• Written by Sally Wasef, Postdoctoral research fellow, Griffith University
A scene from the Books of the Dead (based at the Egyptian Museum) shows the ibis-headed god Thoth recording the result of "the final judgement". Wasef et al./PLOS ONE, CC BY-SA

These days, not many Aussies consider the ibis a particularly admirable creature.

But these birds, now colloquially referred to as “bin chickens” due to their notorious scavenging antics, have a grandiose and important place in history - ancient Egyptian history, to be precise.

Using DNA from ibis mummies buried around 2,500 years ago, our research published today explores this bird’s stature in ancient times, and how it was reared.

Our findings suggest ancient Egyptian priests practised short-term taming of the wild sacred ibis. This was likely done somewhere in natural ibis habitats, such as local lakes or wetlands. Also, it was probably done close to the Thoth temple at Tuna el Gebel, in a bid to meet an ibis demand fuelled by religious burial rituals.

We’ve bin chicken out some DNA

The preservation of bodies through mummification is a hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Unfortunately, unfavourable environmental conditions such as high temperatures, humidity and alkaline conditions often result in scepticism about the authenticity of genetic results from ancient Egyptian human remains.


Read more: Friday essay: the rise of the 'bin chicken', a totem for modern Australia


However, animal mummies in the region are much more common. And the sacred ibis, (Threskiornis aethiopicus), is by far the most common bird mummy in ancient Egypt’s underground catacombs, with more than two million found.

The Egyptian sacred ibis looks very similar to the Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca). We once thought they were both sacred ibises, but the two are actually sister species in the ibis family.

Our analysis of 14 sacred ibis mummies, which we collected ourselves from catacombs, helped reveal the role of this bird in ancient Egyptian society and religion.

We collected sacred ibis mummy remains from the ibis catacomb in Saqqara. Author provided

We analysed and compared mitochondrial DNA, which is a section of DNA inherited from the mother and passed only through females. In doing so, we were able to compare the genetic diversity among the ancient ibis mummies to that of modern sacred ibis populations in Africa.

All hail the Ibis

Ancient Egyptians thought animals were incarnations of gods on Earth. They worshipped the sacred ibis as the god Thoth, which was responsible for maintaining the universe, judging the dead, and overseeing systems of magic, writing, and science.

It’s not surprising then, that professionally mummified Ibises were sacrificially offered to Thoth at his annually celebrated festival. In fact, offering sacred ibis mummies in ancient Egypt was a common practice between the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) and the early Roman Period (AD 250).


Read more: Mummies have had a bad wrap – it's time for a reassessment


For ancient Egyptian priests, the mummification of animals like ibises was not simply a ritual duty, but also a profitable business. Considering the number of ibis mummies found, one has to wonder how the priests secured supplies for this practice.

Some evidence from ancient Egyptian text suggests the birds may have been raised in dedicated large-scale farms over the long term - either next to or within temple enclosures.

In the writings of the priest and scribe Hor of Sebennytos, from the second century BC, he reported regularly feeding about 60,000 sacred ibises with “clover and bread”. This could be interpreted as domestication, or controlled breeding.

In 1825, French naturalist Georges Cuvier described the skeleton of an ibis mummy from Thebes that he’d unwrapped, saying:

One sees that this mummy must have come from a domestic bird in the temples, because its left humerus was broken and reset. It is highly improbable that a wild bird with a wing broken would have been able to capture prey and escape predators. Hence it would have been unable to survive long enough to have healed.

Researchers today have also suggested the seasonal taming of ancient wild ibises, wherein the birds were reared over a single generation by priests, in natural habitats close to temples. Moreover, it seems they were not domesticated, which would have required breeding in captivity over many generations.

The rearing is thought to have occurred at locations such as the Lake of the Pharaoh, in which a natural basin was filled annually by flood waters from the Nile River.

These actions were almost certainly aimed at collecting a large number of adult birds, which were required for the Egyptian ritual of offering a mummified ibis to please Thoth.

1.75 million birds, then suddenly none?

Millions of sacred ibis mummies have been found stacked floor-to-ceiling along kilometres of dedicated catacombs in Egypt.

It’s believed that about 10,000 mummies were deposited annually in the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara.


Read more: A recipe for mummy preservation existed 1,500 years before the Pharaohs


This amounts to an estimated 1.75 million birds deposited at this location alone. Another catacomb at Tuna el-Gebel contains approximately four million sacred ibis mummies, the largest known number of any mummified birds at a single Egyptian site.

But these birds disappeared from Egypt around 1850, centuries after the cessation of the mummification practice. How and why they disappeared remains a mystery.

Clearly, the people of today treat the ibis in a very different way to the ancient Egyptians. For the latter, they were sacred birds that held a special place in society.

Perhaps we should remember that and recognise, at least a little, their honoured status in the past.

Sally Wasef receives funding from the Strategic Leverage Fund, EFRI, Griffith University.

David Lambert receives funding from Human Frontier Science, the Australian Research Council and the Australia India Research Fund.

Authors: Sally Wasef, Postdoctoral research fellow, Griffith University

Read more http://theconversation.com/holy-bin-chickens-ancient-egyptians-tamed-wild-ibis-for-sacrifice-126186

We could have more coronavirus outbreaks in tower blocks. Here's how lockdown should work

The recent lockdown of nine social housing towers in Melbourne’s north to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to widespread concerns for residents’ welfare.Among the concerns was that imple...

Thea van de Mortel, Professor, Nursing and Deputy Head (Learn & Teaching), School of Nursing and Midwifery, Griffith University - avatar Thea van de Mortel, Professor, Nursing and Deputy Head (Learn & Teaching), School of Nursing and Midwifery, Griffith University

7 Tips to Get Your New Website Indexed by Google Quickly

So, you have just launched a new website; congratulations!! But then soon enough, you are confronted with the challenge of your website or some pages not showing up on Google. The dream of every...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

Making it harder to import e-cigarettes is good news for our health, especially young people's

ShutterstockFrom next year, access to e-cigarettes and related products containing liquid nicotine will require a doctor’s prescription. This is to ensure liquid nicotine is handled like the poi...

Becky Freeman, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sydney - avatar Becky Freeman, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sydney

288 new coronavirus cases marks Victoria's worst day. And it will probably get worse before it gets better

Victoria has recorded 288 new COVID-19 cases since yesterday, the largest daily increase we’ve seen so far.This big jump must have the Victorian government and health authorities very concerned...

Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics, University of South Australia - avatar Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics, University of South Australia

Which face mask should I wear?

ShutterstockAustralia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly today recommended people in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire wear masks when leaving the house:[…] If people have symptoms and the...

Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, Epidemiologist, UNSW - avatar Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, Epidemiologist, UNSW

Rising coronavirus cases among Victorian health workers could threaten our pandemic response

ShutterstockOver the past week, we’ve seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 infections among health-care workers in Victoria.This includes a doctor at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospi...

Rochelle Wynne, Director, Western Sydney Nursing & Midwifery Research Centre, Western Sydney University - avatar Rochelle Wynne, Director, Western Sydney Nursing & Midwifery Research Centre, Western Sydney University

3 Easy Demi-Glace Recipes

Demi-glace holds a very special place in the traditional cooking world. It’s a rich brown sauce used traditionally in French cuisine, and can be used by itself or as a base for other delectabl...

News Company - avatar News Company

Thinking about working from home long-term? 3 ways it could be good or bad for your health

ShutterstockThe coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work from home, often in less than ideal circumstances.Many employees had little choice in the decision, limited time to prepare, patchy t...

Carol T Kulik, Research Professor of Human Resource Management, University of South Australia - avatar Carol T Kulik, Research Professor of Human Resource Management, University of South Australia

why NZ's law lacks necessary detail to make a fully informed decision

Photographee.eu/ShutterstockWhen New Zealanders go to the polls in September, they will also be asked to vote in a referendum on assisted dying.Parliament already passed the End of Life Choice Act in ...

Rhona Winnington, Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology - avatar Rhona Winnington, Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion