In 1905, the remains of mummified baboons were discovered in Egypt, sparking over a century of speculation as to how they came to be so far from home. Now, in a study that marries biology and history to answer questions surrounding the origin of these ancient interlopers, we finally have some idea of where they came from and how they made it to their final resting place.
The findings also shed some light on historic trade routes, including the location of a mysterious port city, and the cultural significance of these primates in ancient Egypt.
The mummified monkeys, dated to Egypt’s Late Period around 800–540 BCE, were found missing their canine teeth at a site called Gabbanat el-Qurud, or “Valley of the Monkeys”. However, they are not native to Egypt – hamadryas baboons hail from the Horn of Africa and the southwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula.
The species was sacred to ancient Egyptians, who mummified and offered them as votive tokens in homage to the deity Thoth – the god of learning and wisdom who was represented by a hamadryas baboon. But how did they come by them in the first place?
In 2020, researchers traced their place of birth back to the Horn of Africa. Now, the University of Konstanz’s Gisela Kopp and co-authors have pinpointed this location further, in what is also the first successful analysis of ancient DNA from mummified non-human primates.
Kopp’s novel method of genetic analysis involved studying the mitochondrial genomes of the animal mummies, and comparing them to extant baboons. Extracting DNA from one museum specimen, Kopp was able to narrow down the monkeys’ place of origin to a well-defined area around Eritrea – where the legendary port of Adulis was probably located.
According to ancient texts, Adulis was a trading place for luxury goods and animals, which would explain how the baboons were shipped from their homeland to Egypt if not for the fact that it flourished long after the mummies were preserved.
However, another port called Punt, from which Egypt imported goods until the first millennium BCE, is often quoted as the baboons’ place of origin. Unfortunately, its precise location is a mystery.
“Egyptologists have long puzzled over Punt, since some scholars have seen it as a location in early global maritime trade networks, and thus the starting point for economic globalization,” Kopp said in a statement.
“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.”
Kopp and co-authors, therefore, suggest that Punt and Adulis are actually the same place, just with different names used at different time points.
“It was only after we put our biological findings in the context of historical research that the story really came together,” Kopp added.
We may have solved the mysteries of the mummified baboons’ origin – although questions remain about their true significance – and the location of Punt and Adulis, but ancient Egypt still keeps some secrets, like the strange crocodile skulls in the Theban Necropolis. What’s that about?
The study is published in the journal eLife.
An earlier version of this article was published in November 2023.