Pet Monkeys Brought to Ancient Egypt Were Buried With Sea Shells and Other Trinkets

A monkey skeleton found at a pet cemetery in Berenice.
A monkey skeleton found at a pet cemetery in Berenice.
Image: Marta Osypińska/Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences

Monkeys recovered from an ancient Egyptian pet cemetery have been traced back to India. The compassionate burials, in which the monkeys were laid down in the fetal position and surrounded with grave goods, suggests the primates were kept as pets, in what is a unique archaeological discovery.

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Archaeologists from the University of Warsaw’s Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archeology, along with researchers from Delaware University in the U.S., found the monkeys buried at a pet cemetery in the ancient port city of Berenice, The First News reports. The team has been working at the site since 2008, uncovering the remains of monumental fortifications, defensive walls, towers, a large subterranean complex, a temple, and the pet cemetery.

The archaeologists initially assumed that the monkeys were local, belonging to the guenon family of African monkeys. After analyzing 3D scans of the specimens and performing a comparative analysis of monkey bones, however, the researchers pinned the remains to two different monkey species, rhesus macaques and the slightly smaller bonnet macaques, both of which hail from India. Berenice is located on the western shores of the Red Sea and 210 miles (340 km) due east of Aswan.

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A monkey skeleton found at a pet cemetery at the port city of Berenice in Egypt.
A monkey skeleton found at a pet cemetery at the port city of Berenice in Egypt.
Image: Image: Marta Osypińska/Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences

The careful burials, in which the monkeys were laid down in a sleeping or fetal-like position, plus the presence of various grave goods, suggests the monkeys were cared for and kept as pets prior to their deaths.

The discovery of rhesus and bonnet macaques in Egypt “was a big surprise to us,” Marta Osypińska, a team member and an archaeologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences, explained in an email. “We didn’t expect them here,” as ancient written sources failed to mentioned this practice.

Work at the Berenice pet cemetery from 2016 to 2020 has resulted in the discovery of 16 monkeys, 536 cats, 32 dogs and one falcon, said Osypińska. A paper describing the health and condition of these animals has been submitted to the science journal World Archaeology, she said. Researchers from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences contributed to this research, according to Science in Poland, a publication of the country’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

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One monkey was found wrapped in a woolen blanket, while another had large sea shells placed next to its head, reports First News. Fragments of broken amphora—an ornate vase—were also found next to the buried remains.

Some monkeys were found buried next to sea shells and broken pottery.
Some monkeys were found buried next to sea shells and broken pottery.
Image: Marta Osypińska/Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences
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During the 1st century CE, the Roman Empire annexed Egypt, turning Berenice into a vibrant trade hub. Romans stationed at this outpost sought various companion animals, which were imported from abroad, the researchers speculate. It’s possible that both Romans and Egyptians engaged in this practice.

“Berenice was a de facto Roman port, although formally in Egypt,” explained Osypińska, adding that Berenice was “a very important port through which valuable goods from Asia, Africa and the Middle East were brought to the Empire.”

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As living trade items, these monkeys would have required considerable care and attention, needing food and water during their voyage across the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. But as Osypińska explained, the monkeys were unable to adapt to their new Egyptian environment, and all died young.

“We don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bad diet, perhaps diseases, or perhaps an inability to take care of them,” she said. “Some were ‘babies,’ meaning that they must have been born on the road or in Berenice.”

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Osypińska said fresh water had to be brought to Berenice on donkeys from the nearby mountains, and that “everything” had to be imported from a distance. Importantly, no physical injuries were seen on the monkey skeletons, unlike the many injuries seen on the buried cats and dogs.

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Exotic pets were common in both antiquity and prehistoric times. Other examples include a 1,000-year-old cat kept by nomadic herders in what is now Kazakhstan and chickens and hares brought into Britain some 2,300 to 2,200 years ago, which were revered rather than eaten.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

The Indian Ocean trade was a big deal during the Roman Empire, so that fits. Trade between Egypt and what is now India was even older than that - there’s evidence of trade between the Old Kingdom of Egypt and the Indus Valley Civilization in the 2000s BCE.