Myѕterieѕ Unveіled: Exрloring the Seсrets of Anсient Egyрt’s Sаcred Bаboons Mummy
Studies of living and mummified baboons hint at why ancient Egyptians revered these pesky primates and uncover the probable location of the fabled kingdom from which they imported the animals
In the collections of the British Museum in London, a mummy known simply as EA6736 sits in eternal repose. Recovered from the Temple of Khons in Luxor, Egypt, it dates to the New Kingdom period, from 1550 B.C. to 1069 B.C. Clues to the identity of EA6736 emerge after close inspection. Its painstakingly wrapped linen bandages have disintegrated in some places, revealing fur underneath. Stout toenails poke out from the bandages around the feet. And x-ray imaging has revealed the distinctive skeleton and long-snouted skull of a primate. The mummified creature is Papio hamadryas, the sacred baboon.
EA6736 is just one of many examples of baboons in the art and religion of ancient Egypt. Appearing in scores of paintings, reliefs, statues and jewelry, baboons are a recurring motif across 3,000 years of Egyptian history. A statue of a hamadryas baboon inscribed with King Narmer’s name dates to between 3150 B.C. and 3100 B.C.; Tutankhamun, who ruled from 1332 B.C. to 1323 B.C., had a necklace decorated with baboons shown adoring the sun, and a painting on the western wall of his tomb depicts 12 baboons thought to represent the different hours of the night.
Egyptians venerated the hamadryas baboon as one embodiment of Thoth, god of the moon and of wisdom and adviser to Ra, god of the sun. The baboon is not the only animal they revered in this way. The jackal is associated with Anubis, god of death; the falcon with Horus, god of the sky; the hippopotamus with Taweret, goddess of fertility. Still, the baboon is a very curious choice. For one thing, most people who routinely encounter baboons regard them as dangerous pests. For another, it is the only animal in the Egyptian pantheon that is not native to Egypt.
Archaeologists have long puzzled over the prominence of the hamadryas baboon in ancient Egyptian culture. In recent years my colleagues and I have made some discoveries that bear on this mystery. Our work points to a biological explanation for the deification of the species. It also shows how the Egyptians obtained these exotic animals. Intriguingly, our insights into the sourcing of sacred baboons illuminate another enduring enigma: the likely location of the fabled kingdom of Punt.
AN ODD GOD“Baboons!” is an unwelcome cry at any six-year-old’s 𝐛𝐢𝐫𝐭𝐡day party. My family was living in Kenya when a troop of 20 baboons swaggered into our backyard, causing a great scattering of shrieking 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘥ren. The invaders headed straight for the food table, which was neatly adorned with cupcakes, sliced fruit and juice boxes. They won the carb lottery that day, taking just minutes to fortify themselves with hours’ worth of human labor. Setting aside my son’s tears, the worst of it was watching the two males as they yawned in my direction. As a primatologist, I know that yawns are a pointed social signal, a way to advertise razor-sharp canine teeth that can cut a human limb to the bone with a single bite. In this context, however, the yawns seemed to convey not intimidation but full-bellied smugness.
When I recounted this tale to my Kenyan colleagues, it elicited knowing nods and a proverb: “Not all baboons that enter a maize field come out satisfied.” Like many African proverbs, this one is layered with meaning. It alludes to the monkeys’ insatiable crop raiding while simultaneously evoking sinister intent. Catherine M. Hill, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in England, has found that baboons exact a devastating toll, reducing crop yields by half for some families in western Uganda. Indeed, baboons are the foremost pest for many subsistence farmers in Africa, and cultural aversions to the animals run deep. If erasure is the ultimate measure of contempt, then it is telling that in the art and handicraft traditions of sub-Saharan Africa, baboons are largely absent. This history makes the ancient Egyptians’ worship of this creature—and its ubiquity in their art—deeply perplexing.
Mummified baboon EA6736 (top), recovered from the Temple of Khons in Luxor, Egypt, and a necklace belonging to Tutankhamun (bottom) are some of the many examples of hamadryas baboons depicted in ancient Egyptian art and religion. Credit: Trustees of the British MuseumIt is worth noting that modern baboons are typically divided into six species. All are native to sub-Saharan Africa and southwestern Arabia, and most people view them as pests. Researchers know from archaeological remains that the ancient Egyptians imported both Papio anubis, commonly known as the olive baboon, and P. hamadryas. But they deified only the hamadryas baboons, so any explanation for why the Egyptians revered baboons must account for their devotion to one species and not the other.
In their efforts to decode the significance of the hamadryas baboon, scholars have considered the way it is depicted in Egyptian art, noting two iconic forms. In the first, a male baboon sits on the thickened skin of its buttocks with its hands on its knees, its tail curled to the right and a disk representing the moon placed over its head. In the second, termed the gesture of adoration, the male baboon’s arms are raised with palms upturned toward Ra, the sun god. Numerous Egyptian texts link baboons to Ra. For example, the ancient funerary texts known as the Pyramid Texts describe the baboon as the oldest or most beloved son of Ra. The Egyptian Book of the Dead explains that a suitable pronouncement of a deceased and newly resurrected person is, “I have sung and praised the Sun-disc. I have joined the baboons, and I am one of them.”
To explain this connection between baboons and Ra, Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas suggested in 1979 that the ancient Egyptians could have seen baboons face the rising sun to warm themselves and interpreted the behavior as their welcoming the sun. Her idea got a big boost a decade later, when the late Herman te Velde, another Egyptologist, elaborated on it by emphasizing the accompanying vocal behaviors of baboons, which he believed could have been taken as verbal greetings to the sun. Texts from the Karnak temple complex near Luxor describe baboons as “announcing” Ra while “they dance for him, jump gaily for him, sing praises for him, and shout out for him.” In te Velde’s view, people probably thought baboons were sacred because they seemed to communicate directly with Ra. The Egyptians saw the jubilance and inscrutable language of baboons as evidence of religious knowledge, he surmised.
Thomas’s and te Velde’s notions about what attracted Egyptians to these animals are fascinating, but are they plausible? Do baboons actually pay special attention to the morning sun? And are hamadryas baboons distinctive in this regard? Neither Thomas nor te Velde had much knowledge of primate behavior, and no primatologist had evaluated their ideas. Recently, however, findings bearing on these questions have emerged.
Many animals bask in the sun, an activity most biologists view as a way to minimize the energy cost of rewarming the body after a cold night. The ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar, for instance, often face the morning sun in a posture resembling the lotus position of yoga but with extended legs. The late primatologist Alison Jolly once noted that Malagasy legend describes lemurs as worshiping the sun, holding their arms out in prayer. In 2016 Elizabeth Kelley, executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute, found that sun basking in these primates was strongly correlated with low overnight temperatures. Kelley and her colleagues also discovered that the skin of the chest and abdomen in these lemurs contains more melanin than the skin on the back, a reversal of the prevailing mammalian skin-color pattern. Melanin is a light-absorbing pigment, and greater amounts in the abdominal area facilitate not only warming but also digestion.