Looking for the lost Land of Punt

Can chemical signatures from mummified baboons help to locate an ancient kingdom?

Wall painting in the mortuary chapel of Rekhmire, an Egyptian Vizier (ca. 1479-1425 BC) showing a hamadryas baboon in a procession of tribute. Image credit: Sandro Vannini (CC BY 4.0)

Strontium is a chemical element that can act as a geographic fingerprint: its composition differs between locations, and as it enters the food chain, it can help to retrace the life history of extant or past animals. In particular, strontium in teeth – which stop to develop early – can reveal where an individual was born; strontium in bone and hair, on the other hand, can show where it lived just before death. Together, these analyses may hold the key to archaeological mysteries, such as the location of a long-lost kingdom revered by ancient Egyptians.

For hundreds of years, the Land of Punt was one of Egypt’s strongest trading partners, and a place from which to import premium incense and prized monkeys. Travellers could reach Punt by venturing south and east of Egypt, suggesting that the kingdom occupied the southern Red Sea region. Yet its exact location is still highly debated.

To investigate, Dominy et al. examined the mummies of baboons present in ancient Egyptian tombs, and compared the strontium compositions of the bones, hair and teeth of these remains with the ones found in baboons living in various regions across Africa. This shed a light on the origins of the ancient baboons: while some were probably raised in captivity in Egypt, others were born in modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen – areas already highlighted as potential locations for the Land of Punt.

The work by Dominy et al. helps to better understand the ancient trade routes that shaped geopolitical fortunes for millennia. It also highlights the need for further archaeological research in Eritrea and Somalia, two areas which are currently understudied.