'Mona Lisa of Ancient Egypt' Contains Extinct Goose
A University of Queensland paleontologist claims to have found evidence of an extinct goose species in a 4,600-year-old tomb painting dubbed the “Mona Lisa of Ancient Egypt.” The ancient painting was discovered at Meidum, an archaeological site situated around 62 miles (100 km) south of Cairo. The site comprises Egypt's first straight-sided pyramid and several mudbrick mastabas, and the painting was found on the north wall within a mastaba-chamber in the tomb of Nefermaat, a prince in the Egypt's Fourth Dynasty, and his wife, Itet.
The extinct goose on the left, has been reconstructed in the central image, and is compared to the red-breasted goose on the far right. (Photo from tomb painting CK Wilkinson / Reconstruction Anthony Romilio / Modern species photo Tambako the Jaguar)
Decoding Multi-Species Painting Showing Extinct Goose
The painting is now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and University of Queensland's Professor Anthony Romilio has published a new study of the artwork in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The painting is part of a larger artwork known as the Meidum Geese which shows four white-fronted, and either bean or graylag geese. However, two others are depicted with red-speckled breasts which differs from the modern, red-breasted goose. These two images showing the unknown species of geese, according to researchers, are “the only documentation of the now extinct bird.”
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Since its discovery in the 1800s the Meidum Geese has been described as “Egypt’s Mona Lisa,” said Dr. Romilio. According to the new study, Nefermaat was the eldest son of pharaoh Sneferu of Egypt's Fourth Dynasty: “a vizier, royal seal bearer and a prophet of Bastet, feline-headed goddess of protection.” The now extinct species of goose depicted in his tomb had “red, black and white markings on its face, grey wings with white marks and a speckled red breast distinct from modern red-breasted geese.”
Supposedly extinct goose species as depicted in ancient Egyptian painting, including the so-called Meidum Geese, at the tomb of Nefermaat and Itet. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
Addressing Skeptics of the Extinct Goose Hypothesis…Sort Of
When I first read this article and saw images of the “allegedly” extinct goose at Meidum I admittedly thought “ocht, come on, an artist might have simply stylized a couple of the geese.” Nevertheless, Romilio has said that while “artistic license could account for the differences with modern geese, artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals.” Therefore, he believes the painting represents a now extinct species of the tasty waterfowl.
This Egyptian artwork represents the only documentation of this distinctively patterned extinct goose. According to Romilio, a number of extinct animals have previously been identified in ancient art but not all of the species have been scientifically confirmed as having actually existed. The results of his research are included in his new book entitled Guide to the Extinct Animals of Ancient Egypt. The publication out this year “speculates some animals depicted in Egyptian art may represent unknown taxa that are now extinct, and beautifully reconstructs these animals alongside the ancient works.” Although the Meidum painting shows modern, red-breasted geese ( Branta ruficollis), Egyptian archaeologists have never unearthed any bones belonging to this species.
Guide to the Extinct Animals of Ancient Egypt argues that certain animals in ancient Egyptian art may represent species which are now extinct, such as the extinct goose under discussion here. (Anthony Romilio)
That Old Tobias Criteria, Again
To identify the extinct goose Romilio applied the “Tobias criteria” to all the species of geese depicted in the fresco, which is a system of analysis that categories the birds based on their different limb sizes and proportions. A question which remains outstanding, however, is what happened to the now extinct species of goose?
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Romilio has pointed out that Egypt was not always predominantly desert, but instead, it has “a biodiverse history, rich with extinct species.” He said the earliest human cultures emerged in Egypt when the Sahara was green and covered with grasslands, lakes and woodlands. The professor’s paper says the landscape was “teeming with diverse animals, many of which were depicted in tombs and temples.”
Even though the tombs and temples of ancient Egypt are heavily-decorated with colorful images of day-to-day life featuring several extinct species, to date, archaeologists have only ever found the remains of a “few of these species,” explained the professor in his new study. Among the confirmed species found in ancient art works and crafts was the forbear of the modern cow, the auroch ( Bos primigenius). What’s more, several species of “gazelle, oryx, antelope and donkey” appear on tomb paintings, writes Romilio. But this painting at Meidum is the only documented image or reference to this particular species of extinct goose.
Top image: Anthony Romilio argues that the geese depicted in the 4,600-year-old- tomb painting at Meidum is actually an extinct goose species. Source: Public domain
By Ashley Cowie