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.