3300-year-old baboon skull may tell of mysterious ancient kingdom

3300-year-old baboon skull may tell of mysterious ancient kingdom

3300-year-old baboon skull may tell of mysterious ancient kingdom

Ancient Egyptians traveled great distances to the enchanted Land of Punt to obtain luxurious items such as incense and living baboons, but the true location of this wondrous place has remained a mystery to scientists for more than a century – until now.

Dartmouth College researchers have set out to discover what the ancient Egyptians referred to as “God’s Land” by mapping the geographic location of mummified baboons discovered in Egyptian tombs and temples and thought to have originated in Punt.

A team from Dartmouth College has set out to find what ancient Egyptians called ‘God’s Land’ by tracing the geographic location of mummified baboons found in Egyptian tombs and temples that are believed to have originated from Punt

Researchers compared tissue samples from 3,300-year-old mummified baboons discovered in Egypt with tissue samples from modern animals living in parts of Africa.

Following the examination, the team found that a number of the mummified baboons were born outside of Egypt and likely in Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia – narrowing down the location of Punt. Ancient Egyptians believed Papio hamadryas baboons were sacred animals and used them as symbols in art and religion.

This species was among those that were mummified in a seated position with its tail curled to the right of its body. Another species, Papio Anubis, or the olive baboon, was also mummified but it was typically wrapped in one big cocoon in a manner reflecting far less care.

However, baboons were not native to Egypt but where collected from different countries – specifically Punt. Ancient Punt was filled with exotic items such as incense, gold, leopard skins and living baboons, all of which were not found in Egypt.

Researchers analyzed 3,300-year-old mummified baboons uncovered in Egypt and compared the specimens with tissue samples of the modern animals living in parts of Africa

Scientists speculate that Punt is located somewhere in the southern Red Sea region in either Africa or Arabia, but scholars have debated its exact location for more than 150 years. 

Lead author Nathaniel J. Dominy, the Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, said: ‘Long-distance seafaring between Egypt and Punt, two sovereign entities, was a major milestone in human history because it drove the evolution of maritime technology. ‘Trade in exotic luxury goods, including baboons, was the engine behind early nautical innovation.’

For the study, the team analyzed 155 mummified baboons uncovered in Egypt with a focus on those from the New Kingdom period (1550BC to 1069BC) and the Ptolemaic period (305BC to 30BC). They also used tissue samples from 155 modern baboons from 77 locations across eastern Africa and southern Arabia to include every hypothesized location for Punt.

‘Many scholars view trade between Egypt and Punt as the first long maritime step in a trade network known as the spice route, which would go on to shape geopolitical fortunes for millennia,’ Dominy said. ‘Other scholars put it more simply, describing the Egypt-Punt relationship as the beginning of economic globalization.’

For the study, the team analyzed 155 mummified baboons uncovered in Egypt with a focus on those from the New Kingdom period (1550BC to 1069BC) and the Ptolemaic period (305BC to 30BC). Pictured are mummified baboons found in ancient Egyptian tombs

‘Baboons were central to this commerce, so determining the location of Punt is important. For over 150 years, Punt has been a geographic mystery. ‘Our analysis is the first to show how mummified baboons can be used to inform this enduring debate.’

Oxygen and strontium isotope compositions were measured from the mummified baboons using a method called isotopic mapping that estimates the geographic origins of specimens recovered from the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic sites in Egypt.

The team chose to analyze strontium because it is a chemical element found in bedrock and could lead them to the geographic location of Punt.

‘As strontium erodes, its composition is absorbed into the soil and water and enters the food web, the team shared in a statement.

‘As animals drink the water and eat the plants, their teeth, and hair and bones, obtain a geographic signature reflecting where they have lived in the past and most recently, respectively.’

Baboons must drink water every day to survive and their bodies reflect the oxygen composition of water found in the landscape. 

The enamel of an animal’s adult teeth also contain the unique strontium composition of its environment when the teeth formed in early life. 

‘In contrast, hair and bone have isotope signatures that reflect the preceding months (hair) or years (bone) of dietary behavior,’ researchers shared in a statement.

‘Similar to strontium, oxygen compositions (specifically, isotopes) of water can also vary by geographic location but the researchers found data from the specimens in this category were inconclusive, and only reflected values specific to Egypt.’

The results of the examination reveal two of the mummified P. hamadryas baboons from the New Kingdom period were born outside of Egypt.  The team notes that they had most likely come from a location in Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia.

The data also shows that the animals died shortly after arriving in Egypt, because their enamel and hair did not show signs of oxygen signatures of drinking water from the country.  

Baboons must drink water every day to survive and their bodies reflect the oxygen composition of water found in the landscape. The enamel of an animal’s adult teeth also contain the unique strontium composition of its environment when the teeth formed in early life

However, five species of mummified P. anubis from the Ptolemaic period reflected strontium levels that are consistent with an Egyptian origin. The team says this ‘provides tantalizing hints of a captive breeding program for baboons at this time, probably in Memphis, an ancient capital in Lower Egypt, northwest of the Red Sea.’

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