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Ancient Egyptians associated baboons with an underworld deity known as Babi, and the god of wisdom and magic, Thoth – who was sometimes depicted with the head of the animal.
They kept the animals in captivity and sometimes mummified them as offerings to the gods.
But baboons are not native to ancient Egypt and historical documents had suggested that the animals were traded from a land known as Punt.
In a 2020 paper, scientists analyzed the teeth of mummified baboons dating back to Egypt’s New Kingdom between 1550 and 1070 BCE. Their findings suggested that the animals originated from a region encompassing modern-day Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia – the first evidence of Punt.
Now, another research team extracted DNA from a mummified baboon dating to between 800 and 540 BCE. They then compared it with the genetics of 14 baboons from the 19th and 20th centuries whose origins were known.
The team wrote that the primate was most closely related to populations from modern-day coastal Eritrea. They explained that the area is close to the ancient port city of Adulis, suggesting that the baboon trade took place there.
“Maybe the earlier Punt was in a similar location to where Adulis was (later) established,” said lead author Gisela Kopp.
Kopp and her colleagues noted that the research only focused on one baboon, but hope that studies like this on other species could reveal more about other ancient Egyptian imports and their impact on wild populations.