Ancient Egyptian legends tell of a magical faraway land where intrepid travelers could get wonderful products including gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Land of Punt – or ‘God’s Land’ as the Egyptians occasionally called it – served as the setting for what is described as the oldest known fantasy story. Archaeologists are convinced that Punt actually existed, and now they may have their hands on the first known Puntite treasure – a 3,300-year-old baboon skull that may have come from the legendary land.
The Egyptians first began traveling to Punt about 4,500 years ago and continued to do so for over 1,000 years, according to their hieroglyphs. But while those archives and artworks list the products the Egyptians brought from Punt – resins, metals, hardwoods and exotic animals – archaeologists have found little hard evidence for these goods.
That can change with the baboon skull. Nathaniel Dominy, a primatologist at Dartmouth College, and colleagues found it stored in the British Museum. The remains belong to a hamadryas baboon discovered by 19th-century archaeologists in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. The Egyptians revered hamadryas baboons as the embodiment of Thoth, a god of wisdom, and also associated the primates with Amon-Ra, the great sun god. But the primates are not native to Egypt.
Dominy and his colleagues studied chemical isotopes in the baboon’s tooth enamel to find clues to the animal’s birthplace. The soil and water in a region have a characteristic ratio of strontium isotopes. This isotopic signature is trapped in tooth enamel in the early years of an animal’s life and remains unaltered even if the animal later moves to a foreign country.
The strontium ratio in the tooth enamel confirmed that the ancient baboon was not born in Egypt. Instead, an analysis of strontium ratios in 31 modern baboons from across East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggests that the animal was born in an area spanning present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia and northwestern Somalia, the team reports today in eLife.
That’s where most archaeologists think Punt was located, thus implying that the baboon is the first known Puntite treasure, Dominy says.
The ports of Punt were likely in Eritrea, or 200 kilometers along the coast in Eastern Sudan, says Kathryn Bard, an archaeologist at Boston University. Between 2001 and 2011, she and the late archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich excavated a site called Mersa / Wadi Gawasis on the coast of the Red Sea and found a 2,800-year-old stone inscription that documents a trip to Punt. They also discovered pottery fragments of a style characteristic of the Sudanese-Eritrean lowlands, presumably obtained in Punt.
The new study, Bard says, “provides further evidence of where Punt was located.” But she says the baboon is not the first known Puntite treasure, as her excavations at Mersa / Wadi Gawasis have uncovered valuable obsidian and fragments of ebony.
However, Dominy says it is not clear that those objects came from Punt, given, for example, the wide distribution of ebony across Africa.
Regardless, the new find is a significant achievement, says Pearce Paul Creasman, an archaeologist at the American Center of Oriental Research. “It is an extremely important step to better understand this mysterious country, which we still do not fully understand.”