New research on the mysterious remains of mummified baboons, found far from their natural habitat over a hundred years ago in Egypt, has shed light on the sacred significance of the primates in the ancient Arabian Peninsula.
In studying the curious creatures, researchers on the project also believe they have revealed new evidence that Punt and Adulis, two legendary trading regions that shaped the world's economic and geopolitical structure, may have been the same place in the coastal region in Eritrea — separated by a thousand years of history.
The mummified hamadryas baboons were found in 1905, eroding out of the valley of the monkeys — an archaeological site at Luxor's western bank of the Nile known for its depictions of baboons on tomb walls discovered nearby.
The creatures were missing their ferocious canine teeth, but, unlike other mummified baboon specimens found from the same timeframe, they were neither entombed with noblemen of the time nor found in group catacombs, raising questions for decades about how they got there — and why.
Science has finally advanced enough to answer some lingering questions about the baboons.
After testing ten different specimens and being able to extract DNA from just a single one, Gisela Kopp, a biologist from the University of Konstanz, utilized a new method of genetic analysis on DNA from the specimen to trace its origins. Kopp's discovery is the first time ancient DNA from a mummified non-human primate has successfully been analyzed to this extent.
Mythic ancient cities
The mummy Kopp extracted DNA from — estimated to date back to between 800 and 500 BCE — corroborated findings that the Horn of Africa was the baboons' region of origin when compared with a similar sample that had previously been unearthed. The genetics of Kopp's baboon were compared to another sample that originated from the coastal region in Eritrea, where, in ancient times, the port of Adulis was likely located.
However, Kopp's baboon was preserved long before the ancient city of Adulis flourished as a key trading center and port, where animals like baboons and leopards were frequently bought and sold.
Ancient texts from the same time period suggest Kopp's baboon likely originated in a city called Punt. The exact location of Punt, Kopp told Insider, has long puzzled researchers due to references to the town being found in significant texts and artwork but not found on existing maps.
"The specimen we studied fits chronologically with the last known expeditions to Punt. Geographically, however, it fits Adulis, a location that, centuries later, was known as a trading place, also for primates. We hypothesize that Punt and Adulis are two different names for the same place that were used at different points in time," Kopp wrote in a research paper published earlier this month, adding: "It was only after we put our biological findings in the context of historical research that the story really came together."
Kopp told Insider the exact methods behind importing the primates to Egypt, raising them, and then eventually mummifying them remains unclear. So, too, is precisely how Egyptians came to know of baboons in the first place since they weren't native to the region.
"From the way that they're presented in the artwork, they must have observed the baboons in their natural habitat," Kopp said. "It's so spot on, how they hold the postures, and the different behaviors — they must have observed them in their natural habitats, but we don't know why, or how."
Pesky baboons, a godly embodiment
Anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy from Dartmouth College, who collaborated with Kopp on the study, told Insider that baboons are often conspicuously missing from African artworks of the time due to their reputation as pests in their natural habitats but they hold special significance in Egypt.
"Throughout Africa, you'll see loads of elephants and giraffes, and all kinds of products representing animals, but very rarely baboons. And it's because, in general, baboons are not well-liked. They raid your crops, they destroy your livelihood, they are harbingers of disease," Dominy said.
"I remember going to Egypt for the first time and just being astounded by the number of baboons being depicted on temple walls, or in the tombs of nobles you'd see large statues of baboons at various temples. And they even mummified baboons, which any primatologist will tell you is puzzling."
Dominy said for ancient Egyptians, baboons appear to have served a dual spiritual purpose. The creatures are often shown with their arms raised toward the sun in what he described as a "posture of adoration" toward the rising sun, the Egyptian god Rah.
"Some researchers speculate that baboons would naturally orient their bodies toward the rising sun and that they would vocalize at the rising sun," Dominy said.
"And the idea is that ancient Egyptians would have seen this natural behavior, and it would have resonated strongly with them because the Egyptians would greet the rising sun, and they would sing to the rising sun. And so this might have been just this amazing, tantalizing animal that was connected to their own religious practices."
Baboons were also frequently depicted as the physical embodiment of the god Thoth, the Egyptian moon deity and the god associated with wisdom and war.
"So they can both represent the moon god and the god of wisdom, but they are also showing their loyalty to the Sun god, Rah," Dominy told Insider. "And for us, at this point, to understand that is difficult, but it just seemed like the importance of baboons is this kind of ability for them to bridge both the sun and the moon, the two most important celestial bodies for the Egyptians."
The religious significance may have driven the Egyptian's desire to import, raise, and preserve the creatures, Dominy and Kopp hypothesize. Their canine teeth, so powerful they can slice a human thigh to the bone in a single bite, were likely removed as a safety measure.
Though it remains unclear if the buyers or sellers of the baboons removed them, Dominy said there was clear evidence that the teeth were removed early in life, as new bone had begun to regrow over the gap left by the extraction.
Though the full meaning and significance behind the keeping and mummification of baboons in Egypt may never be known, the new knowledge provided by analyzing the monkeys' DNA provides a missing link in understanding how international trade developed in the region eventually shaped the world.
"This drove maritime technology, this drove industry, this was an economic catalyst. I mean, their motives to get baboons — it changed the world," Dominy said. "And I know that's a big claim, but that link between Egypt and Adulis is the first major leg of what would become known as the maritime spice route."
He added: "And that spice route, you know, I'm speaking English now because of that spice route. The geopolitical importance of the spice route would shape our world in profound ways, and the relationship between Egypt and Adulis really is the first step in what many researchers call the beginnings of economic globalization."
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