Ancient Egypt: Study of mummified baboons sheds light on location of lost Kingdom of Punt

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For more than 1,000 years the Land of Punt served as one of ancient Egypt’s major trading partners. Located somewhere to the south or southeast of the land of the Pharaohs, Punt provided Egypt with incense, gold, leopard skins and sacred baboons. Scholars have argued over the kingdom’s exact location for more than 150 years, with some placing it around the horn of Africa while others argued it was located in the Arabian peninsula.

A team of researchers may have finally cracked the mystery by pinpointing the geographic origin of 155 mummified baboons recovered from ancient Egyptian tombs and temples.

Their study focused on mummies from the New Kingdom period (1550 to 1069 BC) and the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BC).

Specimens were provided by the British Museum and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, respectively.

The researchers then examined tissue samples from 155 baboons from 77 locations in eastern Africa and southern Arabia to account for Punt’s hypothesised location.

The study, published in eLife, states: “For hundreds of years, the Land of Punt was one of Egypt’s strongest trading partners, and a place from which to import premium incense and prized monkeys.

“Travellers could reach Punt by venturing south and east of Egypt, suggesting that the kingdom occupied the southern Red Sea region. Yet its exact location is still highly debated.”

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And the study’s importance is twofold: it highlights the reach of Egypt’s mariners and the impact long-distance trade had on the development of maritime technology.

Nathaniel J. Dominy, the study’s lead author and Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, said: “Many scholars view trade between Egypt and Punt as the first long maritime step in a trade network known as the spice route, which would go on to shape geopolitical fortunes for millennia.

“Other scholars put it more simply, describing the Egypt-Punt relationship as the beginning of economic globalization.

“Baboons were central to this commerce, so determining the location of Punt is important.

“For over 150 years, Punt has been a geographic mystery.

“Our analysis is the first to show how mummified baboons can be used to inform this enduring debate.”

The researchers analysed oxygen and strontium isotopes found in the embalmed remains to determine the baboons most likely came from an area covering modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen.

According to the paper, strontium is a chemical element that acts as a geographic fingerprint of sorts.

The chemical is found in bedrock and as it breaks down, it enters the food chain and experts can find traces of it in teeth, bone and hair.

The researchers can then piece together clues about where an animal was born and where it lived before it died.

The method allowed the researchers to determine at least five of the studied baboons resided in Egypt for a long time before death, indicating the Egyptians ran a captive breeding programme.

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Another two baboons were born outside of Egypt and most likely came from Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia, narrowing down the location of Punt.

The baboons are of the Papio hamadryas species, which was sacred to the ancient Egyptians.

They are the northernmost species of all baboons and are native to the Horn of Africa.

The baboons played a big role in ancient Egyptian religion and were considered sacred to Thoth, the god of the Moon and wisdom.

Evidence of this reverence goes as far back the year 3,000 BC.

The baboon is often seen in wall art and paintings, despite not being native to Egypt.

However, the experts have said the location of Punt still remains provisional for now.

They wrote in their study: “For Egyptians, Punt was a source of ‘marvels’, particularly aromatic resins, that drove bidirectional trade for 13 centuries (ca. 2500 to 1170 BC).

“Some scholars view this commercial enterprise as the beginning of globalization (Fattovich, 2012), whereas others describe it as the beginning of the spice route (Keay, 2006), a trade network that would shape geopolitical fortunes for millennia.

“The global historical importance of Punt is therefore considerable, but there is a problem, which Phillips, 1997 put succinctly: ‘Punt has not yet been located with certainty on any map and no archaeological remains have ever been identified even tentatively as Puntite’.”

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