Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Did The Ancient Egyptians Farm Ibises?

Ibises are a bird native to Africa with a long scythe-like beak that hunt by wading through rivers. They are a sacred animal to the ancient Egyptians. Their god of writing and wisdom, Thoth, is often depicted with the head of an ibis. As an offering, the Egyptians would mummify ibises and place them in catacombs.
Image result for ibis

Scientists have discovered rooms filled floor to ceiling with these sacrifices. This raises an interesting question. Where did these birds come from? Ibises have not been native to Egypt in hundreds of years. It is unknown if they migrate in large enough flocks with high enough frequency to provide the quantity of birds required for these uncovered offerings. A theory offered instead is that they were farmed by Egyptians.

The mummification process is fantastic at preserving DNA. Scientists were able to extract mitochondrial DNA from several birds. Due to controlled breeding, you would expect to see lower levels are variance between domesticated individuals. Instead, scientists found the same levels as measured in modern day ibis wild populations. While this is not enough evidence to rule out the possibility of Egyptian farms, it suggests there might be more to the story than we currently know. I thought this was an interesting application of mitochondrial DNA. Since the mitochondrial DNA is passed down from the mother, I wonder if its possible to trace the lineage of a modern ibis to one of these mummified birds.


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