Suffering baboon posture in ancient Egypt

These skulls come from baboons that lived in the 1st millennium BC. had to eke out a sad existence. © Bea De Cupere, CC-BY 4.0 (

They were divine symbolic animals - but they were apparently not treated well: baboons were raised in torturous conditions for ritual purposes in ancient Egypt. This comes from a study of mummified remains of the monkeys found near Luxor. The bones therefore show the typical signs of poor nutrition. There are also signs of a vitamin D deficiency, which the scientists say was probably due to a lack of sunlight in captivity.

She cleverly prepared her dead to protect them from decay: the ancient Egyptians are famous for their mummification techniques. However, they didn't just use it on people: animals that symbolized certain deities were also mummified and ritually buried. Especially in the 1st millennium BC. This animal cult assumed enormous proportions in the 4th century BC. In addition to cats, falcons and ibises, the mummified animals also included baboons. They were associated with the god Thoth of the ancient Egyptian religion. The special thing is that these monkeys only occur naturally further south in Africa. Nevertheless, the exotic animals became a religious symbolic animal and, according to the mummy finds, were apparently imported to Egypt - or bred there.

On the trail of sacred monkeys

The study by the research team led by Wim Van Neer from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural History in Brussels now sheds further light on the question of where the baboons originally came from and under what conditions they were kept. To do this, the scientists examined the remains of baboon mummies, which are now kept in the Musée des Confluences in Lyon. They were found over a hundred years ago in the necropolis of Gabbanat el-Qurud near Luxor in southern Egypt.

After examining the numerous bones, skulls and other skeletal parts from the collection, the researchers initially came to the conclusion that they belonged to at least 36 baboons. According to radiocarbon dating, the relics date from between 800 and 500 BC. Based on the characteristics, the team was able to identify two species of baboon: the anubis baboon (Papio anubis) and the mantled baboon (Papio hamadryas). It was particularly clear from the skull remains that both sexes and all age groups were represented - from infants to adults.

A detailed look at the bones then revealed that most of these animals had apparently fared very poorly: the researchers noticed pronounced lesions, deformations and other anomalies on the bones that could be attributed to a poor diet. The traces of rickets were particularly visible. This form of impaired bone mineralization is caused by vitamin D deficiency. Such a deficiency is unusual in baboons because this vitamin is produced in the skin through exposure to sunlight. The finding therefore suggests that the baboons of Gabbanat el-Qurud did not see the sun.

A sad shadowy existence is emerging

“With the exception of just four healthy specimens, which were likely imported directly from the wild, most of the animals appear to have been born and raised in captivity and suffered from chronic lack of sunlight and unbalanced diets,” the researchers conclude. In combination with previous findings on remains from other sites, it is now clear: baboon breeding groups were kept in Egypt to meet the demand for the animals. The basis for this was wild catches in the regions of origin of the two species. The Anubis baboons probably came from the further south region of the Nile Valley in what is now Sudan and the Mantled baboons came from the Horn of Africa or the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

One can only speculate about how and where the animals were kept in rather dark conditions: “Since baboons climb well and can show aggressive behavior, high-walled or covered enclosures were probably essential,” the researchers write. According to them, they may have lived a shadowy existence in certain corridors of the large temple buildings.

Source: PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0294934

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