Even In Death, Egyptian Birds Were Fed

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A 3D reconstruction of an ibis bird with snails inside it.
Division of Anthropology, ANT.006924.004. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

THE GIST

- Ancient Egyptian animal mummies were stuffed with food by people in Early Egypt.

- Some animals were treated equally to humans in death and perhaps also in life.

- Quality of life for Egyptian animals varied, however, with some killed for sacrifices or food and others spoiled as pets.

Ancient Egyptians placed food in the mouths or stomachs of animal mummies, suggesting that animals were treated equally to humans in death and perhaps also in life.

In this case the mummies were sacred ibis birds In a study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the findings are the first known examples of food placed directly in animal mummies. The primary organs were also removed, as was the practice for humans. It's thought that the ancient Egyptians wished to preserve these organs for continued function in the afterlife.

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"That the birds received treatment for their own continued provision in the afterlife suggests that the afterlife welfare of the birds was important to the priests performing the embalming ritual on them," lead author Andrew Wade told Discovery News.

"Certainly, in this sense, there appears to be some degree of equality between humans and animals in death," added Wade, a University of Western Ontario anthropologist. "If that is the case, then the birds may have been deserving of a greater respect in life."

Wade and his team analyzed a recently excavated mummified sacred ibis. They found numerous snails in his bill. The people who prepared the body inserted the snails.

The researchers also used non-invasive computed tomography to look inside ibis mummies housed at Yale University's Peabody Museum. One of these mummies was found to contain wheat. Wade said that temple-raised birds were likely fed grain, so again the bird was probably sent off into the afterlife with food for its spiritual journey.

Life was a mixed bag for animals in the ancient world, however. Wade said all of the birds from the study had broken necks and were likely deliberately killed, probably as a sacrifice to the god Thoth.

Humans at the time were also sacrificed to appease the gods. In the case of these birds, however, the sacrifices were part of a large-scale operation. Wade explained that "votive ibis mummies are found at Thoth shrines throughout Egypt, and are in their tens of thousands, and even millions, at the cult centers of Abydos, Saqqara, and Tuna el-Gebel."

Overall, life for non-human animals in ancient Egypt was still probably comparable to that for humans. Some literally lived in the lap of luxury, but others may have been viewed more as tools to achieve certain goals.

Co-author Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, explained to Discovery News, "Animals had a very important role to play in Egypt, as totems for divinities, sources of food and thus life, and as a source of raw materials."

But, she added, "Pets were often very spoiled, just as they are today, and received the same care in life and in death as did humans."

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Ikram shared that, in burials, paleontologists have found food placed beside animals. Dates and jujubes have been found next to monkeys, for example, and milk was sometimes placed near cats.

The ibis received unique care, she suggested, because it was associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing.

"The stance of the bird, rooting around, was regarded as a quest…Also, the bill is like a pen," she said.

The sacred ibis went extinct in Egypt sometime in the mid to late 19th century, likely due to urban encroachment and habitat destruction. The bird still exists in sub-Saharan Africa, though, and has been introduced to Europe and the United States. A new Franco-Egyptian venture is underway to reintroduce this species to Egypt, with at least two colonies now established in Luxor and Aswan.

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