One of the most enduring mysteries within archaeology revolves around the identity of Punt, an otherworldly "land of plenty" revered by the ancient Egyptians. Punt had it all—fragrant myrrh and frankincense, precious electrum (a mixed alloy of gold and silver) and malachite, and coveted leopard skins, among other exotic luxury goods.
Despite being a trading partner for over a millennium, the ancient Egyptians never disclosed Punt's exact whereabouts except for vague descriptions of voyages along what's now the Red Sea. That could mean anywhere from southern Sudan to Somalia and even Yemen.
Now, according to a recent paper published in the journal eLife, Punt may have been the same as another legendary port city in modern-day Eritrea, known as Adulis by the Romans. The conclusion comes from a genetic analysis of a baboon that was mummified during ancient Egypt's Late Period (around 800 and 500 BCE). The genetics indicate the animal originated close to where Adulis would be known to come into existence centuries later.
[...] In 2020, a team of researchers led by Nathaniel Dominy, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College, examined radioactive isotopes of strontium and oxygen in the mummified remains of baboons dating back to the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 BCE) and the Ptolemaic period (305 to 330 BCE). Mapping the isotopic signatures to their approximate geographies, Dominy and his colleagues discovered some of the animals weren't native to Egypt, likely hailing from somewhere in the area of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia.
"The strontium values, for example, like in your molar teeth, reflect where you were when you were five, six, or seven years old. You move around as an adult and you live in different places but you retain that sort of fingerprint of your early childhood in a particular region," said Dominy. "This was a cool project because we were able to show that some of those baboons spent their entire lives in Egypt, but others we could tell came from some distant place."
Since we know Egyptians obtained baboons from Punt, this helped narrow the location slightly. And it provided some leads for Gisela Kopp, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. In the new paper, her team, which included Dominy, analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of a mummified baboon first excavated in 1905 in Egypt's Valley of the Monkeys located at Luxor's western bank of the Nile River.
[...] But the question remains: Where was Punt? Dominy and Kopp are forced to speculate a bit. They note that the specimen's origin was close to where the port city of Adulis eventually came into being, which was part of the Aksumite Empire (it's in modern-day Eritrea). They suggest the same port may have been Punt in the past.
"The beauty of this project is that the mummies we studied are older than the first account of Adulis. So what we think we can say is that Adulis must have existed a couple hundred years before the first existence that we have of its historical record," said Dominy. "That fills in the gap because Punt is no longer used by the Egyptians, and Adulis comes into play. These baboons kind of connect Punt and Adulis in time to connect those dots."
[...] "I think saying Adulis equals Punt is going too far from an archaeological standpoint," said Wegner. "I think it would lend credence to the idea that where Adulis developed in later times equates to the region the Egyptians talk about as the land of Punt. It could well be that there was something there going back that far, a coastal settlement or perhaps a substantial town. That's a possibility for archaeologists to investigate further."
Dominy and Kopp acknowledge it's a bold statement equating Punt with Adulis. But they hope their boldness guides current and future archaeological research at Adulis and anywhere else within the region, encouraging insights into how commerce catalyzed ancient Egyptian maritime technology or how human trade influenced wildlife diversity.
Maybe the most important question is yet to be answered: Why did the ancient Egyptians revere baboons? They weren't native to Egypt, and in the environments the animals shared with humans, they were considered more of a nuisance than the avatar of a sacred deity.
Franziska Grathwol, Christian Roos, Dietmar Zinner, et al. (2023) Adulis and the transshipment of baboons during classical antiquity eLife 12:e87513. doi: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.87513