Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dr. Dominy's and Gillian Moritz's Presentation at the Eritrean Community Center in Oakland: A Summary

On June 12th 2010, Dr. Nathaniel Dominy of UC Santa Cruz and his colleague, first year Ph.D student, Gillian Mortiz of UC Santa Cruz, presented the findings of their research to the Eritrean community in Oakland. It must be recalled that they first announced their findings to the world at the 61st ARCE (The American Research Center in Egypt) annual meeting which was held in Oakland from April 23-25, 2010.

Dr. Nathaniel Dominy at the Eritrean Community Center in Oakland, CA.

The Eritrean Community Center in Oakland, CA.

The title of their presentation was entitled, “Baboons, stable isotopes and the location of Punt”. Dr. Dominy started his lecture by stating that Egyptologists have been looking for the “Land of Punt” for over 100 years. He presented detailed theories that had surfaced over the aforementioned period. According to Dr. Dominy the locations varied from Sinai, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda to Mozambique. The theories of the location varied because

* Ancient Egyptian records indicated that the land of Punt was located to the east of Egypt and to the south of Nubia.

* Egyptologists have been using biological, botanical, linguistic, and archaeological and other
evidence to come up with their respective theories.

What makes Dr. Dominy and his colleagues’ results different from the previous theories is that:

* His team is made up of scientists of various disciplines. (Dr.Dominy studies primates, Gillian
is one of the few people in the field to capitalize on new techniques to study oxygen isotopes and Dr.Salima Ikram is a specialist in animal mummification).

* This is the first time that hair samples from mummified baboons have been analyzed in a mass spectrometer to pinpoint the location of Punt.

Before going into details of their scientific result, Dr. Dominy pointed out why the land of Punt was important to the Ancient Egyptians. Dr. Dominy stated that the relationship between Ancient Egypt and the land of Punt was the first peaceful interaction between two “countries”, and that it was also one of the earliest and longest lasting trading relationships in human history, spanning over 1300 years. This relationship started from 2450 BC during the reign of Sahura (as evidenced by the Palermo Stone) and continued through the reign of Pharaoh Ramasis III (XX Dynasty). Dr. Dominy showed a picture of a hieroglyphic tablet of a custom’s official record that was taken at Marsa Gawasis, a port in Egypt where preserved Ancient Egyptian ship components were found.

A custom official's hieroglyphic record found at Marsa Gawasis, Egypt

The commodities that were imported from the land of Punt included:

. Gold and electrum ( a compound for gold and silver).
. Plant tissues (Ntyw: myrrh; Comminphora; Sntr: Pistachia and ebony
. Animals and animal products (baboons, short-horned cattle, leopards and ivory)

Punt Expedition bas relief from Dar el-Bhari (Queen Hateshepsut's temple)

Even though some or all of the commodities were and are still found in the Sinai (baboons were not found), Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda and Mozambique, two commodities; sntr (incense made from pistachio plant tissue) and baboons were important in determining the location of Punt. It was previously believed that the incense that was highly prized in Ancient Egypt was frankincense, but now it has come to light that it was sntr (pistachio). Actually, Dr. Dominy indicated that when Somalia got its independence in 1959, it issued a stamp in reverence and in reference to itself as the land of Punt. On the stamp, a frankincense tree is carried by two people.

As indicated above, the second commodity was the baboon. The Ancient Egyptians had high reverence for baboons. In the mornings, baboons face to the east and announce the rising of the sun by making a “wa-hoo” vocalization. It has been hypothesized that baboons face the rising sun in order to warm up digestive bacteria in the gut. It is not known whether the ancient Egyptians knew the above mentioned scientific fact or not, but for them baboons were symbolically associated with the rising sun). Dr. Dominy indicated that the Ancient Egyptians (especially the Pharoah’s and their families raised the baboons as pets).

A picture taken by Eric Lafforgue in Eritrea.

An x-ray of a royal pet baboon without his canine teeth.

A mummified baboon

Going into details of their research, Dr. Dominy explained that there are different species of baboons (Papio papio, Papio hamadryas, Papio anubis, Papio ursinus, and Papio cynocephalus), but there were two baboon species that were mummified and were depicted in Ancient Egyptian paintings. They are Papio hamadryas and Papio anubis. Dr. Dominy explained that his team got hair sample from two mummified baboons. The hair sample from one of the mummified baboon could not be used to determine the place of origin, because the baboon had been in Egypt as a pet for a long time. However, the hair sample from the mummified baboon from the British Museum did help to determine its origin. Since baboon populations vary isotopically, by analyzing the ratio of oxygen stable isotopes from the hair sample, Dr. Dominy explained, his team determined that

* All the other places that once were believed to be land of Punt were eliminated (Siani,
Yemen, Uganda, Somalia and Yemen)

* The oxygen isotope (O18) analyzed through hair sample of the mummified baboon was
consistent with the oxygen isotope (O18 )and types found on the baboons from Eritrea.

Biographic distribution of baboons

Papio hamadryas


Finally, this is a major scientific breakthrough. The audience was so fascinated by the presentation; people were still asking them questions up to 9:30 PM.

staying after the lecture.

coffee ceremony with incense

 One of the most highly sought after commodity by the ancient Egyptians was incense from Eritrea.

Pictures courtesy of Dr. Nathaniel Dominy.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conversation with Anthropologists Dr. Nathaniel J. Dominy and Gillian L. Moritz

Issayas: Can you briefly describe about yourselves.

Nathaniel J Dominy: I'm an Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UC-Santa Cruz. I received my BA from Johns Hopkins University in 1998 and PhD from the University of Hong Kong in 2001; from 2002-2004 I was NIH Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago. I'm currently a Fellow of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

(Note: Dr. Dominy was ranked by Popular Science magazine (2009) as one of ten "Brilliant 10" scientists younger than 40 years old. )

Gillian L. Moritz : I'm a PhD student in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UC-Santa Cruz. I received my BS from Saint Louis University in 2008. I have research interests in stable isotope ecology, sensory systems, and primate behavioral ecology.

Issayas: What is the significance of your findings?

Dr. N. Dominy and Gillian Mortiz: Our preliminary findings narrow down the range of possible geographic locations for Punt. We can rule out some hypothetical locations such as Mozambique and Uganda. And the evidence we have so far is inconsistent with a location in Somalia or Yemen. Instead our results favor a location in Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia. Such results are significant for contributing to our knowledge of the earliest maritime trading networks in antiquity

Q: Why was Punt important for the Ancient Egyptians?

A: Punt was important because it was an emporium for highly valued, exotic goods. For the Ancient Egyptians, the most important commodity of Punt was incense.

Q: The location of Punt had been a mystery for a long time, why was it a mystery?

A: Because the evidence is mixed. The textural evidence differs from the artistic evidence; and, until recently, the archeological evidence was too scarce to be much use. By nature, scholars are creative, argumentative people... so in the past century at least 5 geographic hypotheses have been advanced

Q: Why was Punt called "God's Land?"

A: For the Ancient Egyptians, Punt was a wildly productive region with numerous valuable mineral and biological commodities. Punt was the best emporium on earth.

Q: For a general audience can you briefly describe how a mummified baboon can hold the secret for the location of the land of Punt?

A: The chemical composition of baboon hair reflects the chemical composition of plant water, and plant water reflects the chemical composition of rain water. So we can create a chemical map of eastern Africa based on rainfall patterns. Fortunately, each hypothetical Punt location carries a distinctive rain-driven chemical signature that we can match to living baboons as well as the mummified ones from Ancient Egypt.

Q: Why were baboons important for the Ancient Egyptians and beside baboons, were there any other mummified animals that you wanted to research on?

A: Some baboons were mummified because they were beloved royal pets whereas others were mummified for religious purposes. Mummified short-horned cattle and antelopes might have been interesting to study.

Issayas: Thank you both for your time and comments. (Note: For further information on the subject and their research, please check out the following two links:

To check Dr. Dominy's lab:

Dr. Dominy and Moritz will be presenting their findings to the public at Oakland's Monthly Public Forum on Saturday June 12th 2010. Check out the flier below for details.