Locating the ancient lost city of Punt with mummified baboons

Scientists are able to narrow down the location of Punt by analysing ancient baboon remains
15 March 2021

Interview with 

Nathaniel Dominy, Dartmouth College




One of the mysteries concerns a long lost city, called Punt, which was hugely significant as a trading partner of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. Unfortunately, while they wrote a lot about Punt, the Egyptians didn’t say exactly where it was, so archaeologists have hit a dead end trying to understand how that ancient trade operated. Now, that might be about to change thanks to a breakthrough involving animals that the Egyptians kept as pets and went to Punt specially to purchase - baboons! They also mummified them, meaning specimens of those pet baboons exist in museums and, critically, still carry a chemical fingerprint of where they came from originally, putting Dartmouth College’s Nate Dominy on the scent of where Punt might have been, as he told Chris Smith..

Nate - There are two mysteries, a mystery wrapped in a mystery. And the first involves baboons because baboons have a very large distribution across Subsaharan Africa. And generally across Africa, baboons are disliked. You rarely see baboons in any kind of statuary or carving or any kind of handicraft. Egypt, however, is the big exception because when you look at the entire arc of Egyptian history, you see that baboons have been revered, they've even been deified. They've been elevated into the Pantheon of Egyptian gods. So it's really quite a striking reversal to the general patterns across Subsaharan Africa. The puzzle for someone like me, who studies primates, is that baboons never lived in Egypt. The Holocene fossil record, which is the period of time of modern human habitation and agriculture and complex societies, is entirely devoid of any evidence of any primate whatsoever - let alone baboons.

Chris - Have we got physical specimens of baboons from that geography nevertheless? They must have encountered them because they defied them.

Nate - That's right. So we find baboons buried in human contexts. They were deliberately buried. The oldest evidence looks like it might've been a zoo. One young baboons is buried with a young person about age 12 or 13, suggesting status as a pet. And then at later periods, we get Royal mummification where the animals were actually wrapped in linens and interred in Royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. And then in a still later period, during the Roman and Greek period, we get the period of animal cults where baboons and many other animals were mummified on a practically industrial scale. You get tens of thousands of animals being mummified during that period.

Chris - So therefore if you've got evidence of these animals being deified in that particular geography, you've got evidence of specimens of them being brought to that geography, but there's no evidence that they were naturally there, this argues that any baboons that are there were brought there by human activity and therefore the question must be from where?

Nate - Precisely. And the Egyptians, they have written records of importing baboons into Egypt. They have paintings and reliefs on their temple walls and tombs showing the importation of baboons from a distant place. And they tell us that place - the place was Punt. And that's the other mystery is, where was Punt?

Chris - So there's lots of references to a place, but that place no longer exists, and we don't know where it is?

Nate - Right. Historians have argued about Punt because it was terribly important because the Egyptians, typically when they wanted resources, they might go to war to get those resources. We know the Egyptians went to war with the Nubians, they went to war with the Hittites. But with the Puntites, they sent emissaries, they sent ambassadors, they sent diplomats. This was a very important trading partner for the ancient Egyptians, primarily because the Puntites produced very valuable incense that the Egyptians used for religious purposes. So the Egyptians were highly motivated to travel great distances to go to Punt for these exotic luxury goods, including baboons.

Chris - So how can you use our knowledge of baboons to work out where Punt is then?

Nate - Baboons are a really great animal system for this question because baboons drink water every day. And the water in your environment reflects the rainfall, and the chemical composition of water evaporates at different rates. And so when animals are drinking water on the landscape, they incorporate those chemical signatures, the oxygen stable isotopes in the water, and that incorporates into their bones and in their teeth and in their hair. And so you get this geographic fingerprint of where an animal has been living based on the kind of water and food it's been ingesting.

Chris - But what about if you do what you said, which is that there's evidence that there were animals being held in captivity in Egypt, will you not then see the signature of Egypt rather than the signature of where the animal came from written into those ratios?

Nate - Yes, that was a great risk of the project, that long-term captivity would produce a geographic signature associated with living in captivity in Egypt. And so we use different tissues, hair, bone teeth, which integrate drinking water and food over different intervals of the animal's life, and a large number of animals. For example, the baboons that we studied that were at the Petrie Museum in London, those animals uniformly showed us a signature that was consistent with a lifetime living in Egypt. And so we think the Egyptians may have had a husbandry program, they may have been breeding them in captivity. But we got very lucky - there was one animal at the British Museum that showed us a signature in the teeth that showed a distinctly foreign signature. It was unambiguously non-Egyptian.

Chris - So in order to work out where Punt must have been, are you reasoning then that if you triangulate the origins as written down in the teeth and other specimens of these baboons, that Punt must be somewhere relatively equidistant from these places, or close to where a lot of these animals were originating from, that that would give you a narrowed geography for where Punt was likely to be?

Nate - Exactly. So the Egyptians tell us that Punt was East and South of Egypt, and they tell us that you could reach it by land or sea. Problem is that East and South of Egypt - still a lot of open possibilities! And so what we can do is we can take baboons living in all of those competing areas - Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Uganda - we can take that baboons living in those areas now, and we can look at their chemical signatures and create a chemical map, if you will, of that region. And so then we can match the mummified specimens that are present at the British Museum to populations in those areas. And the great thing about our analysis is we could definitively rule out some places, and we showed a very strong match to animals living in Eritrea and Somalia today.

Chris - That would be, therefore, the most likely place where the animals were sourced from, but do not just think that it could just be that was a good hunting ground, and they were transported from there to wherever Punt was?

Nate - That's right. Punt was both a kingdom and an emporium on the coast. So there was a market town or port. And so we think the Egyptians would have pulled their ships up to the port and they may have purchased or traded for animals that were there in the port city. But the animals may have been sourced from farther inland, and that makes sense. We think the Puntites knew their market, they knew their consumers. And so they would have gathered animals from farther inland and brought them for trade with the Egyptians.

Chris - So how much narrower is the search for Punt now in the wake of what you've done?

Nate - Much narrower. For 150 years, scholars have been debating about the possibility of the Arabian peninsula. So Yemen has always been a strong contender for the location of Punt. Some authors have put it in Mozambique or Uganda. We can rule those places out. And we can say definitively that it was somewhere in Africa, on the horn of Africa, probably in Eritrea and Somalia. We can't distinguish between those two places, which are the two contending places that most scholars agree on.

Chris - And is there any way to nail it well and truly?

Nate - Yes, I think so. I think if we can turn to ancient DNA, maybe turn to some of the other tissues that were coming out of Punt, if they all start to point in the same place and corroborate each other, then we'll really have something. And obviously archeology is where we need to go. It'd be nice to dig in some of those areas. And if we can find the remains of these ancient places that'd be the clincher.


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