How much can the preserved texts of ancient civilizations tell us about the animals they lived with? Our latest research, based on the venomous snakes described in ancient Egyptian papyrus, revealed that there were many more species of snakes living in the land of the pharaohs than we thought. That would explain why Egyptian authors were so concerned about the treatment of snakebites.
Like cave paintings, texts from early histories often depict wild animals known to the authors. But while they can provide some amazing details, identifying the species in question remains difficult. For example, the ancient Egyptian document called the Brooklyn papyrus, which is dated to about 660-330 BC. and. c. but which is probably a copy of a much older document, it lists the various snakes known at the time, the effects of their bites and their treatment.
In addition to the symptoms of the bite, the papyrus also describes the deity associated with the snake, or whose intervention can save the patient. For example, the bite of the “great serpent of Apophis” (a god who took the form of a snake), was described as causing rapid death. Readers are also warned that this snake does not have the usual two fangs, but four, a rare feature of a snake today.
The Brooklyn Papyrus lists 37 species of venomous snakes, of which descriptions of 13 have been lost. Today, the site of ancient Egypt is home to fewer species. This has led to much speculation among researchers about which species were described.
The serpent with four horns
For the great serpent of Apophis, there is no reasonable rival that now lives within the borders of ancient Egypt. Like most venomous snakes that cause the majority of snakebite deaths in the world, the snakes and cobras currently living in Egypt have only two fangs, one on each upper jawbone. In snakes, the jawbones on both sides are separated and move independently, unlike in mammals.
The closest modern snake that usually has four fangs is the boomslang (Disopholidus typus) in the sub-Saharan African savannas, now located just over 650 km south of present-day Egypt. Its venom causes the victim to bleed from all orifices and cause fatal brain hemorrhage. Could the serpent of Apophis be an ancient and elaborate depiction of a bomslang? And if so, how did the ancient Egyptians encounter a snake that now lives far south of their borders?
To find out, master’s student Elysha McBride used a statistical model called climate niche modeling to examine how the ranges of different snakes in Africa and the Levantine (Eastern Mediterranean) have changed over time. at the time.
The niche model reconstructs the conditions in which a species lives and identifies parts of the planet that offer similar conditions. Once the model has been taught to identify suitable current locations, we can add maps of past climate conditions. This results in a map that shows all the places where the species once lived.
In the path of ancient snakes
Our study shows that the wetter climates of ancient Egypt would have provided shelter to many snakes that do not live there today. We have identified ten species from tropical Africa, the Maghreb region of North Africa and the Middle East that may fit the papyrus descriptions. Among them are some of the most famous venomous snakes in Africa, such as the black mamba, long-nosed viper and puff adder.
We discovered that nine of those ten species may have lived in ancient Egypt. Many would have occupied the southern and southeastern parts of the country, as before: the present-day northern Sudan and the coast of the Red Sea. Others may have lived in the fertile Nile Valley or along the northern coast. For example, boomslangs may have lived along the shores of the Red Sea in areas that 4,000 years ago were part of Egypt.
Similarly, an entry in the Brooklyn papyrus describes a serpent “like a quail” that “hisses like a goldsmith’s horn.” The long-nosed snake (Rammings) fit this description, but currently live only south of Khartoum, in Sudan, and in northern Eritrea. Again, our models suggest that the range of this species will once again expand further north.
Since the time we modeled, many things have changed. Climate drying and desertification began about 4,200 years ago, but probably not at the same time. In the Nile Valley and along the coast, for example, agriculture and irrigation can slow erosion and enable many species to persist in historic times. This means that many other poisonous snakes that we only know about from other places may have lived in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs.
Our study shows how enlightening combining ancient texts with modern technology can be. Even a strange or inaccurate old description can be very illuminating.
Modeling the ancient ranges of modern species can teach us a lot about how the ecosystems of our ancestors changed due to environmental changes. We can use this information to understand the impact of their interactions with the fauna around them.