Will We Ever Discover the Elusive Land of Punt?
The Land of Punt was an important location thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptian writing suggests Punt was a rich location that prospered between 2450 BC and 1155 BC. People from the famous civilization apparently went to Punt when they sought gold, aromatic resins, African blackwood, ebony, ivory, wild animals, and slaves.
The temple of Athribis contains a relief showing the variety of trees that grew in Punt. This image suggests that Punt was a lush, tropical land – in stark contrast to the Egyptian desert. But the images and descriptions of Punt haven’t been enough to allow researchers to pinpoint this mysterious place. But they are getting closer – a new discovery can at least trace the elusive Punt to a place in Africa.
A landscape of Punt, showing several houses on stilts, two fruiting date palms, three myrrh trees, a bird, a cow, and unidentified fish and a turtle. ( Public Domain )
A 12th Dynasty example of Egyptian literature, `Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,’ contains a section referring to Punt as an Egyptian sailor converses with a powerful serpent who calls himself the `Lord of Punt’ and sends the sailor back to Egypt laden with gold, spices, and precious animals:
“Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near……his body was as overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli….… it was the prince of the land of Punt… “
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This tree in front of Hatshepsut' Temple is claimed to have been brought from Punt by Hatshepsut's Expedition - which is depicted on the Temple walls. (Edal Anton Lefterov/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Our understanding of Punt was made somewhat clearer thanks to a relief at Deir el-Bahri (in modern day Luxor) which depicts the results of a mysterious overseas expedition to the Land of Punt ordered by Queen Hatshepsut around 1477 BC. This image, known as the Portico of Punt, presents five ships carrying 210 men while loaded with gold, trees, and exotic animals like leopards, apes, and giraffes – all animals found across Africa. A variety of fish are shown in the waters surrounding the ships. Zoologists have explained some of these fish live along the coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
For roughly the past century, archaeologists have wondered how likely it was for Egyptians to make the difficult journey and reach Punt. Eventually, in 2011, they found out that the ancient Egyptians had mastered the seas as well as the land. The proof came in a series of discoveries along a section of the Red Sea coast. That evidence shows the Egyptians were not only skilled at creating the pyramids, but also shipbuilding.
When archaeologists were excavating a dried-up lagoon, known as Mersa Gawasis, they discovered traces of an ancient harbor that had helped launch early voyages like Hatshepsut’s onto the open ocean.
Manmade caves in the area contained timber, rigging, limestone anchors, steering oars, reed mats, cedar planks, and the remains of one of the oldest seagoing ships ever discovered. These artifacts have offered proof of the Egyptians’ nautical skills and also provided important clues to the location of Punt. “These new finds remove all doubt that you reach Punt by sea,” Egyptologist John Baines said . “The Egyptians must have had considerable seagoing experience.”
A relief depicting incense and myrrh trees obtained in Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt. (Hans Bernhard/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
With this evidence, it seems the Egyptians reached Punt by hopping in their boats and heading down the Nile River. They then went through the Wadi Tumilat in the eastern Delta and on to the Red Sea. It seems the Egyptian crews could disassemble their boats, carry them overland, use them in the sea for trade, then carry them back overland to the Nile.
There is, however, a different perspective on Punt’s location. Living exotic animals, like baboons, are seen on the relief of Deir el-Bahari. In 2010, researchers studied hair samples from 3,000 year old mummified baboons (pets of the elite and practically family for the Pharaoh) found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings.
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Baboons… bearing baboons. (Karen Green/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
The ancient hair samples were compared with hair samples of modern animals living in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda, and Mozambique. The researchers decided it is most likely the animals were brought from eastern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
A more recent discovery adds weight to the evidence that Punt was located somewhere in Africa, and not on the Arabian Peninsula. Science in Poland reports that archaeologists and ornithologists have identified a depiction of a bird on the Portico of Punti in the Temple of Hatshepsut as a secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius), a very large bird of prey found only in Africa, particularly around coastal regions in Sudan.
For centuries, the Land of Punt had been delegated to the realm of myth and folklore, but more and more recent findings are making it clear that Punt was not a mythical place – it is a real location that is still waiting to be found.
Egyptian expedition to Punt during the reign of Hatshepsut. (Hans Bernhard/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Members of Hatshepsut's trading expedition to the mysterious 'Land of Punt' from this pharaoh's elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. Source: CC BY 2.0