In 1905, Louis Lortet and Claude Gaillard travelled from France to Luxor, an Egyptian city on the banks of the river Nile, to investigate the discovery of mummified monkeys in Gabbanat el-Qurud, a. k. a.
‘Valley of the Monkeys’. Lortet and Gaillard, both Egyptologists, were able to retrieve 17 skulls and a large quantity of bones that belonged – surprisingly – to baboons . Baboons are not native to Egypt, and the scholars weren’t sure where they could have come from.
Indeed, for more than a century after their discovery, the origins of the baboons continued to puzzle scientists. An interdisciplinary team of scientists recently cracked this long-standing mystery. The project was led by primatologist Gisela Kopp of the University of Konstanz, Germany, and the team’s paper was published in the journal eLife .
What evidence did the study use? The scientists have reported that using mitochondrial DNA, they were able to trace the baboons to the ancient city of Adulis, in present-day coastal Eritrea, and a bustling trade centre between the first and seventh centuries AD. Members of the team were able to retrieve ancient DNA from a mummified baboon found at the Gabbanat el-Qurud site. By comparing it to the DNA of modern baboons, they hoped to understand where the ancient individuals could’ve come from.
“My collaborators and I have done a lot of research on a genetic variation in baboons. So, we have very good coverage of the data distribution throughout Africa [where baboons live today] for actual comparison,” Dr. Kopp told this writer.
In a happy addition, the team’s study also shed some light on the possible current location of the lost city of Punt. “Locating Punt is important because it drove the evolution of long-distance maritime technology for nearly 1,200 years,” Nathaniel Dominy, an anthropologist from Dartmouth University and a coauthor of this study, said. “When we learned about the existence of mummified baboons in Egypt, it occurred that they could be material evidence of trade with Punt.
” Why is a mummified baboon puzzling? Ancient Egyptians did mummify animals. Mummified cats were buried with their owners in the hope of reuniting them in the afterlife. They were also given as offerings to Bastet, the goddess of fertility and war who had the head of a cat.
Older studies have also reported that Egyptians removed the canine teeth of these baboons and bred them in captivity to be mummified later, as a votive gift to Thoth, the god of wisdom and the moon, often depicted as a baboon with a heavy mane. But the latter was strange because Egypt isn’t a natural habitat for baboons. Papio anubis and Papio hamadryas , the species whose mummies were found, are actually indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa and the southwestern Arabian Peninsula.
Dr. Kopp called Thoth “the only god and in all the gods that they have that is represented by an animal that didn’t exist there, at least to our knowledge and from all the evidence that we have. ” How did mitochondrial DNA help? The concentration of strontium isotopes in soil, water, and local plants varies from place to place.
When living creatures eat food and drink water, the strontium leaves a geographical impression in their teeth, bones, and hair. The same goes for the concentration of oxygen in these body parts. For a 2020 study, Dr.
Dominy and his team matched the concentrations of oxygen and strontium isotopes in teeth, bone, and hair samples from mummified baboons to those in parts of the Horn of Africa, which encompasses modern-day Eritrea as well as Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen. However, this method is less useful with animals that are bred in captivity because the isotope levels in their body parts would then point to a life in Egypt. So the researchers turned to the genetic material in the mitochondria – the powerhouse of every cell in our bodies.
This mitochondrial DNA has been used to trace the ancestry of an animal to its source population with greater accuracy. It presents a different challenge, however: the DNA thus extracted needs to be fit for analysis, and shouldn’t have degraded or otherwise have been corrupted by mummification. Scientists used to think that the chemical processes by which the bodies of people and animals are mummified together with Egypt’s hot, arid conditions were suitable to preserve soft tissues, facial features, and even tattoos but not DNA.
But then a study published in 2017 became one of the first to successfully recover DNA from a human mummy, paving the way for the genetic analysis of mummified remains. Following suit, Dr. Kopp and her team obtained DNA samples from 14 baboon specimens preserved in museums between 1855 and 1978, and one mummified sample from Gabbanat el-Qurud that’s now part of the Musée des Confluences’s collection in France.
The subsequent analysis pointed them to a distinct part of present-day Eritrea, and by extension Adulis, as the geographical origin of the monkeys. How are Adulis and Punt connected? The texts and other accounts of Pliny the Elder, Strabo, and other scholars mention Adulis as Egypt’s trading partner for luxury goods and live animals between 332 BC and 395 AD. The mummified sample used by Kopp et al, however, was dated to between 800 BC and 500 BC, which is long before Adulis’s rise as a trading centre.
Instead, artwork and texts that are roughly as old as the mummies refer to a place called Punt as the source of leopard skin, gold, and live exotic animals. “There were depictions from ancient Egypt that showed baboons on these ships when they did the expeditions to Punt … but nobody really knew where Punt was located,” Dr. Kopp said.
Detailed view of the distribution of mitochondrial subclades G3-X, G3-Y, and G3-Z in the northeastern distribution of baboons. Samples attributed to G3-Y, the subclade assigned to the mummified baboon in phylogenetic reconstructions and haplotype networks, are highlighted with asterisks. The locations of the excavation site of the mummified baboon, Gabbanat el-Qurud, and Adulis are marked with magenta triangles.
| Photo Credit: https://doi. org/10. 7554/eLife.
87513 She added that the results of the new study, read together with evidence from history and Dr. Dominy’s isotope studies, establish a “geographical continuity” between Punt and Adulis. For decades, scholars have wondered if Punt and Adulis were different names for a common trading centre separated by millennia, and the new findings support this interpretation.
Dr. Dominy also said that the findings, guided by the accounts of Greco-Roman historians, draw attention to the importance of the Red Sea as a major node in the history of trade relationships between Indian, Egypt, and Europe. What next? “Our work is one of the first instances where we successfully analysed ancient DNA from non-human primates,” said Dr.
Kopp. “Also, it is fascinating to see how a tiny sample from an ancient mummified animal could help us understand the trade routes that existed long before we came along and long before we established different technologies to trace them. ” Since their study was based on the genetic analysis of a single mummy, members of the team plan to explore more ancient DNA from baboons from different periods to acquire a clearer picture of the relationship between Egyptians and baboons.
In most civilisations where baboons and humans have lived together, the primates have usually been considered a nuisance. Sanjukta Mondal is a chemist-turned-science-writer with experience in writing popular science articles and scripts for STEM YouTube channels. COMMents SHARE Copy link Email Facebook Twitter Telegram LinkedIn WhatsApp Reddit The Hindu Explains / Egypt / genetics.