Egyptian baboon mummies reveal signs of captivity

Bone analysis sheds light on health, diet and cultural significance

Ancient Egyptian baboons exhibited metabolic bone diseases, linked to dietary deficiencies and limited sunlight, a study has revealed. Photo: Bea De Cupere
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Baboons were kept in captivity in ancient Egypt, a study shows, with their skeletons revealing signs of maltreatment and inadequate care.

The discovery stems from an analysis of skeletal remains found in Thebes, belonging to at least 36 baboons.

Experts analysed the age, gender and size, concluding a likelihood of a local breeding population.

Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and lead author of the study told The National: "Baboon mummies are rare, in contrast to those of other species, such as cats, ibises and dogs that were produced in vast quantities. The material we studied comes from one of only three sites that produced large numbers of well-preserved mummies."

The research, published in journal PLOS ONE, involved radiocarbon dating, which placed the baboons chronologically between the end of the Third Intermediate Period and the beginning of the Late Period in ancient Egypt, approximately 2,500 years ago.

"Only the skeleton and skulls were preserved, no soft tissue was left," Mr Van Neer said.

"This means that we could only detect diseases that leave traces in the bones. On the other hand, the mummies were unwrapped, meaning that observations on the bone were easy."

The remains exhibited signs of disease such as rickets and osteomalacia, typically resulting from chronic lack of sunlight and an unbalanced diet.

The baboons diet, primarily consisting of human food scraps, lacked essential nutrients, while their captivity meant they had insufficient sunlight exposure.

The conditions in which the baboons lived was not considered to match their natural habitat.

Yet ancient Egyptians revered baboons, often depicting them in their art and associating them with Thoth, the God of wisdom.

"Baboons are good climbers and they were therefore probably kept in buildings or enclosures with high walls to prevent them from escaping," said Mr Van Neer.

"Because of the lack of sunlight, they developed the metabolic disorders that we see, mainly rickets.

"There are no signs of broken bones that would suggest the animals were ill-treated physically; one exception is the swollen surface of one of the skulls showing that the animal received a blow on its head."

Researchers believe the baboons were probably imported from regions such as the Sudanese Nile Valley, the Horn of Africa or the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The research also contributes to the broader understanding of the historical context of animal captivity, trade routes, and the cultural and religious importance of animals in ancient Egyptian society.

Mircea Udrescu, co-author of the study, said: "Our findings underscore the impact of captivity on the health of these baboons. It reflects not just on the animals themselves, but also on the cultural and environmental factors of the time."

Updated: December 07, 2023, 12:27 PM