Sacred Egyptian Baboons Suffered in Captivity, Finds Study
A recent study has investigated skeletal remains of 36 individual baboons spanning various age groups, dated from 800 to 500 BC, in ancient Egypt. The findings suggest that baboons were intentionally bred and reared in captivity, and following their demise, were mummified. But the examination of the skeletal remains revealed lesions, deformations, and other abnormalities on the bones, showing that whilst revered in death, they suffered in life.
Health Challenges and Consistent Pattern of Captive Care
These factors are all indicative of widespread issues related to poor nutrition and a deficiency in sunlight exposure, strongly suggesting that the majority of these primates experienced health challenges, attributable to their birth and upbringing in captivity. This, and other finds, are part of a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Life was not easy for Egypt's sacred baboons. Scientific study shows they suffered from malnutrition and lack of sunlight,” write the authors in the study.
Comparable conditions were observed in baboon remains from two additional sites from this period in Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel. This observation implies a notably consistent pattern of captive care across all three locations, pointing to a shared approach to raising and maintaining baboons in captivity, according to a press release.
"The most obvious deformations are seen in the skeletons: the limbs are bent, which is typical of rickets" — a symptom of extreme vitamin D deficiency usually caused by a lack of sunlight, Wim Van Neer, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and lead author of the study, told Live Science.
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Deformations in the arm skeleton of male baboon, showing bent bones and deformed bones and pitting. (Van Neer et al./ PLoS ONE)
Baboons: Native to Africa and Arabia
There are five species of baboons, all of which are native to Africa or Arabia. These primates rank among the largest monkeys globally, with males across different species averaging from 13 to 37 kilograms. Baboons typically inhabit semi-arid environments, although some can be found in tropical forests. Their habitats are characterized by violence, as males engage in territorial disputes over resources such as food, including roots, seeds, and bark, as well as females and resting spaces.
Baboons exhibit omnivorous dietary habits, consuming a diverse range of food that includes roots, fruit, grubs, and other insects. Despite being largely ground-dwelling animals, they display adaptability in their habitat preferences. Their lifespan spans two to three decades, with some individuals surviving for up to 40 years. This longevity is supported by their ability to thrive on a varied diet and adapt to different environmental conditions.
Baboons are good climbers, and thus they were kept in buildings or enclosures by the ancient Egyptians, to prevent them from escaping. It is entirely possible that there were good intentions behind the captivity.
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Mummified baboon still completely encased in linen wrappings. (Trustees of the British Museum / CC by SA 4.0)
Revering Baboons: Egyptians and Animal Mummification
Bea De Cupere, another author of the study, explained that for over a millennium, spanning from the ninth century BC to the fourth century AD, ancient Egyptians mummified millions of animals, deeming them embodiments of gods among humans. Common finds in ancient cemeteries include cats, bulls, and ibises, with occasional occurrences of other species such as crocodiles and baboons, although the latter are exceptionally rare.
Nearly all of the observed pathologies are linked to severe metabolic disease, with little to no evidence of physical abuse or mistreatment. The researchers believe that the ancient Egyptians had good intentions, presumably making efforts to provide proper care for the baboons, despite the inherent challenges associated.
According to the study, baboons, despite their revered status in ancient Egypt, are not native to the region, suggesting that they were probably imported from other African countries. The belief among ancient Egyptians was that baboons symbolized the embodiment of the moon god Thoth, who was associated with attributes such as writing, wisdom, and magic. The connection between baboons and the god likely stemmed from the primates' human-like characteristics, intelligence, and communication abilities, according to a Newsweek report.
The U.K.'s Reading Museum notes that Thoth played a significant role as a mediator between the gods and humans, further reinforcing the symbolic association between baboons and this revered deity. Interestingly, baboons were also associated with a sun god, likely due to their tendency to vocalize, or bark, during sunrise.
The consistent mummification of captive baboons aligns with the broader Egyptian practice of mummifying the deceased. This cultural tradition stemmed from the belief that the body served as the dwelling place for an individual's spirit. By preserving the body through mummification, the Egyptians sought to ensure that the spirit would endure beyond death.
The authors propose that a more in-depth analysis of the animals' teeth, for example, could offer additional insights into their diets, shedding light on the specific foods they were provided. The potential extraction of DNA from these remains could yield genetic data that might disclose information about the origin of the animals—where they were captured in the wild—and the breeding practices employed by their keepers.
Top image: Some of the baboon skulls for Ancient Egypt that were available for the study. Source: Bea De Cupere, CC-BY 4.0/PLoS ONE
By Sahir Pandey
Metcalfe, T. 2023. Ancient Egypt's sacred baboons had tough lives, study suggests. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/archaeology/ancient-egypts-sacred-baboons-had-tough-lives-study-suggests.
Neer, W.V., et al. 2023. Palaeopathological and demographic data reveal conditions of keeping of the ancient baboons at Gabbanat el-Qurud (Thebes, Egypt). PLoS One, 18(12). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0294934.
Siegel-Itzkovich, J. 2023. Ancient Egyptian baboons had a surprising diet – study. Available at: https://www.jpost.com/science/the-natural-world/article-776931.
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