When we think of the ancient world, we generally think of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia, and China. But when the ancient Egyptians thought of mysterious and rich kingdoms, they spoke of “Land of God” or Land of Punt. Expeditions to this kingdom – rich in gold, ebony, ivory, and frankincense – were commemorated by the Egyptians on temple walls and recounted in ancient folklore. But despite the fact that the Land of Punt was a real place and a major trading partner of Egypt, its precise location had been lost. Now, new evidence, based on a mummified baboon skull, can help unlock the secrets of this lost civilization.
The Red Sea and ancient Egypt were part of a trade network that drove maritime technology for thousands of years. Punt was also part of this ancient spice route and was well known for exporting luxury goods, especially high quality incense and prized sacred monkeys. Ancient sources suggest travelers could reach Punt by traveling south and east of Egypt, which has led some to identify the kingdom with Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa, but the exact location of this country is a mystery.
A clue to unravel this mystery is the prevalence of the sacred baboon (Papio hamadryas) in ancient Egyptian art and religion. Baboons can be found on statues, jewelry, amulets, and in temple artwork. Some baboons may have been pets, others are depicted in art working as police animals and fruit pickers, and many are associated with royal tombs. They even achieved near-divine status, being particularly associated with the baboon-headed god Thoth (who is also regularly depicted with an ibis head), who was associated with the moon and wisdom. The image of the male baboon sitting with his hands on his knees and surrounded by a lunar crescent is an archetypal image that has been used in Egyptian artwork for a millennium. Figures of the seated baboon spread throughout the Mediterranean in the Middle Bronze Age, but the further away you get from Egypt, the less realistic the baboon image becomes.
In the bowels of the British Museum, professor primatologist Nathaniel Dominy of Dartmouth College discovered the remains of two Hamadrya baboons. The baboons were mummified in the same sitting pose that was so popular in ancient artwork and one of them has since been taken apart. The remains were discovered at the temple of Khons in ancient Thebes and were donated to the museum by the estate of Henry Salt, the British consul general in Egypt between 1816 and 1827. Salt was part of a group of ethically dubious European diplomats . became amateur antique collectors who competed to acquire as many antiques as they could. Salt’s mummified baboons, however, are a curious find as baboons are not originally from Egypt. There are no species of monkeys in the fossil record, and ecological modeling suggests that the distribution of baboons has remained unchanged over the past 20,000 years. Where did these baboons come from? Dominy and his colleagues wanted to know.
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In an effort to identify their baboon’s birthplace, Dominy and his collaborators analyzed chemical isotopes in the tooth enamel of one of the baboon skulls. The ratio of strontium isotopes in soil and water varies from region to region and is enclosed in the tooth enamel of a primate when young. By identifying the isotopic signature of the baboon tooth, the team hoped to locate the spot where the baboon was born.
The results of the scan confirmed what the team had suspected: the baboon had been brought to Egypt from elsewhere. Further comparative analysis of the remains of other baboons found in ancient Egyptian tombs revealed that while some were raised captive in Egypt, others were born outside the region. Extensive comparative study of more than 150 baboons from 77 localities in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggests that the British Museum’s baboon was born in a region that straddles Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and parts of Somalia and Yemen today. Since many archaeologists believe Punt was roughly equivalent to this region, Dominy et al. argue that the baboon skull is the oldest known puntite treasure. The discovery is a significant contribution that helps cement the theory that the wealthy Land of the Gods was located in the same region as Ethiopia and Eritrea.
However, not all archaeologists recognize that these mummies are the earliest artifacts of Puntite. Kathryn Bard, a Boston University archaeologist who excavated a site on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, said Science that the ebony and obsidian fragments that she discovered at Wadi Gawasis are older. During her excavations, she also discovered fragments of Sudanese / Ethiopian style pottery. For his part, Dominy says that while the ebony artifacts from Wadi Gawasis are important, the widespread distribution of the ebony throughout Africa means that they cannot be definitively identified as originating in Punt.
Regardless of the oldest vestige, Dominy’s findings are significant. They help demonstrate the influence of ancient Ethiopia and Eritrea on the cultural and religious thought of Egypt and, through Egypt, on the rest of the ancient Mediterranean. This recognition is important because Ethiopia and Eritrea seldom feature in popular histories of the ancient world. Instead, the popular imagination centers on ancient empires that were traditionally – and, often, wrongly – conceived of as white. Moreover, this research proves very clearly that the baboon god is the only non-native intruder in the pantheon of Egyptian deities. The rise of the baboon from luxury goods to immigrant worker, sacred watchdog, royal pet and, finally, divinity is one of the great success stories in history.
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