To date, tens of millions of animal mummies have been discovered in Egypt. But while there are millions of mummified cats, dogs, ibises and birds of prey, primate mummies are rare—and little studied. Now a new analysis of mummified baboons sheds light on the animals' place in ancient Egypt, revealing that although they were valued as sacred animals, their living conditions were far from ideal.
The researchers analyzed the bones of mummified baboons that were discovered in the early 1900s at the Gabbanat el-Kuroud necropolis, in the so-called Valley of the Monkeys, southwest of Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The bones represented dozens of individual baboons - ranging from infants to adults - of two species: the hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) and the olive baboon (Papio anubis), CNN tells CNN.
These species were not native to Egypt—they were introduced from two regions: “the olive baboon from the south (modern Sudan) and the hamadryas baboon from the mountainous regions bordering the Red Sea in Sudan and south into Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.” , says lead study author Wim Van Neer, professor emeritus at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. “The exact origin still needs to be documented in more detail.”
Van Neer added that of all the animals revered by the ancient Egyptians, baboons were the only ones that were not native to Egypt.
Baboons are believed to have played a role in ancient Egyptian rituals, scientists reported in the journal PLOS One. But raising and caring for large wild animals, especially non-native species, is challenging. The researchers found that before they died, the baboons were deprived of sunlight and developed bone diseases due to poor nutrition. Examination of the skeletal remains revealed signs of rickets; The baboons had deformed arms, legs and faces, undeveloped teeth, osteoarthritis and other pathologies caused by deprivation and metabolic disorders.
Their deformities were reminiscent of those found on baboon bones from two other ancient Egyptian sites - Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel - dating from around the same period, the authors write.
“This excellently designed and executed study confirms some earlier studies regarding the health of baboons in ancient Egypt,” said Dr. Salima Ikram, distinguished university professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, who was not involved in the study. “More importantly, it also establishes the fact that various types of baboons were brought to Egypt and raised there. It’s interesting to think that the ancient Egyptians tried to establish a breeding program for baboons so they could both be revered and used in religious rituals.”
A total of 463 mummified primates were found in three major Egyptian burial sites containing Old World monkey mummies, according to a study. The baboon bones examined for the new analysis were collected in 1905 and 1906 by archaeologists from the Natural History Museum of Lyon in France.
Pieces of dried skin with long tufts of hair still attached were found in the tombs, suggesting that the animals were placed there as mummies. According to the study, French archaeologists discovered 23 skulls, 24 mandibles and more than 200 isolated bones, which were assembled into complete skeletons regardless of whether all the bones belonged to the same baboon.
Two skeletons were pieced together from bones from two different baboons, and one skeleton represented three primates. Of the four skeletons that were properly assembled, only one had the correct skull. By analyzing the bones one by one, the study authors identified 36 different baboons of all ages, with more adults than juveniles and slightly more males than females.
The bones also showed signs of metabolic problems during teenage growth, including bent rods, misshapen rod heads, and arthritic joints. Two female baboons suffered from tooth decay. Damage was found on some of the turtles; two primates had shortened snouts, and the other two had snouts that curved to the left.
The mummies also turned out to be centuries older than previously thought. Based on the mummies' proximity to nearby ceramic artifacts in the tombs, earlier estimates placed them at the earliest in the first and second centuries, and possibly as early as the seventh century.
But when the study authors examined bone collagen and fibers from the tissue that was wrapped around the intact baboon mummy, they found that the animals were likely buried between 803 and 520 BC. The researchers confirmed this time frame using a technique called radiocarbon dating, which determines the age of organic material by measuring the amount of decay of a radioactive isotope of carbon.
Conditions for the primates in captivity may have been even worse than their remains suggested, as the bones often do not preserve records of parasites and other types of disease, researchers said.
However, it is important to note that the scientists' findings do not suggest that the baboons were deliberately abused. Their keepers probably did their best to care for the animals, “but it must not have been easy,” Van Neer says.
“Baboons are good tree climbers, so they were probably kept in buildings or enclosures with high walls to prevent them from escaping. Due to lack of sunlight, they developed the metabolic disorders that we see, mainly rickets. There are no signs of broken bones that would indicate the animals were physically abused,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the Egyptians did not know enough about caring for and feeding baboons,” adds Ikram. “In trying to show them respect and care, they have actually created conditions that are harmful to the health and welfare of the animals - the road to hell is paved with good intentions!”