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(Courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Strange animal burials at the ancient Egyptian capital of Hierakonpolis point to the existence of a large, exotic menagerie around 3500 B.C. The 2009 field season produced 10 dogs, a baby hippo, a hartebeest, a cow and calf, and an elephant. The tally for this Predynastic period zoo now stands at 112 critters, including 2 elephants, 3 hippos, 11 baboons, and 6 wildcats.

Hierakonpolis, on the Nile south of Luxor, was settled by 4000 B.C., and by the time these animals were buried around 500 years later, was Egypt's largest urban center. The animal burials are in the city's elite cemetery, where rulers and their family members, along with retainers--some possibly sacrificed--were interred. Hierakonpolis Expedition director Renee Friedman found evidence indicating that the city's powerful rulers kept the animals in captivity, almost as in a zoo. Baboons (including the one at left), a wild cat, and a hippo show signs of bone fractures that can only have healed in a protected environment. A 10-year-old male elephant had eaten twigs from acacia trees as well as wild and cultivated plants from varied environments, suggesting it was being fed.

The animals were accorded special treatment in death. A large wild aurochs had been buried in human fashion, its body covered with matting and pottery, and accompanied by a human figurine. The newly excavated elephant had been buried lying on a reed mat and covered with linen. Friedman believes the menagerie was a display of power and that the animals were likely sacrificed on the death of a ruler. But this was not, she says, simply the power to kill and bury large and exotic animals. For the ruler, it was also the power to control them and potentially become them, taking their natural, physical power as his own.

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