variety of animal products. In the first century, a Roman geographer wrote that the Kushites, "use meats, blood, milk, and cheese"(Strabo xvii Ch. 2: 2) for food. Cheese was popularly manufactured as evidenced from funirary findings.

Unlike the Egyptians , the Kushites extensively domesticate cattle and sheep. Extensive left over of sheep bones were found at the offering chapels and temple kitchens in Kerma.8 Cattle were also sacrificed in great numbers in the Kerma graves indicating the importance of their presence in the Kushite life. The fact that representations of antelopes are found in Kushite products might indicate that they were also eaten.

Birds--ducks, geese, and chickens-- were also domesticated, probably for their eggs and meat. Although, grave findings indicate that sheep and goat were more popular for their meat than birds. Ostrich eggs were also popular. The type of eggs were found in many graves at Kerma. Pigs may have also been domesticated for food in limited numbers. (Like that of the Egyptian and other Near Eastern religions, Kushite religion is likely to have forbidden the eating of pigs).

  • 1 B. G. Trigger, Nubia Under the Pharaohs (Westview P, 1976) 130.
  • 2 W. Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton UP, 1977) 346-7, and W. Y. Adams, "Sudan Antiquities Service Excavations at Meinarti, 1963-64", Kush 13 (1965).
  • 3 D. N. Edwards, The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (Routledge, 2004).
  • 4 D. A.Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires (Marcus Wiener, 1998) 154.
  • 5 Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, The Loeb Classical Library (1932).
  • 6 Uniwersytet Warszawski Studium Afrykanistyczne, Africana Bulletin (Uniwersytet Warsawski, Studium Afrycanistyczne., 2002), and G. Vantini, Oriental Sources concerning Nubia (Heidelburg and Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975).
  • 7 F. W. Hinkel, Alim-El Hosh-Shaq el Ahmar, eds. Geus and Thill. (1985).
  • 8 C. Bonnet, "Archaeological Excavations At Kerma (Soudan): Preliminary report for 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 campaigns," Arkamani Sudan Electronic Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology, Aug. 2001, Dec. 2008 <http://www.arkamani.org/arkamani-library/pre-kerma-and-kerma/prelim_report1.htm>.
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Marc. 2009.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.