WHERE do you find a gift for the pharaoh who has it all? The ancient Egyptians knew: suitably lavish goods were available in Punt. In this mysterious, far-flung land you could obtain all the gold, frankincense and myrrh a pharaoh might desire. To top it off, you could even throw in a baboon or two.
We have long known of the existence of Punt, a trading partner of the ancient Egyptians that provided them with expensive jewels, spices, ivory and animals. But hieroglyphic texts are frustratingly vague regarding the whereabouts of this extraordinary land, which means the hunt for Punt is one of the unsolved puzzles of Egyptology. Now, finally, we may be zeroing in on an exact location. Surprisingly, the clinching evidence isn’t some newly discovered ancient map. Instead, it comes – quite literally – from the mouth of one of Punt’s baboons.
The ancient Egyptians first began sailing to Punt about 4500 years ago, visiting the land infrequently for 1300 years. In Punt, the Egyptians could trade their grain, linen and other goods for aromatics, hardwoods and all manner of exotic products that were difficult or impossible to find in Egypt. “Some scholars describe the Egypt-Punt trade relationship as the origin of international peaceful commerce,” says Nathaniel Dominy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “So it’s a big deal.”
But there is another side to Punt. Consider The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, an approximately 4000-year-old ancient Egyptian text that has been described as the world’s earliest work of fiction. The story tells of a sailor marooned on a fantasy island. There, he meets a gigantic serpent that identifies …