The weird, sad story of Egyptian animal mummies

Pharaohs were far from the only ancient Egyptians to be mummified. An entire ancient industry grew up around supplying people with mummified pets to accompany them into the afterlife. Business was even big enough to drive entire species extinct.

According to Egyptologists, bringing a pet with you to the afterlife conferred all sorts of benefits. Not only could the animals keep the deceased company and serve as an offering to the gods, they also represented the gods, which seems to really cover all possible bases when it comes to navigating the afterlife. Enterprising people set up business that specialized in supplying the millions of animals that were ultimately mummified.

The Sacred ibis bird and baboon were driven completely extinct during this process, and hawks, falcons, cats, and dogs all saw their populations drop significantly. Selima Ikram of the American University in Cairo adds:

"It's easier to say which animals the Egyptians didn't mummify. There are no mummified pigs as far as we know, no mummified hippos, and I think that's about it - because almost every other creature at some time or another has been mummified."

Originally, Egyptians simply captured wild animal for mummification purposes, though when this supply started running low they set up breeding programs around their temples and villages. The practice dates back to 3,000 BCE and reached its zenith from about 650 BCE to 200 CE. There aren't all that many practices these days that last 300 or even 30 years, let alone 3,000, and yet that's how long this practice endure.

Melinda Zeder, who is the curator of a new exhibit on these animal mummies at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., explains the motivations underlying this practice:

"The ancient Egyptians weren't obsessed with death - they were obsessed with life. And everything they did to prepare for mummification was really looking at life after death and a way of perpetuating oneself forever. The priests would sacrifice the animal for you, mummify it and then place it in a catacomb in your name. So this was a way of obtaining good standing in the eyes of whatever god it was."

While many of the animals were simply bred to be slaughtered, a few enjoyed a good life before their eventual fate. Bulls, for instance, were associated with the sun god Ra, and they enjoyed a long full life of twenty years, complete with daily massages and feasts from adoring priests. In fact, they ate so well that researchers think they may well have died of heart attacks.

The baboon fared less well. The animal was so popular for mummification purposes that it ultimately went extinct, forcing priests to start manufacturing fake mummies instead that looked like baboons on the outside but were in fact made from other animals, a fact that only became apparent with modern CT scans. Professor Ikram explains:

"If you wanted to have a baboon as an offering, you make it look like a baboon — and if you say it is a baboon, then it magically becomes a baboon. The real ones were very expensive and hard to come by and that's why the whole genre of fake mummies started."

By our standards, this was certainly all a bizarre practice, and this isn't likely to win Egyptians too many fans among animal lovers. Still, as Professor Ikram points out, the Egyptians were at least trying to provide for the animals' long-term welfare, even if they didn't treat them well in the short-term, as a miserable life bred for mummification meant the animals would be with the gods for all eternity. Still not sure that's a great trade-off, but there you go.

Via BBC News.