A wide variety of animals were used in ancient Egypt. The Nile Valley fauna were a source of nutrition, they inspired symbolic expression, and they served as subjects for art and literature. Today, nearly fifty species of mammals, almost five hundred species of birds, and at least 169 species of fish can be found there; in ancient times, the fauna was even more diverse. Ironicly, the domesticated species that helped provide Egypt with its legendary surpluses were, for the most part, introduced from abroad—while the indigenous fauna remained genetically wild.

By the early Neolithic period (c.5000 BCE), the deserts and the Nile Valley harbored an essentially modern fauna. Worldwide climatic change had forced savanna animals to retreat south from growing North African deserts, and during the Predynastic period, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, along with wheat and barley agriculture, gained the dominant role as the Nile Valley's source of nutrition. Although the desert regions would continue to harbor small populations of oryx, addax, hartebeest, and gazelle into the mid-twentieth century, the Nile Valley, altered to accommodate domesticated plants and animals, reduced the preferred habitat of native species, extirpating many and driving some to extinction. Gone were the aurochsen, hippopotamus, otter, several species of fish, a number of birds, and eventually even the marsh-dwelling papyrus plant.

Researchers have postulated that widespread changes in the environment, the ecological needs of the animals, and/or aspects of Late Paleolithic culture might have produced the impetus behind the Near Eastern and Egyptian adoption of domestic fauna and flora. It is impossible, however, to delineate the primary causes. Stimuli from many sources, no doubt, functioned together to facilitate the transformation of the Nile Valley's human population from Late Paleolithic hunter-gathers to Neolithic food producers.

The earliest datable representations of Egypt's fauna are from the early Neolithic period, when the likenesses of animals inhabiting the Nile Valley and neighboring desert regions were pecked, etched, and painted on stone surfaces along the wadis, on cliffs, and atop mountain escarpments. Representations of cattle dominate the scenes, but elephant, giraffe, hartebeest, oryx, addax, hippopotamus, ibex, gazelle, ass, Barbary sheep, lion, leopard, and other wild cats are also depicted in such detail that taxonomic identification can be readily made. Wild and domesticated animals continued to be popular artistic subjects throughout dynastic times, but they reached a peak in authenticity during the Old Kingdom. For example, twenty-three fish taxa have been identified from tomb scenes; some are so clearly defined that specific (species), as opposed to simple generic (genus), designations are possible. Old Kingdom tomb scenes also contain depictions of taxa that can no longer be found in or near the lower Nile—the moonfish, the otter, and the ibis. The relative abundance of species may also have changed with time, as a result of increased human habitation and agricultural intensification. For example, Tilapia is probably the most numerous food fish in the Nile today, but in a survey of the Memphis tomb depictions, Mugils (mullets) were the most abundantly represented fish, followed by Tilapia (red fish), Clarias (Nile catfish), Synodontis (schall catfish), and Mormyrus (elephant fish). The least frequently represented were Lates (Nile perch), Citharinus (moonfish), Schilbe (schilbe or Mendes fish), and Tetraodon (puffer fish). Interestingly, based on fish skeletons recovered from archaeological excavations, Clarias and Synodontis, not Mugils or Tilapia, were the most abundant food fish recovered (following the most popular synonymy, the genus Oreochromis is included within Tilapia spp.). Although frequency of representation in tomb scenes or frequency of archaeological recovery is by no means an accurate census of species abundance, the loss of shallow-water areas to agricultural development would have diminished prime catfish and Tilapia habitat. Mullets and eels, once known to migrate in great numbers as far south as Luxor, now barely reach south of Cairo.

The Nile Valley offered an excellent haven for migrating birds, and thousands of ducks, waders, and many others could be found wintering there. The Egyptians were exceptionally fond of dining on fowl, and many forms are depicted in aviaries and pens. The wild bird resources of Egypt were so large, however, that the widespread domestication of bird species may not have been as efficient or as satisfying as hunting and trapping them. Although their numbers have been dramatically reduced in modern times, even in the early twentieth century, the Faiyum Depression was noted as being extremely rich in migratory birds and a favorite site for hunters.

Domestic Food Animals.

Given the diversity of animals in the Nile Valley, it is interesting that so few were actually domesticated. Arguably, only two domesticated species of geese (the greylag and the white-fronted goose) and perhaps the donkey, pig, aurochs (wild cow), and cat may have some genetic ancestry from Egypt.

The earliest undisputed appearances of domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats, come from the Neolithic site of Merimde and from the Faiyum (c.5000 BCE). Many scholars believe that the domestication of herd animals was the most important step in the exploitation of the animal world. The importance of cattle, sheep, and goats to the ancient Egyptians is based on their ability to obtain nourishment from grasses and other fibrous forage that humans cannot digest. In Egypt, grasses grew in a variety of areas and, depending on the availability of water, could be tall and lush or sparse, dry, and stunted. The productivity of grazing lands varied from year to year, owing to the vagaries of Egypt's rainfall, the reluctance to irrigate fields devoted to nontrade or nonfood crops, and the planting/fallow schedules of given plots. Consequently, a grazing strategy for herd animals evolved that acceptably countered these local constraints.

In studying present-day land and water relationships among nonmechanized farmers and herders, there exists an interesting correlation between planting and herding. Ethnographic studies suggest that when the probability of receiving sufficient water to grow a crop on a particular plot of land reached 0.90 (nine out of ten years), that land was devoted to cultivation. Land with a water ratio between 0.50 and 0.30 was characterized by chronic crop failure and was considered a high-risk area for cultivation, but excellent for pasture. Areas with ratios of 0.10 were seldom cultivated, but might be useful as pasture land. Egypt possessed lands with water ratio levels ranging from above 0.90, near the Nile, to those well below 0.10, near the desert boundaries. Thus a mixed system of cultivation, penned animal raising, and range herding proved to be an efficient strategy for capturing the most benefits from that natural environment.

The earliest Egyptian agriculturalists lived on the natural levees of the Nile or beyond the reach of the floods on the desert border; they cultivated the rich inundated lands between the levees and desert. Those areas not receiving enough water to support crops were range lands. As more land came under cultivation, less land was available for herding. Given their geography, climate, and technology, the ancient Egyptians eventually reached their limit—a point at which it became no longer profitable to expend energy for agricultural expansion. Herd animals provided the most effective means of using the otherwise unproductive lands, and they also served as insurance against crop failures.

Because Egyptian herds were large, overgrazing must have become a problem, which required seasonal grazing forays: small dispersed cattle camps and, in the driest seasons, large drives to some permanent forage and watered areas. Some evidence suggests that cattle were herded to the Nile Delta, which was not then as heavily cultivated as Upper Egypt. Although ancient drives may have crossed hundreds of kilometers, with hardships for both animals and herdsmen, it has been documented among nonmechanized farmers that livestock productivity (in terms of weight gain, calving rate, and calf survival) is better among migratory than sedentary herds. Egyptians maximized cattle production by keeping some animals in pens or corrals and bringing the feed to the animals, as is done in present-day societies; a method of adding important nourishment was by incorporating grain and/or bread dough. If this served as a healthful supplement for the few penned animals, it could not have been done, as it was economically unfeasible, for Egypt's vast herds. Egypt's herds were large because of the cultural values attributed to cattle. The great numbers of cattle recorded as attached to personal and temple estates exemplified unnecessary overindulgence. Egypt's large herds, however, do make evolutionary sense under certain conditions: they are a means of providing an immediate food supply and they ensure the survival of at least some animals after an epidemic or an environmental disaster.

For rapid replenishment of a herd, the large-herd philosophy works well. The ancient Egyptians fully realized that a certain percentage of the herd would die each year, but in a bad year a herdsman who loses one-third of the stock is better off beginning with sixty cattle than with six. When the availability of food is threatened by catastrophe, particularly in a well-populated area such as the Nile Valley, that catastrophe will affect all agricultural products. A large herd would provide immediate food for the populace (milk, blood, and/or meat), as well as leave enough stock to propagate a new herd. A diversified herd, incorporating sheep, goats, and cattle, would have served as an additional safeguard, since each species thrives under different environmental conditions. Goats are browsers, do not compete with sheep and cattle for food, and are the most drought tolerant. Cattle and sheep are grazers, but sheep are more tolerant of drought than cattle. In an environmental crisis, the three herd animals would have different probabilities for survival, depending on the nature of the problem. Because sheep and goats reproduce rapidly, their herds can recover relatively quickly. Thus, although the Egyptian herding system would appear to be a pretentious one that overemphasized numbers, there is enough evidence to suggest that large herd sizes actually represent adaptive responses to Egypt's environmental uncertainties.

By the New Kingdom, four types of cattle were kept: a long-horned variety, a short-horned form, a hornless breed, and the zebu (brahma). There were two forms of sheep, but only one type of goat can be identified from skeletal materials and pictures. Cattle served as sources of meat, milk, and hides; the castrates (oxen) were used as draught animals. Sheep were primarily used for their meat and wool. Based on tomb scenes, Egypt possessed, in succession, two different types of sheep: to the Middle Kingdom, a hairy thin-tailed breed, with crescent-shaped, lateral horns; a later woolly breed, with a shorter fatter tail and recurved horns. As the wool of the new sheep was well suited to spinning and weaving, woolen fabrics became more prominent in the later periods. Interestingly, shears do not occur before the Third Intermediate Period, so the wool was evidently plucked or cut away from the skin with a knife. (The fat-tail sheep of modern-day Egypt was a recent introduction, not a survival from pharaonic times.)

The ancient Egyptian goat resembles goats recovered from Neolithic sites of the Near East, including Jericho, but somewhat larger in size; it was long-legged, short-haired, and had a long face with a straight nose. Scimitar-horned goats appear to have existed in Old Kingdom times, but by the Hyksos period (c. 1663–1555 BCE), they had become rare. The predominant goat possessed a twisted (corkscrew) horn—and the breed can be found in Egypt today. Goats ranged in coloration from solid to piebald black and white. The modern goat of Egypt—with its convex nose, drooping ears, and long hair—is not a direct descendant of the ancient forms but is a recent introduction.

Goats were kept for their meat, skin, and perhaps milk, though less importantly for their hair. The tomb scenes depict only short-haired varieties, which would not have been good suppliers of wool; this suggests that goats were raised primarily for meat. Based on the number of goat (and sheep) bones recovered from archaeological sites, goat and mutton was a common dish for the peasant and the working class. Goatskin was used to produce a diverse number of leather objects.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, pigs were regarded as unclean by the ancient Egyptians and the swineherd was held in the lowest regard. To the uninitiated, Herodotus' statements might indicate that pigs were therefore an uncommon or an undesirable food. Also, pigs were seldom depicted in Egyptian art or specifically mentioned in texts. Archaeologically, the pig is known as an early domesticant in Egypt (c.4800 BCE) and a popular food item. The Egyptian pig was long-legged and bristly, and it resembled the wild boar more than do modern breeds. Excavations throughout Egypt have unearthed pig bones and they seem particularly abundant in areas associated with working-class or peasant-related activities. At the Amarna workmen's village, and elaborate pig-farming facility was unearthed, with individual pens for sows and their offspring. The chief role of the pig was as a source of meat and fat. Pigs are well-suited to this role because they produce two litters a year, mature within a year, and are comparatively long-lived. Their ability to adapt to different environments allows them to range freely, to root in or near the village, or to be confined to the home or sty. This versatility offers a unique advantage over other domesticants, particularly in areas of dense human populations.

Working Animals and Pets.

The Egyptians employed a number of different animals as beasts of burden. While oxen usually served as the draught animal of agriculture, equines (horses, donkeys) played a significant role in transporting goods and later in warfare. The donkey was the principal beast of burden from at least the Predynastic at Omari. The horse, although some remains date to the Middle Kingdom, was not common in Egypt until late in the Second Intermediate Period, when it was adopted with the Near Eastern chariot for warfare. The horse, thought to have been introduced by the Hyksos, was a small Asian breed that measured less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall at the shoulder. Horses were never abundant in Egypt and were limited to the aristocracy and military. The camel, although its remains have been recovered as early as the first dynasty at Helwan, did not serve as a beast of burden until Roman times.

Typical household pets, such as dogs and cats, were common in Egypt. Several breeds of dogs were present, some clearly products of selective breeding, especially the greyhound and saluki type; the majority, however, were street dogs not attached to a master. Cats were part of the indigenous Egyptian fauna; in appearance, when wild, they resembled a light grey or tawny tabbie. Cats that can be considered unquestionably domesticated are not known in Egypt until the Middle Kingdom, but cat skeletons are known from the Predynastic period in a context that would suggest that they were “tamed” if not domesticated.

Although an endless variety of exotic birds and mammals (monkeys, antelopes, gazelle, ibex, and even hyenas) were tamed for religious and secular purposes—and exotic pets seem to have been fashionable for the upper class as well as given in tribute to the king—these animals remained genetically wild. Evidence from the dynastic period indicates that large numbers of wild animals were held captive in what could be described as a royal zoo or menagerie. One such example was that of Amenhotpe III, who had animals roaming freely within an enclosure 300 by 600 meters (950 by 1850 feet). The captive animals served a variety of religious and secular purposes.

Lions as well as other species of great cats were favorite companions for kings and nobles, often shown accompanying them at the hunt. The hunting of particularly dangerous animals, such as the hippopotamus and the lion, became a royal prerogative, but one that also held symbolic significance. Wall scenes that depict the king (or a noble) harpooning a hippopotamus, for example, are thought to represent the ruler's triumph over chaos.

See also AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES; ANIMAL HUSBANDRY; BEES AND HONEY; BIRDS; CANINES; CATTLE; CROCODILES; DIET; ELEPHANTS; EQUINES; FELINES; FISH; FROGS, GIRAFFES; HARES; HEDGEHOGS; HIPPOPOTAMI; HUNTING; ICHNEUMON; INSECTS; MILK; MONKEYS AND BABOONS; PIGS; POULTRY; RHINOCEROSES; SCARABS; SCORPIONS; SHEEP AND GOATS; SNAKES; and ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS.

Bibliography

  • Brewer, Douglas J., and Renée Friedman. Fish and Fishing in Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1989.
  • Brewer, Douglas J., Donald B. Redford, and Susan Redford. Domesticated Plants and Animals: The Egyptian Origins. Warminster, 1994. Brewer and Friedman (1989) and this bok are the two best sources for comparing artistic representations of Egypt's fauna to the zoological literature, for clarifying generic and specific identification of the depictions; but see also Houlihan (1986).
  • Clutton-Brock, Julian. “The Buhen Horse”. Journal of Archaeological Science 1 (1974), 89–100. This work brings up the possibility that the Buhen horse stated to be of Middle Kingdom Age, might be an intrusive artifact of a later date due to wear patterns on the teeth.
  • Clutton-Brock, Julian. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. Austin, 1987. A standard source for introducing uninitiated readers to domesticated animals and their origins. It supersedes the classic 1963 text by Zeuner.
  • Houlihan, Patrick H.. The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1986.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1991. Although listed here as a source for pig-keeping, this is an excellent work for those interested in glimpsing aspects of administrating farms and herds during the Amarna period.
  • Janssen, Rosiland, and Jack Janssen. Egyptian Household Animals. Haverfordwest, 1989. Easy to read introduction to Egyptian domesticates (but lacks citations).
  • Osborn, Dale, and Ibrahim Helmy. The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt. Fieldiana Zoology, n.s., 5. Chicago, 1980. Best source on modern mammalian fauna of Egypt. It includes a short natural history of animals and where they are located.
  • Redford, Susan, and Donald B. Redford. “Graffiti and Petroglyphs Old and New from the Eastern Desert.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 26 (1989), 3–50. The only systematic treatment of the Eastern Desert's pictographs.
  • Winkler, Hans. Rock-Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford, 1938. One of the only comprehensive studies of Neolithic rock art.
  • Zeuner, Frederick E. A History of Domesticated Animals. New York, 1963. The classic text for those interested in the origins of animal domestication.

Douglas J. Brewer