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New Evidence Shows Ancient Egyptians May have Bred Birds of Prey
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9 Sep 2015 02:49 PM EST

-by Yuliya Geikhman, Staff Writer; Image: A bird mummy from Ancient Egypt (Image Source: Carina Beyer / Iziko Museums via Discovery)

Contrary to their popular portrayal, cats weren’t the only animals revered and domesticated by ancient Egyptians.

New evidence suggests that the ancient civilization also domesticated raptors—birds of prey like kestrels.

Archaeologists have been stumped as to why there have been so many mummified birds of prey discovered among ancient Egypt’s other offerings. Researchers from the American University in Cairo, Stellenbosch University, and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies took a peek at the stomach remains of one of these bird mummies, and found that the bird may have choked to death from having to eat too much.

The team found the remains of a house mouse in the kestrel’s stomach, which the bird likely choked on. This suggests that these birds were kept as domesticated animals, most likely for the purpose of always having an offering ready for the sun god Re.

This discovery means that ancient Egyptians most likely had a breeding program for the birds of prey, keeping them as pets and “fattening them up” in preparation for eventual sacrifice.

"The idea of birds of prey being bred to the extent of being kept and force-fed is new," said the lead author on the study, Salima Ikram, according to Discovery News.

"Until now the sheer number of raptor mummies had been a mystery,” Ikram said. “Did they catch or trap them and kill them, raid nests, or find them dead? Our results explain why they had so many: We now think it was because of active breeding."

Most animals are gutted before mummification, but this bird remained intact, making it an ideal specimen for this investigation.

Ikram also points out that, “We know raptors were religiously important but it’s interesting to think about the role they may have had in falconry.”

Other animals have been found mummified and buried by ancient Egyptians, including over eight million dogs discovered recently in catacombs south of Cairo.

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