Ancient Egyptian Animal Skeletons Reveal Injuries From Beatings



Excavation of the young baboon. In the left forearm of the animal a parry fracture of the ulna and the radius can be seen.
Ancient Egyptian Animal Skeletons Reveal Injuries From Beatings
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Reinout Verbeke

A team of Belgian archaeologists has found wild animals in ancient Egyptian graves, which show signs of punishment and tethering.

Zooarchaeologist Wim Van Neer and his team from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences have been making interesting discoveries in Egypt. He has learned that the elite Predynastic (c.3800-3100BC) cemetery in Hierakonpolis was not just a site for burying the human dead. Archaeologists have also found the remains of over a hundred domestic animals, like sheep and cattle, and 38 wild animals, including baboons, crocodiles, elephants, hippos and a leopard.

These wild animals represent an early menagerie, but it seems that ancient zookeepers were not as well equipped to manage them as their modern equivalents. Many of the animals show signs of being injured in captivity as a result of tethering or punishment.

One hippopotamus had a healed fracture on the fibula of its back leg, indicating that it had been tied to a tree and had injured itself whilst trying to escape. Meanwhile the baboons also have injuries that are the result of captivity and violent beatings. Common wounds include fractures to bones in the hands, feet and forearms that indicate that the animals often received 'violent blows' aimed at the head and extremities.

The fact that the fractures are healed, as well as the development of lesions resulting from inflammation seen in some of the specimens, show that the animals were held in captivity for several weeks, if not months.

"Much less violence-related pathologies is seen in later periods", says Wim Van Neer, "showing that the adequate methods for controlling wild animals had been developed."


Some of the animals are local species, but others, including a ten-year-old African elephant, were not native to the Egyptian Nile Valley, and were probably imported from nearby Sudan. Van Neer explains that animals seem to have had two different symbolic functions: the numerous domestic species indicated wealth and excess, whilst the wild animals were ‘valuable creatures that contributed to the status of the elite inhabitants of Hierakonpolis’. It was not only a show of power to control and sacrifice the beasts, but it was also thought that the owners took on some of the animals’ attributes.

The study was published in International Journal of Osteoarcheology. You can learn more about the discoveries in Hierakonpolis on the website

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Text: Sarah Muir


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