New research on the mysterious remains of mummified baboons – found far from their natural habitat more than 100 years ago in Egypt – has shed light on the sacred importance of these apes to the ancient Egyptians.
By studying these strange creatures, researchers believe they have uncovered new evidence that the regions of Punt and Adulis – two trading regions in today’s coastal region of Eritrea that shaped the economic and geopolitical structure of the world in that region – are separated by a thousand years of history.
Valley of the Monkeys, west of Luxor
A mummified baboon was found in 1905 eroded from the Valley of the Monkeys, an archaeological site on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor known for its depictions of baboons on the walls of unearthed tombs.
These creatures lacked their ferocious tusks, but unlike other mummified baboon specimens found in the same time frame, they were not buried with the nobility of the time nor were they found in communal catacombs, raising questions for decades about how they got there. There and why.
Science has finally advanced enough to answer some outstanding questions about baboons. After testing 10 different samples and being able to extract DNA from one sample. Biologist from the German University of Constance, Gisela Kopp, used a new method of genetic analysis of DNA from the sample to trace its origins. It is the first time that ancient DNA from an unmummified primate has been successfully analysed.
Monkeys from the coast of Eritrea
The mummy from which Gisela Cope extracted DNA, dating back to between 800 and 500 BC, and the results of a DNA study confirm that the Horn of Africa was the original region of baboons. The genetics of the Kob baboon were compared to another specimen originating from the coastal region of Eritrea, where the port of Adulis was located in ancient times.
However, Cope’s monkey was preserved long before the ancient city of Adolis flourished as a major trading center and port, where animals such as baboons and leopards were frequently bought and sold.
Ancient texts from the same time period indicate that the baboon in question likely originated in a city called Punt. “The exact location of the ape has long puzzled researchers, because there are references to the city in important texts and works of art, but it has not been found on existing maps,” Cobb told Insider.
The scientist adds, “The sample we studied fits chronologically with the last known expeditions to Punt. However, it fits geographically with Adulis, a site that centuries later was known to be a trading place for primates as well. We assume that Punt and Adulis are two different regions. And that they are.” Names for the same place used at different points in time.
“The exact methods behind importing primates (baboons) to Egypt, raising them, and eventually mummifying them are still unclear,” said Cobb, who published her research results in the journal “eLife.”
The religious importance of baboons
Anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy from Dartmouth College, who collaborated with researcher Cobb in the study, said, “Baboons are not present in African artwork at that time, due to their bad reputation in their natural environment, but they carry special importance in Egypt.”
Dominy added to Insider that for the ancient Egyptians, baboons seem to have served a dual spiritual purpose. These creatures often appear with their arms raised toward the sun in what he described as a “pose of adoration” toward the rising sun, which is represented by the Egyptian god Ra. Baboons were also often depicted as the physical embodiment of the god Thoth, the Egyptian moon god and a deity associated with wisdom and war.
Religious significance may have been the motivation behind the Egyptians’ desire to import, raise, and preserve the creatures, as Dominy and Cope posit. Its fangs, which are so powerful that they could cut a human thigh to the bone in a single bite, were likely removed as a precaution.
Although it remains unclear whether buyers or sellers of the baboons removed these teeth, Dominy said there is clear evidence that the teeth were removed early in life, as new bone began to grow over the gap left by the extraction. .
While the full secret behind the preservation and mummification of baboons in Egypt remains unknown, new knowledge provided by analyzing the monkeys’ DNA provides the missing link in understanding how the international trade that developed in the region ultimately shaped the world.