Ancient Egyptian's Baboon Obsession Laid Hidden Within Luxor Tomb

A secret chamber inside a royal scribe's tomb shows that his muse was, apparently, a primate.

For Jiro Kondo and his team from Waseda University, it began as just another day of excavating at Luxor, an Egyptian city famous for its temples and other ancient monuments. The researchers were taking care of mundane tasks at an area to the east of the forecourt of the known tomb of Userhat, who was a royal scribe.

"While cleaning the area above the 'rump' to the forecourt, we found a hole," Kondo told Seeker. After entering the hole, he and his team were stunned by what they found: a previously unknown separate chamber.

"The tomb is beautifully decorated and probably dates to the Ramesside period," he said, referring to the span from 1292 to 1069 B.C. "The owner of the tomb is Khonsu, who has the title of 'the royal scribe.'" The ancient Egyptian's name is clearly written in hieroglyphics in the tomb.

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Various scenes in the chamber depict Khonsu, his wife, the gods Osiris and Isis, and the ram-headed deities which are thought to be Khnum or Khnum-Re. One detailed painting, however, is perhaps most telling about Khonsu and his likely muse.

"On the north wall of the entrance doorway, we found a scene showing the solar boat of the god Ra-Atum being worshiped by four baboons showing the pose of adoration," Kondo said.

Ra-Atum was a central ancient Egyptian deity, a sun god through which everything else was created. As for the baboons, they are also sometimes depicted as gods, but are linked to Ra-Atum and were believed to be the spiritual muses of scribes, directing their writing.

Baboons vocalize loudly when the sun rises. They also like to warm themselves in the morning sun, perhaps explaining their mythical connection to Ra-Atum. One may wonder, though, why baboons were depicted at all, since they are not native to Egypt.

Historians suspect that the primates were brought to Egypt from Nubia, which was a region that then encompassed part of Sudan. Based on this latest tomb find, and other ancient Egyptian depictions of baboons, these animals were popular in Egypt and many other parts of Africa.

The world's first known baboon, discovered at a site called Malapa in South Africa, even hails from a region that's often referred to as the Cradle of Humankind.

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"Baboons are known to have co-existed with [early humans] at several fossil sites in East Africa and South Africa, and they're sometimes used as comparative models in human evolution," said Christopher Gilbert of Hunter College, CUNY, who analyzed the first known baboon.

By the time baboons were brought to ancient Egypt, they were kept as beloved pets by some, who might train them to pick figs and probably also benefitted from their morning calls, which could have served as a natural alarm clock.

The word "baboon" may derive from the Egyptian god Baba, who was worshiped in predynastic times. Baboons were associated with wisdom, science and measurement - all useful skills for a royal scribe.

Future excavations will help to determine if still more scribes will be found entombed at the site in Luxor. More treasures at this newly found tomb of Khonsu await too, as Kondo and his team work to access its inner chamber.

Photo: Hall of the Tomb of Khonsu at Luxor, Egypt. Credit: Jiro Kondo, Waseda University WATCH: Who Is the Mystery Mummy Buried In King Tut's Tomb?