How much can the preserved texts of ancient civilizations tell us about the animals they lived with? Our latest research, based on the poisonous snakes described in an ancient Egyptian papyrus, reveals that a much wider variety of snakes lived in the land of the pharaohs than we imagined. That would explain why Egyptian authors were so concerned about the treatment of snake bites.
Like cave paintings, texts from early history often describe wild animals that the authors knew. But while they may provide some notable details, identifying the species in question remains difficult. For example, the ancient Egyptian document called the Brooklyn papyrus, which dates to around 660-330 BC. and. c. but which is probably a copy of a much older document, it lists the different 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 could save the patient. The bite of the “great serpent of Apophis” (a god who took the form of a snake), for example, was described as a cause of rapid death. Readers were also warned that this snake did not have the usual two fangs, but four, a rare feature in a snake today.
The Brooklyn Papyrus lists 37 species of venomous snakes, of which descriptions of 13 have been lost. Today, the area of ancient Egypt is home to far fewer species. This has led to much speculation among researchers about which species are being described.
The four-fanged serpent
For the great serpent of Apophis, no reasonable contender currently lives within the borders of ancient Egypt. Like most of the venomous snakes that cause the majority of snakebite deaths in the world, the vipers and cobras currently living in Egypt only have two fangs, one in each upper jaw bone. In snakes, the jaw bones on both sides are separated and move independently, unlike what happens in mammals.
The closest modern snake that usually has four fangs is the boomslang (Disopholidus typus) of the sub-Saharan African savannas, which is now only located more than 650 km south of present-day Egypt. Its venom can make the victim bleed from all orifices and cause a fatal brain hemorrhage. Could the serpent of Apophis be a primitive and detailed description of a bomslang? And if so, how did the ancient Egyptians encounter a snake that now lives so far south of their borders?
To find out, our master’s student Elysha McBride used a statistical model called climate niche modeling to explore how the ranges of various African and Levantine (Eastern Mediterranean) snakes have changed over time.
The niche model reconstructs the conditions in which a species lives and identifies the parts of the planet that offer similar conditions. Once the model has been taught to recognize suitable locations today, we can add maps of past climate conditions. This results in a map showing all the places where that species could have lived in the past.
On the trail of ancient snakes
Our study shows that the much wetter climates of ancient Egypt would have provided shelter to many snakes that do not live there today. We have focused on ten species from the African tropics, the Maghreb region of North Africa and the Middle East that could match the papyrus descriptions. These include some of the best-known venomous snakes in Africa, such as the black mamba, the long-nosed viper and the puff adder.
We have discovered that nine of those ten species could have lived in ancient Egypt. Many could have occupied the southern and southeastern parts of the country, as it was then: present-day northern Sudan and the Red Sea coast. Others may have lived in the fertile Nile Valley or along the northern coast. For example, boomslangs could have lived along the Red Sea coast in places that 4,000 years ago would have been part of Egypt.
Similarly, an entry in the Brooklyn papyrus describes a snake “patterned like a quail” that “hisses like a goldsmith’s bellows.” The long-nosed viper (Bitis arietans) would fit this description, but currently only lives south of Khartoum, in Sudan, and in northern Eritrea. Again, our models suggest that the range of this species would have once extended much further north.
Since the period we modeled, many things have changed. Climate drying and desertification had begun about 4,200 years ago, but perhaps not uniformly. In the Nile Valley and along the coast, for example, agriculture and irrigation could have slowed desiccation and allowed many species to persist in historic times. This implies that many more venomous snakes that we only know about from other places could have lived in Egypt in the time of the pharaohs.
Our study shows how enlightening it can be to combine ancient texts with modern technology. Even a whimsical or imprecise ancient description can be very illuminating.
Modeling the ancient ranges of modern species can teach us a lot about how our ancestors’ ecosystems changed as a result of environmental change. We can use this information to understand the impact of their interactions with the fauna around them.