LIFE LINES LIFE LINES LIFE LINES you drive south the pyraIfmidyourDjoser âyoufrom Cairo, usingcome great step world of the oldest standing building in the â as guide, will eventually upon the enigraise in captivityâ, explains Duncan Bolton, Curator of Birds at Birdworld (Farnham, UK). âAnd if you remove their eggs to have matic necropolis of Saqqara. A complex of pyramids, them incubated â say by chickens â or remove their tombs, and catacombs, it holds the secrets of over 3000 chicks, they will lay again, maybe up to three times a years of Egyptian funerary and religious ceremony, stretch- year. So the breeding stock could in fact be, say, 1000 ing from the First Dynasty through Greco-Roman times. pairs for a 10 000 chick-per-year output. Even so, this Burial at Saqqara, however, was not just the privilege of enterprise would still need housing for 11 000 ibises in pharaohs or high officials; animals were interred there, total, plus any chicken surrogate parents.â too...in vast numbers. Hawks, cats, baboons, bulls, and So far, no physical evidence of installations that might other beasts were all mummified, probably to serve as have housed anything like such an undertaking has been votive offerings, but none in quantities so great as the ibis. discovered. âIt could indeed have been an industrial-scale One estimate puts the number of venture, but sadly we are not sure of any Saqqaraâs mummified ibises â probably single physical place (yet) where largenearly all African sacred ibises scale breeding took placeâ, says Salima (Threskiornis aethiopicus) â at 4 million. Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the Representing 400 years of ceremonies American University of Cairo (Egypt), over the Greco-Roman period, these ââ¦unless it was at the edge of the Abusir birds were interred at a rate of 10 000 Lake. That area has yet to be excavated. per year. A further 4 million are However, I am sure that there was some thought to be buried at the Tuna alâoutsourcingâ as well, both locally and in Gebel necropolis at Hermopolis. Such areas in the delta where there was more huge figures tantalizingly suggest that water and space for ibis breeding. The Egypt must have once raised ibises on people from there might have brought in an industrial scale. birds to various sanctuaries, to be turned The sacred ibis had the bad luck to be into votive offerings.â associated with Thoth, the ibis-headed Perhaps these people had small ibis(or, rarely, baboon-headed) god of wisbreeding facilities, or raised ibises like dom and writing. If the numbers of rural families now raise chickens. If that mummified birds at Saqqara are anywere the case, just 1000 families raising thing to go by, Thoth had no small fol10 birds a year each could have supplied lowing; these unfortunate creatures, the annual demand at Saqqara. Some offered in his likeness, testify to his pop- Thoth, the ibis-headed god of ancient ancient literature sources nonetheless ularity. At 10 000 offerings per year, Egypt. point toward the existence of large, however, the pressure on the Saqqara industrial-scale ibis farms yet to be disareaâs sacred ibis population would have been massive, and covered. For example, the Archive of Hor â the writings of within a few years wild harvesting would almost certainly a priest who worked among the Saqqara ibis interment galhave become unsustainable. Although live ibises may have leries â refers to the amount of feed required for 60 000 been imported from throughout and perhaps beyond ibises, and to a gatekeeper who had the task of guarding Egypt, their local farming would seem a better bet for the birds and their chicks. ensuring continual supplies. But could ibises have been Hopefully, genetic material that may be recovered from raised like poultry? And how? the ibis remains will provide some clues. A team led by There is certainly no lack of evidence that animals were David Lambert, a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at raised in sanctuaries by the ancient Egyptians for religious Griffith University (Nathan, Australia), is currently anapurposes. Even crocodiles were farmed by priests at or near lyzing the DNA of both mummified and modern ibises to certain religious sites. But breeding and rearing 10 000 examine its variation over time. With a little luck, their sacred ibises annually for an interment ceremony â held per- results might also shed some light on whether the birds of haps just once a year â would be a huge undertaking. Sacred Saqqara and other sites were domesticated. ibises produce one yearly clutch of 2â5 eggs, so even if an A lost livestock of the Nile? Maybe. Whatever the average of four were to hatch successfully in captivity, a answer, it is hard to escape the irony that, in modern breeding stock of 2500 pairs (ie 5000 parent birds) would be Egypt, not a single sacred ibis wanders the banks of that required, and 15 000 birds in all would have to be cared for. great river. Adrian Burton âSacred ibises, however, are actually rather easy to K Rygh/www.iStockphoto.com www.frontiersinecology.org Â© The Ecological Society of America
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment – Ecological Society of America
Published: Feb 1, 2012
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