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Baboon Mummy Tests Reveal Ethiopia and Eritrea as Ancient Egyptian Land of Punt

Heritage Key reported recently that mummified baboons in the British Museum could reveal the location of the land of Punt - a place to which pharaohs organized trading expeditions. To the Egyptians, Punt was a place of fragrances, giraffes, electrum and other exotic goods. It was sometimes referred to as Ta-netjer  – 'God’s land' – a huge compliment given that the Ancient Egyptians tended to view outside cultures with disdain.

Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. A baboon mummy from the Temple of Khons at Karnak in Thebes - it dates to the New Kingdom. It's one of three that the British Museum has. The scientists were given permission to test the hairs from two of them. Although Egyptians record voyaging to it until the end of the New Kingdom, 3,000 years ago, scholars do not know where Punt was. Ancient texts offer only vague allusions to its location and no 'Puntite' civilization has yet been discovered. Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and even Mozambique have all been offered as possible locations.

Thanks to some cutting edge science, the search for Punt appears to be coming to an end. New research, to be presented at an Egyptology conference today, provides proof that it was located in Eritrea/East Ethiopia.

How this discovery was made is a bit technical so bear with me.

Live baboons were among the goods that we know the Egyptians got from Punt. Sometimes the Egyptians mummified them and the British Museum has three well preserved samples dating from New Kingdom times. One was found in Thebes and the other was found in the Valley of the Kings.

The team had permission to use baboon hairs from two of the mummies, and have just finished analyzing hairs from these baboons by using oxygen isotope analysis. Oxygen isotopes act as a 'signal' that can let scientists know where they came from.

It works this way because, depending on the environment an animal lived in, the ratio of different isotopes of oxygen will be different. “Oxygen tends to vary as a function of rainfall and the water composition of plants and seed,” said Professor Nathaniel Dominy of UC Santa Cruz, who is on the team.

The researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren. 

“All of our specimans in Eritrea and a certain number of our specimens from Ethiopia – that are basically due west from Eritrea – those are good matches,” said Professor Dominy.

“We think Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”

Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique do not match.

The team cannot narrow it down further at this point, but they do have a working hypothesis of where in Eritrea the Ancient Egyptians docked their ships.

“If you have a map in front of you and you can zoom in on Eritrea there’s a major habour there,” said Dominy (it’s located near modern day Massawa). “We have a specimen from that same harbour and that specimen is a very good match to the mummy.”

The other team members are animal mummy specialist Professor Salima Ikram of the American University Cairo (watch our video in which Salima Ikram explains how animal mummies are made below), and UC Santa Cruz graduate student Gillian Leigh Moritz.

Two Points of Caution

Readers should note two points of caution with these initial results.

One is that the researchers were only able to identify the origin of the baboon from the Valley of the Kings.

The other baboon, from Thebes, appears to have spent some time living in Egypt as an exotic pet. While it was living in Egypt, and consuming the local diet, its oxygen isotope value changed. That change means that researchers could not tell where it was from.

One other point is that, in the case of Yemen, the researchers could not get a recent baboon sample to use for comparison.

“We haven’t measured any animals from Yemen so that’s a problem,” said Professor Dominy. However “we can tell, based on the isotopic maps of the region, that a baboon from Yemen would look an awful lot like a baboon from Somalia isotopically.” As Somalia is definitely not the place of origin for the baboon, Yemen also appears to be out.

The idea of Yemen as Punt has come under attack from Egyptologists for another reason. A scene depicting Punt, drawn on a temple built by Queen Hatshepsut, shows a giraffe - an animal that is native to Africa, not Yemen.

Long Distance Trade?

A question which a number of readers have asked, in response to a story last week, is could the people of Punt have acquired the baboons from long distance trade, before giving them to the Egyptians?

The answer is that it seems very unlikely.

Baboons can be found all throughout Africa as well as Yemen. There would be no need to transport one over long distances.

Furthermore it would be extremely difficult to transport a baboon a long distance and then give it to the Egyptians for a second lengthy voyage.

“Baboons are formidable animals (they) can really do some damage to you,” said Professor Dominy. “It’s not an animal that I would want to travel with for long distances and maintain in captivity for any length of time,” he said.

“It would be impractical to go very far to get them or to get them from a middleman... it seems unlikely but not impossible.”

The Next Step

These initial results will be presented today, in Oakland California, at the American Research Center in Egypt’s 61st annual meeting. Egyptologists from all over the world will be gathered there and about 100 research papers will be presented.

“There’s a lot more to be done I think,” said Professor Dominy.

The team hopes to use a strontium isotope test to confirm Eritrea/Eastern Ethiopia as the baboon’s origin and hopefully narrow down its location a bit further.  To do this they will need to get the British Museum’s permission to take a pea-sized sample of bone from the baboon mummy and use it for testing. They will also need to get some special export papers in order.

Strontium isotopes work differently then oxygen isotopes. Strontium “comes from the bedrock, you breath in dust from the soils around where you live and you incorporate the strontium isotope of those soils,” said Dominy.

There are also mummified baboons from the Petrie Museum that the team hopes to analyze. Those baboons date to the Ptolemaic Period which goes from the time that Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC. Textual sources indicate that voyaging to Punt had ended by this time so those baboons could be coming from somewhere else.

Source: Heritage Key

TANN

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