Ancient Egyptian legends tell of a magical faraway land where intrepid travelers could obtain wondrous products including gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Land of Punt—or “God’s land” as the Egyptians occasionally dubbed it—served as the setting for what has been described as the oldest known fantasy story. Archaeologists are convinced Punt really existed, and now they may have their hands on the first known Puntite treasure: a 3300-year-old baboon skull that may have come from the fabled land.
The Egyptians first began to travel to Punt about 4500 years ago and continued to do so for more than 1000 years, according to their hieroglyphic written records. But although those records and artworks list the products the Egyptians brought back from Punt—resins, metals, hardwoods, and exotic animals—archaeologists have found little hard evidence of these goods.
That may change with the baboon skull. Nathaniel Dominy, a primatologist at Dartmouth College, and colleagues discovered it archived away at 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 connected the primates with Amun-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 for clues to the animal’s birthplace. The soil and water in a region has a distinctive ratio of strontium isotopes. This isotopic signature is locked in tooth enamel in the first years of an animal’s life and remains unchanged even if the animal later moves to a foreign land.
The strontium ratio in the tooth enamel confirmed that the ancient baboon had not been born in Egypt. Instead, an analysis of strontium ratios in 31 modern baboons from across East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggests the animal was born in an area stretching across modern-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, and northwest Somalia, the team reports today in eLife.
That’s where most archaeologists think Punt was located and thus implies the baboon is the first known Puntite treasure, Dominy says.
Punt’s ports probably lay in Eritrea, or 200 kilometers up 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 Egypt’s Red Sea coast, and found a 2800-year-old stone inscription documenting a voyage to Punt. They also uncovered pottery fragments of a style characteristic of the Sudanese-Eritrean lowlands, presumably obtained in Punt.
The new study, Bard says, provides “another piece of evidence on where Punt was located.” But she says the baboon isn’t the first-known Puntite treasure, because her excavations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis uncovered valuable obsidian and fragments of ebony.
Dominy, however, says it’s not clear those objects came from Punt, given, for example, ebony’s wide distribution across Africa.
Regardless, the new find is a significant achievement, says Pearce Paul Creasman, an archaeologist at the American Center of Oriental Research. “It’s an extremely important step in better understanding this mysterious land that we still don’t fully grasp.”