Ancient Egyptians Went Wild for Bird Mummy Offerings
Researchers studying the mummies of birds from Ancient Egypt, used at the time as votive offerings to the gods, have made an important discovery. French experts, from the CNRS, the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 and the C2RMF, sought to establish if the birds were wild or if they had been specially bred to be offered to the gods. These results have provided new insight into Egyptian ritual practices by proving that the birds were wild.
Mummification was an important part of Egyptian life from at least the Old Kingdom until the Christianization of Egypt in the 4 th century AD. Animals were also mummified and buried in tombs. They were often the pets of the deceased or were interred with the dead to provide them with food in the afterlife. Many mummified animals were votive offerings to gods and this was especially the case with birds. The French researchers wrote in Nature that the “widespread use of votive mummies to pray to the gods Horus (depicted as a falcon) and Thoth (depicted as an ibis) led to the production of millions of bird mummies.”
The location of bird cemeteries in Egypt. (Linglin, M. et. al. / Nature)
Animal Votive Offerings: Bird Mummies as Gifts for the Gods
It has already been established that certain animals were specially bred to be used as votive offerings to the gods. For example, there is a great deal of evidence to show that cats were bred to be sacrificed and indeed this was a large industry in Ancient Egypt. There is a debate among experts as to whether or not fowls were raised to be used as votive offerings, especially species such as ibises, whose mummies have been found in great numbers.
CNRS reports that “unlike cats, bird mummies cover all stages of development, from egg to adult, which may indicate more opportunistic sourcing practices”. In other words, this indicates they were hunted and captured in the wild. On the other hand, there are “ancient Egyptian textual references to ‘birth chapels’ of ibises,” explain the researchers in Nature, which may indicate planned breeding programs for fowl who would later be used in sacrifices.
The image shows a mummified sacred bird, an ibis, from the Egyptology collections at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon. ( Romain Amiot / LGL-TPE / CNRS )
Did Ancient Egyptians Use Wild or Captive Birds?
Researchers decided to establish the origin of the birds to determine if they have been captured or raised for sacrificial purposes. They sampled twenty mummified ibises, falcons and other birds of prey, that are part of a museum collection in Lyon. They analyzed their isotopic composition which would reveal their diet before they died. If the results from different birds were varied, the conclusion would have been migratory and therefore wild. If the results were homogenous, it would mean they had almost certainly been raised in captivity.
According to the CNRS, “the isotopic compositions of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium were measured, interpreted in terms of food sources.” These results were then compared to isotopic composition results from Ancient Egyptian mummies . CNRS reports that “far from being homogeneous, these isotopic compositions have very high variability and ‘exotic’ signatures compared to those of ancient Egyptian humans.” The high levels of variability in isotopes mean that the fowls obtained food from a wide geographic area.
Ancient Egyptian hunting scene from Tomb of Nebamun. Millions of animal and bird mummies have been discovered in Egypt, and meaning that the hunting of birds for religious rituals was very common. (Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0 )
Mass Bird Hunting in Ancient Egypt: The Industry of Animal and Bird Mummies
The diversity in the isotopic composition found would not have been present in the birds had they been raised in captivity. For example, cats raised for sacrifice typically had homogenous diets. The researchers’ results also seem to contradict the idea that they were raised in semi-captivity in special enclosures along the Nile.
As a result, the birds were almost certainly migratory and would leave the Nile Valley on a seasonal basis for areas in what is now modern Ethiopia and Sudan. The study’s result confirms a previous genetic study of other bird sacrifices. It appears that the Egyptians engaged in the mass hunting of birds. CNRS states that the findings “suggest the mass hunting and capture of birds as documented on certain tomb frescoes (for example on the wall of Nakht's tomb in the Theban Necropolis )” was a widespread practice.
Based on millions of finds, it appears that the hunting of birds for religious rituals was very common. It may also have been something of an industry. The Ancient Egyptians were able hunters and often hunted crocodiles who were also used votive offerings. In the report from CNRS the scientists conclude that “the Egyptians probably exerted a significant ecological pressure on wild bird populations long before the decline in avifauna observed today.” Sadly, it seems that human activity impacting negatively on bird populations has a long history.
Top image: The study concludes that Ancient Egyptians hunted wild birds to be used in religious offerings as bird mummies. Marie Linglin, one of the authors of the report, samples a mummified bird, in this case a northern long-legged buzzard specimen, at the Musée des Confluences, Lyon. Source: Romain Amiot / LGL-TPE / CNRS
By Ed Whelan