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The land of Punt untangled from deciphering ancient DNA

The Hamadryas Baboon (Papio hamadryas) is the largest species of monkey found in Eritrea. An adult male can weigh up to 17 kilograms. Baboons are common in many parts of Eritrea. Travelers between Asmara and Massawa often see groups of 50 or more on each side of the highway and even in the middle. This biodiversity article discusses the possible ancient use of Eritrean baboons as mummies in Egyptian tombs more than 3000 years ago. The next issue on biodiversity will discuss the ecology of living baboons in Eritrea.

Hamadryas Baboon, also called the Sacred Baboon, was revered by ancient Egyptians as a representative of the god of the moon and wisdom and as an advisor to the sun god Ra. There were no native baboons in Egypt, so the Egyptians had to import them from parts of Africa south of Egypt. There are ancient reports from Egypt as far back as the 18th Dynasty, over 3000 years ago, about exotic products like gold, incense, animal skins, and live baboons brought to the ancient Egyptian capital, Thebes, now the modern city of Luxor. The origin of the imported products, including Sacred Baboons, was called Punt. Hieroglyphic texts describe boat trips and the products, but these texts do not tell the location of Punt.

KING TUT’S BURIAL CHAMBER WITH IMAGE ON WALL OF 12 SACRED BABOONS

The 18th Dynasty mortuary of Queen Hatshepsut has images of two baboons on a wall in the temple. On another wall are pictures of baboons on the sail of an Egyptian boat returning from Punt. Tourists can see the mortuary and the photos in ancient Thebes.

Commerce between Egypt and Punt gradually declined after Ramesses III’s reign (1164-1196 BC). Memories of Punt slowly faded until the city transformed into legend and folklore. In the First Century BC, Egypt became a province of Rome. The trade center Adulis, located around the gulf of Zula of Eritrea, was the main port of commerce between Egypt and the Mediterranean regions and the Horn of Africa. Adulis remained a trade center until it was abandoned around the 9th Century AD.

Some historians have suggested that Adulis and Punt may have been the same trading center between the coast of Eritrea south of Massawa and Egypt but separated by a thousand years of history. Archeologists found two fragments of glass vessels in the lowest layers at Adulis, similar to glass samples from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. Since no ancient Egyptian accounts of Punt’s location exist, even with many accounts and images of trade items available, discussions for or against Adulis and Punt being in the exact location are not resolved.

Recently, two scientific articles reported the results of studies of Sacred Baboon mummies from ancient Egyptian tombs. In 2020, a research study was published that used isotopic analysis of oxygen and strontium ratios of 155 baboons from 77 locations across various African regions. There is geographic variation in the oxygen-to-strontium ratio stored in tooth enamel. These results can be plotted on maps as geographic fingerprints of African locations. The mummy used in the study was bought in Egypt and given to the British Museum in 1837. It was found in the Temple of Khonsu in Thebes. The temple was built over three thousand years ago during the Twentieth Dynasty between 1186 and 1155 BC.

When the oxygen to strontium ratio from the mummy was compared to the strontium ratios of modern baboons from 77 locations in Africa, the baboon brought from Punt to Thebes over three thousand years ago matched the strontium ratios of modern baboons from the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea. This finding does not confirm Adulis as the source of the baboon mummy, but it shows that Punt was within a limited geographic region that includes Adulis.

In 2023, a study reported a DNA study. One baboon mummy from an Egyptian tomb was compared to 14 museum specimens from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. The results place the DNA of the mummy with the DNA of baboons that live in eastern Sudan and Eritrea. This is additional evidence that Punt and Adulis may be geographically the same. We hope that more research using advanced DNA technology will finally solve the ancient Land of Punt mystery.

National Public Diplomacy Group’s Quarterly Online Magazine, March Publication

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