According to a recent study on baboon mummy DNA, ancient Egyptians traded with people from coastal Eritrea, which is now part of modern-day Eritrea, to obtain baboons for their temples. Baboons held a significant place in ancient Egyptian culture, as they were associated with the god Babi, who was the god of the underworld, and the deity Thoth, who was sometimes depicted with the head of a baboon. The baboons were kept in captivity, and their sharp incisors were removed to make them less dangerous. They were often mummified and offered as sacrifices to the gods. However, it was unclear where the baboons originated from, as they were not naturally found in Egypt.
Gisela Kopp, a geneticist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and the leader of the new study on baboon DNA, stated that there were stories suggesting that the baboons were obtained from a fabled and mysterious land called Punt. Although Punt was mentioned in ancient Egyptian documents, its exact location was never identified on a map. In 2020, Nathaniel Dominy, a primatologist at Dartmouth College, used molecules from ancient baboon mummy teeth to determine the baboons’ diets during their early life. His findings revealed that the baboons came from a region encompassing modern-day Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. These baboons dated back to Egypt’s New Kingdom, which existed between 1550 B.C. and 1070 B.C., providing the first concrete evidence of the location of Punt.
Building upon this research, Kopp and her colleagues, including Dominy, utilized DNA evidence to further narrow down the location of Punt. They successfully extracted DNA from a mummified baboon dating between 800 B.C. and 540 B.C. They compared this DNA to the genetics of 14 baboons from the 19th and 20th centuries, whose origins were known. Kopp explained that DNA analysis can provide more precise geographic information compared to the previous method of studying diet. Many baboons in Egypt were bred in captivity, making it impossible to determine their ancestry from diet alone. However, DNA analysis can unveil their origins.
Out of the ten baboon mummies sampled, only one provided usable DNA results due to the fragile nature of ancient DNA. Nonetheless, the analysis revealed that the baboon was most closely related to populations from coastal Eritrea, specifically near the ancient port of Adulis. Historical records from around 300 B.C. mentioned Adulis as a place where Egyptian traders frequently visited and where trade in wild animals occurred. The baboon DNA evidence suggests that trade with Adulis can be traced back at least a couple of centuries earlier than previously thought.
The study also proposes that Adulis and Punt might have been essentially the same place. A 2020 isotope study indicated that ancient Egyptians were trading with Punt for baboons as early as 1550 B.C. The recent DNA study, combined with historical records, supports the idea that this trading practice continued for over 1,000 years. Kopp suggests that the earlier location of Punt may have been similar to the later establishment of Adulis.
Although the study is based on a single mummy, the research team aims to sample more baboons from different time periods to gather more information. Kopp emphasizes that this study is one of the first ancient DNA studies conducted on a non-human primate. Further research on other species could provide insights into additional ancient Egyptian imports and their impact on wild populations.
Interestingly, baboons are the only non-native animals associated with Egyptian deities. Kopp finds it curious that ancient Egyptians showed such fascination with baboons, considering that they tend to cause trouble by stealing crops and invading homes in search of food. Kopp notes that the people who coexist with baboons today generally do not hold a favorable opinion of them.