The Mummified Baboon from the Land of Punt
Mummified baboon. (Source: The British Museum)
After the societal breakdown of the First Intermediate Period, Egypt united into the Middle Kingdom, innumerable pharaohs fanning out their influence across vast trade networks. It was during this time that the Ancient Egyptians made contact with the mysterious Land of Punt, an otherworldly kingdom furnished with gold and precious spices. For all its utopian descriptions, it is known that Punt was a real place, the only problem being the Ancient Egyptians neglected to document its location. Debate over Punt’s location has raged ever since, but the question may finally have been found in a mummified baboon.
Baboons hold a special place in Ancient Egyptian culture, the vicious animals deified as a god in the form of Babi, a ruler in the underworld. As such, baboons were often mummified, their remains still preserved to this day. A recent study of one such baboon from Egypt’s Valley of the Monkeys found that its mitochondrial genomes align with current-day populations in the Horn of Africa. Along with gold and myrrh, Punt also traded animals with the Egyptians, including baboons, suggesting Punt’s location lies somewhere along the African coast of the Red Sea.
1868 excavation of Adulis
If this is the case, the Land of Punt is likely what became Adulis, a trading city in Eritrea that flourished over a thousand years later, beginning in the fourth century. This is supported by Ancient Greco-Roman accounts—Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia notes Adulis as a hub for animal trade, including baboons. If indeed Punt and Adulis are one and the same (though separated by a gulf of time), then this study has resolved a long-simmering question in Ancient Egyptian archeology. Not only does this resolve the question of Punt, but also provides a better understanding of Ancient Egyptian trade routes and contact with neighboring kingdoms.
Of course, while the link from Egypt’s baboons to the Horn of Africa is pretty definitive, the link between Punt and Adulis is more speculative. Other theories place Punt in Somalia further to the east and along the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea. Regardless, this study forms a better picture of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, testifying to the rise of an organized society that extended its influence across the wider region.