Ancient Egyptians Kept Baboons in Captivity and Mummified Their Remains

A new analysis of the animals’ skeletal remains reveals a lack of sunlight and an inadequate diet

Ancient baboon skulls
Ancient baboon skulls from the site of Gabbanat el-Qurud, known as the Valley of the Monkeys Bea De Cupere / CC-BY 4.0

Ancient Egyptians kept baboons in captivity, subjecting the animals to poor conditions and insufficient sunlight, and then mummified their remains, according to a study published last week in the journal PLOS One.

The mummification process was likely a sign of the Egyptians’ high regard, note the researchers. Even so, the harmful living conditions caused a cascade of health problems throughout the animals’ lives.

Using techniques such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis, the team examined the bones of at least 36 individual baboons who lived between 800 and 500 B.C.E. The mummies were excavated in the early 1900s in the necropolis Gabbanat el-Qurud, known as the Valley of the Monkeys, in southern Egypt.

The Egyptians mummified a variety of animals for ritualistic purposes, often connecting certain animals with the gods. For example, they associated jackals with Anubis, the ancient god of death, and linked cats to the goddess Bastet. The Egyptians even mummified crocodiles.

“The baboons were revered as representations of Thoth, the god of the moon and wisdom, and adviser to the sun god Ra,” says study co-author Bea De Cupere, an archaeozoologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, to Popular Science’s Laura Baisas. “Of all the animals revered by the ancient Egyptians, baboons were the only ones that are not native to Egypt. As such, they had to be imported and were kept in captivity.”

The baboon’s living conditions in captivity were likely poor, and the team found evidence of skeletal deformations in many of the remains they examined. Some had bent limbs, a sign of rickets—a disease characterized by an extreme vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight and insufficient nourishment. The researchers think the baboons were kept indoors or in high-walled enclosures without access to sunlight.

Overview of the long bones
Long bones from the mummified baboons show signs of rickets.  Bea De Cupere / PLOS One

“We were shocked by the high proportion of deformations and the severity of the pathologies, which seem to be in contradiction with the elaborate treatment the animals received after death, as mummies,” says lead author Wim Van Neer, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, to the Art Newspaper’s Garry Shaw.

Of the 36 baboons, only 4 seemed to be in good health. The researchers hypothesize that those animals may not have been in captivity long.

For the most part, the Egyptians likely didn’t treat the baboons with physical violence. The animals’ bones were malformed, but not broken. They showed no signs of trauma, with the exception of one skull with swollen surface, potentially indicating a blow to the head.

The team compared the mummies to those in other areas of Egypt, such as Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel. The baboons in those areas had similar malformations.

While the baboons clearly suffered in Egyptian captivity, Van Neer believes that the keepers who looked after them didn’t intend to cause harm.

“Probably [they] tried to take good care of the animals, but this must not have been easy,” says Van Neer, per Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. “Baboons are good climbers, and they were therefore probably kept in buildings or enclosures with high walls to prevent them from escaping.”

In future research, the team hopes to learn more about where the baboons came from and how they experienced stress at various points throughout their lives.

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