Mummified Birds in Ancient Egypt Were Gathered From the Wild, Not Domesticated: Study
Sat, April 10, 2021

Mummified Birds in Ancient Egypt Were Gathered From the Wild, Not Domesticated: Study

Ancient Egypt has fascinated public imagination, especially those of historians and archaeologists. It left today’s generation many head-scratching mysteries, such as where exactly Queen Nefertiti was buried / Photo by: Max Pixel

 

Ancient Egypt has fascinated public imagination, especially those of historians and archaeologists. It left today’s generation many head-scratching mysteries, such as where exactly Queen Nefertiti was buried, how they built the pyramid composed of massive stones, and what’s inside the mysterious huge void detected in the structure of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Then, there’s this other mystery: Where did the ancient Egyptians get the millions of sacred birds (ibises) they mummified as part of their ritual service to god Thoth? These mummified sacred ibises have been in existence since 600BC.

The History Behind the Well-Preserved Mummified Sacred Ibis

Sally Wasef from Griffith University, Australia and team recently explained in their study, which appeared in the PLOS ONE journal, that ancient Egyptians obtained the millions of ibises from the wild or their natural habitat and not by domestication. Some ancient Egyptian texts describe that domestication and long-term farming of the birds have been used, but this is not what Wasef and colleagues found out. 

Analyzing the DNA Specimens of Selected Mummified Birds

For their study, the group gathered DNA from the 40 mummified sacred ibises specimens found in the six ancient catacombs in Egypt. These catacombs have been in existence for 2,500 years. The group also analyzed a total of 26 specimens of modern ibises found in Africa for comparison of their genes. Results revealed that 14 sacred ibis mummies and all the modern African ibises have the complete mitochondrial genome sequences. “The ancient birds show a high level of genetic variation comparable to that identified in modern African populations,” the team wrote in the abstract of their research. Their findings are contrary to what the ancient hieroglyphics in Egypt say -- that the sacrificial birds were exposed to industrial-scale farming. 

The researchers said that ancient Egyptians gathered the birds from the wild and they were tamed for a short period so they could be used for their yearly ritual.

For their study, the group gathered DNA from the 40 mummified sacred ibises specimens found in the six ancient catacombs in Egypt / Photo by: Hiart via Wikimedia Commons

 

Mummies As Valuable Sources of Ancient DNA

The authors explained that mummification was the hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilization and they practiced it on various animals aside from humans. While mummies are valuable sources of ancient DNA (aDNA), unfavorable environmental conditions have made it a challenge for researchers. For instance, extreme alkalinity, elevated humidity, and high temperatures have led to debate over the authenticity of the results of the Egyptian remains. Yet, the authors noted that non-human mummies are more numerous compared to human remains. This means that the mummified species can reveal information about the religious life of ancient Egyptians and their relationship as well to the animals.

The Two Types of Sacred Mummified Birds in Egypt

There are two types of sacred mummified birds in Egypt. One type was the ibises that were offered in millions to the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom (Thoth). They offered millions of birds to help them fulfill a prayer. The second type of sacred mummified birds originated and lived in the temples. Ancient Egyptians worshiped these birds as the divine incarnations of god Thoth himself. These were birds mummified after their natural death.

Wasef and the team said that if the sacred birds offered to god Thoth were farmed or domesticated, the result would be low genetic diversity because of interbreeding. This means that they would have come from restricted populations. Yet, this is not what appeared in their DNA results. They have the same genetic diversity as that of the modern wild African ibises, which means that the birds were not a product of centralized farming in Egypt. Instead, they just underwent short-term taming until they were used for religious sacrifice.

The authors went on to say that they were the first to complete such ancient genomes of the sacred ibises in Egypt.  

There are two types of sacred mummified birds in Egypt. One type was the ibises that were offered in millions to the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom (Thoth) / Photo by: Trish Mayo via Wikimedia Commons

 

Evidence That the Mummified Ibises in Egypt Were Domesticated

French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier, who is also the founding father of paleontology, was a major figure in the natural sciences in the early 19th century. As far back as 1825, he studied a mummified ibis that he brought back from Thebes and he unwrapped to study. He noted that the mummy “must have come from a bird held in domesticity in the temples” because its left humerus (bone) was broken and then reset. He theorized that if the bird was not domesticated, then it would have its wing broken and it would have perished before its body would be healed because it would not have been able to escape its enemies or chase its prey to survive.

Listverse, a list publisher that caters to more than eight million readers, shared a list of mysteries surrounding ancient Egypt, the ibises not being one of them. It included the lost labyrinth of Egypt composed of 3,000 different rooms connected through a maze, the unknown Queen of Egypt buried among the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the Sphinx of Israel (paws of statute), the mysterious death of King Tut, the mummy wrapped in a foreign book, the Dendera light, the destroyed pyramid, and the lost land of Punt.