The surprising secrets of the sacred, mummified baboons of ancient Egypt| Trending Viral hub

The tombs at Tuna el-Gebel are ornate. A chamber in the massive necropolis, dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt, offers a curious glimpse into ancient Egyptian beliefs. The square windows, framed with ornate lettering, open to vaults containing mummified remains, but not of any human beings.

Inside, in these niches are the treated corpses of long-dead baboons, animals once thought to have a rare connection with Egyptian deities. A pair of stone steps lie beneath the windows, while large cone-shaped pillars framing the steps are flattened at the top for offerings.

While these graves Built late in the long history of ancient Egypt, a period that represented enormous changes in government and society, the representation of baboons had remained constant since the beginnings of the complex civilization in the Nile Valley.

However, the reasons why these animals were considered sacred are deeply rooted in the religion and culture of ancient Egypt.

Why did Egyptians think baboons were sacred?

The sacred baboon was a recurring theme in ancient Egyptian art and religion. These representations ranged from predynastic statues to wall paintings, amulets and statues: a tradition spanning 3,000 years. Sometimes in these representations, baboons appear carrying a circular lunar disk.

Read more: The frightening and diverse world of carnivorous primates

“Baboons are regularly associated with the moon,” says Nathaniel Dominy, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College who has studied baboons in ancient Egypt. In other versions, they are shown facing the sun with their arms raised. “It’s known as the worship posture.”

Some researchers think that the Egyptians believed that baboons had a special way of communicating with the sun god, Ra, and the moon, Thoth. The ancient Egyptians may have revered baboons after observing the way they communicated, leading them to infer the animals’ ability to communicate with these gods.

“The baboons’ vocalizations were much more human-like than other animals,” Dominy says. “They would have had a very strong resonance among (Egyptians).”

When did Egyptians start worshiping baboons?

The burial of baboons in tombs dates back to the predynastic period. Already in the year 3500 BC. C., baboons were mummified and buried in the sand. The researchers also discovered the remains of these baboons, where they were well preserved due to the dry conditions of the region.

It wasn’t just a few, either: it appears that many of the animals were imported to an area just south of Luxor, known as Hierakonpolis. These remains were found alongside those of cats, elephants and other exotic animals. “It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a zoo,” Dominy says.

Over a period of 3,000 years, baboons were almost always depicted in the same way: sitting with their hands on their knees, often with their genitals protruding. One of the earliest depictions of baboons dates back to the First Dynasty, a small statue known as the Narmer Baboon.

How were baboons represented in ancient Egypt?

In almost all cases, these depictions show what appears to be a species of baboon known as Papio hamadryas, large monkeys with a dog’s snout. Interestingly, physical remains discovered in burials or mummifications are a mixture of olive (black daddy) and hamadryas baboons.

It is not clear whether this bias in representation reveals that the Egyptians favored hamadryas species more than the olive baboon. It is also possible that hamadryas Baboons became more available at certain times due to trade policy, even though their natural range was from more distant regions of Egypt. At some point, that may have led them to become the standard species portrayed in art.

Read more: Interspecies breeding of baboons could illuminate human history

Finally, it may be all about the charm. hamadryas Baboons typically have larger genitalia than olive baboons, which appears to be significant, Dominy says, given their prominent display in artistic depictions.

Mummified baboons tend to look similar to the way the animals are depicted in artwork and artifacts: with the corpses usually placed in a sitting position, with the monkey’s tail curled to the right.

Did other cultures worship baboons?

Many other cultures in sub-Saharan Africa do not always have a favorable view of baboons, due to their penchant for raiding crops. This makes it even more curious that the Egyptians held them in high regard, at least symbolically.

“Baboons have a reputation for being just malicious (in sub-Saharan Africa),” Dominy says.

It is not clear why, but Dominy speculates that the Egyptians adopted a different view of primates due to the ancient pastoral ancestry of many of the people who eventually settled the Nile Valley. While baboons can attack the crops of the Sedentary farmers, they normally do not cause problems among semi-nomadic pastoralists, who might raise goats and cattle for their livelihood.

Some of these shepherds ended up settling in oases along the Nile River, but these areas were outside the natural areas of olive orchard cultivation. hamadryas baboons. “(Predynastic Egyptians) were never farmers at a time when they coexisted with baboons,” Dominy says.

However, at some point these people would have noticed his behavior. Baboons sometimes chat with the moon or the sun at dawn. Dominy says some Egyptologists have speculated that this is why baboons were often depicted next to the moon or sun.

Did the ancient Egyptians treat baboons badly?

While they likely had a sacred function for the ancient Egyptians, that doesn’t mean baboons were literally worshiped: in fact, they were essentially bred in captivity before being mummified.

What’s more, some of the tests on buried baboons revealed that they had suffered numerous injuries to their forearms, right where they would be hit while protecting their heads or bodies from physical attacks. TO study published in PLUS ONE in 2023 it revealed that the conditions of captivity for many of the animals were not comfortable at all.

Of the remains of at least 36 baboons that researchers examined, only four appeared healthy and all the others showed deformities. “They often had bent limbs, typical of rickets caused by a lack of vitamin D due to insufficient sunlight,” says Wim Van Neer, one of the authors of the study and an archaeozoologist at the Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium. in a press release

Some baboons were kept by royal families or other prestigious members of society. But others were probably held by priests for profit, Dominy says. Once dead, their corpses would have been sold to people who sought to mummify the primates to present them as offerings to the gods, similar to cats and other animals.

“They were utilitarian animals to illustrate power and prestige,” adds Dominy.

The practice ended at the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, when Christians began destroying pagan symbols. Northern Saqqara, where many baboon remains have been found, was destroyed in the late 8th century AD, putting the final nail in the proverbial coffin of sacred mummified baboons.

Read more: How similar are humans and monkeys?

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