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In Search of the Lost Land of Gold (and mummified baboons too)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near…[]…his body was as overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli….[]… it was the prince of the land of Punt…
The Shipwrecked Sailor“, 2200 B.C.

May 9, 1871 after a one year long search, the German geologist Karl Mauch finally spotted  was he had hoped for:  the ruins of gigantic buildings of stone – the remains of a long lost city, at least for the European explorer. The local people of the Shona tribe know the ruins well, in their language the buildings were called “dzimba woye” – the venerated houses – and build long ago by an ancient African civilization. Mauch however, following the racial ideas of his time, was sure that the buildings “could not possibly being built by Negroes.” * He thought that he had discovered the ruins of the mythical city of Ophir, build by an unknown civilization and known in legends for the immeasurable wealth treasured there.

The bible cites Ophir as unidentified place from which King Salomon received tributes in form of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks. Various scholars tried to locate the exact position of such a rich land. The mention of exotic animals pointed towards the African continent, however in 1857 the German archaeologist Heinrich Ferdinand Karl Brugsch collocated Ophir on the Arabian Peninsula. Other archeologists associated Ophir with another legendary place – “Ta netjer” the land of the gods,  also known by the ancient Egyptians as the land of gold or the mythical land Punt.
Punt seems to be more than legend, as some stone reliefs even display naturalistic accurate views of it. Long before 2000 B.C. Egyptian Pharaohs send expeditions to Punt to recover precious metals, like gold, silver, electrum and rare gemstones. In the temple of Athribis, build under Ptolemaios XII, a relief apparently shows the various trees growing in Punt. Punt, so it seems, was a lush, tropical land, very different to the Egyptian desert. In 1858 the French archaeologist Auguste Ferdinand François Mariette interpreted a relief in the temple of Deir el-Bahari, the mortuary temple build for the famous Queen Hatshepsut, as realistic depiction of an expedition to the remote land of Punt.  Based on the displayed animals and plants some researchers tried to identify the exact location of this harbor.

Fig.1. The expedition to Punt as immortalized in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The ships are loaded in a harbor of unknown location with precious gifts for the Pharaoh and with exotic animals and plants as tributes. Note the baboons on board (from J. DÜMICHEN “Die Flotte einer ägyptischen Königin aus dem 17. Jahrhundert vor unserer Zeitrechnung” 1868, image in public domain).

The complete relief shows five ships loaded with gold, trees and exotic animals, like leopards, apes and giraffes – all species found on the African continent. In the sea the relief show various species of fish: zoologist identified some of them living along the coast of Africa, but also along the Arabian Peninsula. The plants that produce frankincense and myrrh, essential parts of every religious celebration in ancient Egypt, like Boswellia sp. and Commiphora myrrha are native to the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, Yemen) and to Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Northeast Kenya).

Maybe looking at the geology the location of Punt can be traced back to Africa? Still today in Eritrea gold can be found, associated to the old metamorphic rocks of the interior plateau. The river of Nahr Al-qa-sh is known for its gold bearing sediments. Also in Ethiopia gold is associated with the proterozoic metamorphic rocks, found to the west of the Afar lowlands, where recent volcanic rocks mark the Great Rift System of the African plate. The eastern part of this proterozoic basement is found on the northern coast of Somalia. The overall geology of Saudi-Arabia – especially Yemen and Oman- is characterized instead by young sediments mostly lacking gold.

Fig.2. Simplified geology of north-eastern Africa and possible localization of Punt, as suggested by the outcrops of old (Precambrian) metamorphic and gold-bearing rocks (brown color). Mersa Gawasis was an ancient Egyptian harbor in the Red Sea.

But geology gives us another clue to find the lost land of Punt. Along the gifts brought back from Punt were also living exotic animals, like baboons (Papio sp.), as seen on the relief of Deir el-Bahari. In 2010 researchers analyzed hair samples from 3.000 years old mummified baboons (the pet animals of important persons, like the family of the Pharaoh) found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

Every living organism must drink water and water consists of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Both these elements can exist in various isotopes, with slightly different chemical properties. The oxygen isotopic signature of a spring can be unique and is controlled by the geology and location of a spring. By comparing the results of the ancient hair samples with hair samples of modern animals living in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda and Mozambique the researchers concluded that most isotopic similarity can be found with animals coming from eastern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Mystery solved? Well, the isotopic signature could be identified only from one baboon and the localization is still very vague. The search of a myth (and its treasures) continues….

*The British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson could prove in 1929 that Great Zimbadwe and the civilization that build these monuments are of African origin.

Bibliography:

BROWN, D.M. & LYNCH, J. (1995): Africa’s Glorious Legacy (Lost Civilizations). Time-Life-Books: 168
FRANZ, A. (2011): Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt. Bild der Wissenschaft 9(11): 68-75
HOULIHAN, P.F. (1996): The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Thames & Hudson: 237
SCHLÜTER, T. & TRAUTH, M.H. (2006): Geological Atlas of Africa – With Notes on Stratigraphy, Tectonics, Economic Geology, Geohazards and Geosites of Each Country. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg: 255

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. bamboo19 12:13 pm 09/3/2013

    It is really cool.

    Link to this

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