Baboon Skull Could Lead to the Long Lost Land of Punt
Researchers believe they have uncovered the first clear example of a treasure the ancient Egyptians brought home with them from the legendary, lost Land of Punt. It is a 3,300-year-old baboon skull – a remnant of an animal that was revered in ancient Egypt but was not native to the land of the pharaohs.
The Legendary Treasures of Punt
The ancient Egyptians wrote about the Land of Punt and depicted it as a prosperous location from 2450 BC to 1155 BC. They went to Punt, which they referred to as “God’s land,” to acquire gold, African blackwood, ebony, ivory, aromatic resins, wild animals, and slaves. One of the most famous artworks created about this location is the ‘Punt colonnade’ on Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, demonstrating that her people brought her myrrh trees, gold, ivory, panther skins, and apes back from Punt.
The travels to Punt for treasures also demonstrate the ancient Egyptian’s nautical skills. Nathaniel Dominy, a primatologist at Dartmouth College and lead author of the new study, explained that “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 innovations.”
Famous relief of Hatshepsut's trading expedition to the Land of Punt. (Dietmar /Adobe Stock)
Archaeologists believe that the Land of Punt was a real place, however there is still a debate about where it was actually located. Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia are just a few of the proposed locations. This is why researchers have taken a particular interest in the 3,300-year-old baboon skull. If this baboon really did come from Punt and they could identify its homeland, the mystery may be solved. Dominy states in a press release:
“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. Other scholars put it more simply, describing the Egypt-Punt relationship as the beginning of economic globalization. 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.”
Egypt lies well beyond the distributions of P. anubis and P. hamadryas, and there is no evidence of natural populations in Egypt during antiquity. The remains of baboons in Egypt are therefore interpreted as evidence of foreign trade. (Dominy et al. 2020/ eLife)
Analyzing the Baboon Skull
Even though there are records and artwork listing and depicting the goods Egyptians took from Punt, Science Magazine reports that archaeologists have found “little hard evidence” for treasures from Punt to date. Dominy and his colleagues believe that their research will change that.
- Will We Ever Discover the Elusive Land of Punt?
- The Vagaries of Trade in Ancient Egypt
- Primates of Ancient Egypt: The Deification and Importance of Baboons and Monkeys—Part I
They identified a hamadryas baboon skull tucked away in the British Museum’s archives and think that the fossil that was discovered in Thebes (Luxor) in the 19th century came from Punt. The results of their study, published on eLife, explains that they studied the chemical isotopes in the baboon’s tooth enamel to try to pinpoint the animal’s birthplace.
The British Museum holds two mummified baboons with New Kingdom attributions. C. D.E. are images of the 3,300-year-old baboon skull. (The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Isotopic analysis is a useful tool for this endeavor because different places have distinct ratios of strontium isotopes in the soil and water and this “isotopic signature” of the place where an animal lives the first years of their life is seen in their tooth enamel – thanks to the water they drink and foods they consume. No matter where the animal lives later in life, their homeland’s isotopic signature remains in their tooth enamel, unaltered by time.
The results of the chemical analysis of the baboon skull shows that the animal wasn’t born in Egypt. In their paper, the researchers write that it came from “a region that encompasses much of present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, and portions of Somalia and Yemen.” They write that this region “corroborates the balance of scholarly conjecture on the location of Punt” and also “is a testament to the tremendous reach of Egyptian seafaring during the 2nd millennium BC.”
Map of Africa and skull of a mummified baboon recovered from ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor) and now accessioned in the British Museum. Isotopic analysis indicates import from somewhere in the red shaded region, a likely location for the fabled land of Punt. (Jonathan Chipman and Nathaniel J. Dominy)
Dominy says that this “implies the baboon is the first known Puntite treasure,” according to Science Magazine. Kathryn Bard, an archaeologist at Boston University, said that the baboon skull study provides “another piece of evidence on where Punt was located.” Bard believes that Punt is either in Eritrea or eastern Sudan. She also told Science Magazine that this isn’t the first example of a treasure from Punt because her excavations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis unearthed obsidian ebony fragments which she asserts came from Punt. Dominy disagreed, saying that ebony, for example, was widely distributed across Africa, so Bard’s discovery was not necessarily a treasure from Punt.
High Status Baboons in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians linked hamadryas baboons to their god of wisdom and the creator of hieroglyphics, Thoth, and Amun-Ra, the Sun god. They considered the animals sacred and depicted them in their sculptures, reliefs, and paintings even though they are not native animals to Egypt.
Egyptian iconography of Papio hamadryas, a tradition exceeding 3000 years. (a) Statuette inscribed with the name of King Narmer, Early Dynastic Period, 1st Dynasty, ca. 3150–3100 BC. (b) Bronze axe head, Middle Kingdom, 12th or 13th Dynasty, ca. 1981–1640 BC. (c) Reliefs at the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut [Deir el-Bahari]. A hamadryas baboon sits in the rigging of a ship. It is one of five being imported from Punt; New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1473–1458 BC. (d) Wall painting in the mortuary chapel of Rekhmire (TT 100), Vizier to Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II. A baboon (P. hamadryas) is shown as tribute in a procession from Nubia. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1479–1425 BC. (Dominy et al. 2020/ eLife)
Egyptologist Dr. Geraldine Pinch has also noted that baboons were connected with Duat, the Underworld in ancient Egyptian religion, saying, “The image of the Thoth baboon beside a wedjat eye occurs on magic wands as early as the twentieth century BC. Two baboon forms of the god Khons controlled The Books of the End of the Year. These contained lists of those who were destined to die and those who would live.”
Anand Balaji has written that baboons were associated with ancient Egyptian kings too. For example, King Narmer is shown as being transformed into a baboon known as the “Great White One” as part of a rejuvenation festival scene. Balaji noted that “some scholars opine that the title of this god is derived from the silver-gray mane of a dominant hamadryas” and “individual ancestors were ritually deified in the form of baboons and received cultic offerings.”
Top Image: This 3300-year-old baboon skull may have come from the lost land of Punt. Source: Dominy, N.J. et al. 2020/eLife