There are only two species of the rhinoceros known to have lived on the African continent during historical times: the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). The number and range of wild rhinoceroses has been in steady decline for many centuries but both existed in southern Sudan until recent decades. From a Predynastic rock drawing of game animals being chased by a hunter with bow and arrows on a cliff face near Silwa Bahri in Upper Egypt, probably dating from the Amratian (Naqada I) period, it is reasonably certain that rhinoceros distribution extended as far north as Egypt.

Accurate ceramic models of rhinoceros horns were discovered in an elite first dynasty tomb at Saqqara (tomb 3357), placed there, perhaps, as apotropaic devices. The rhinoceros, called in Egyptian 3bw and ŝkb, became locally extinct or uncommon by the end of the Early Dynastic period; its appearance seems to be recalled once or twice in figures during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, though these could well be elephants. No positively identifiable representations occur again until the New Kingdom's eighteenth dynasty, when one is pictured as a native of the land of Punt in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Thutmose III boasts, on a stela erected at the temple of Montu at Armant, that he shot one while campaigning in Nubia. During the nineteenth dynasty, likely during the reign of Ramesses II, a live rhinoceros is depicted among Nubian booty carved on a pylon, also at Armant, and it is being restrained by a gang of men using ropes. It is surrounded by a series of inscriptions, which give its various measurements, including the length of the horn. Assyrian sources report that Takelot II of the twenty-second dynasty sent a diplomatic gift of a live rhinoceros to Shalmaneser III, the king of Assyria. An Ethiopian rhinoceros took part in the grand procession of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, held in Alexandria during the early 270s BCE.


  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten: Untersucht anhand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. Includes authoritative observations on the rhinoceros in ancient Egypt.
  • Gowers, William. “The Classical Rhinoceros.” Antiquity 24 (1950), 61–71; 25 (1951), 155. Survey of rhinoceroses in the classical world; includes the principal Egyptian material.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. Handsomely illustrated book aimed at a general audience; useful information is given on the rhinoceros in pharaonic Egypt.
  • Osborn, Dale J., with Jana Osbornova. The Mammals of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1998. Includes much useful information on the rhinoceros in ancient times.
  • Störk, L. Die Nashörner. Hamburg, 1977.

Patrick F. Houlihan