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Egypt: Ancient Egypt Stockbreeding, ranching and Hunting


The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Stockbreeding and the Hunt


Some of the products of the black earth were destined for use not by the Egyptians themselves but by their constant companions, helpmates and source of sustenance domestic animals. The green expanses of cultivated lucerne, clover and the chickling vetch Lathyrus sativus, provided fodder for cattle especially. Herds and flocks would often wander far off in search of meadows and pastureland as well as clearing up the straw and chaff left in the fields after the corn crop.

The Egyptians probably inherited some of their farm-stock in their present domestic forms from Asia Minor, some perhaps via parts of North Africa. Stockbreeding was already a routine activity in the earliest Neolithic settlements in the Faiyum and on the western edge of the Delta (Merimda Beni Salama), as we can tell from fragments of bone found in the remains of prehistoric meals. Cave drawings in Upper Egypt and Nubia feature domesticated cattle as well as vivid hunting scenes.

Historic times witnessed a continuous increase not only of agricultural output but in the number and size of herds which, like the soil, belonged to large estate-owners and were tended by professional drovers and shepherds. These men had their own managers and overseers as well as their own assistants such as 'bucket carriers' and 'foddermen'. Each specialized as a rule in one kind of animal - cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, asses, oryx (which they had tried to domesticate during the Old Kingdom), horses (introduced in the New Kingdom), geese and other poultry, and even dogs.

In tomb scenes we can distinguish herdsmen by their very appearance. They were as a rule conspicuously lean; being forever on the move with their charges they had to stint themselves on food and creature comforts. They were usually unshaven, but with little or no hair on their heads. They wore their kilts tucked up and carried over their shoulders a long stick with a roll of matting hanging from it (for protection from wind and sun) and a bundle of pots and food. We see them bringing their animals to the estate-owners or their bailiffs, milking, feeding young stock, helping herds to ford rivers, assisting deliveries and so forth.

Every farmer also kept a small number of animals himself to provide indispensable assistance in various tasks, as well as milk, meat and wool. Foremost among the farm animals were the horned cattle evolved from the pre- historic Bos primigenius. The older race, documented in bone finds and drawings of the Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, had long lyre-shaped horns such as we still find in Sudan, though no longer in Egypt itself. During the close of the Old Kingdom thinner-legged shorthorn breeds appear. Some experts believe that the long-horned varieties were either displaced by these, or wiped out in some epidemic.

There are no ancient Egyptian records of the great black Indian buffalo so common in the country today, though some consider that the water buffalo may have existed, and in earliest times the African buffalo too. The herds contained more cows than bulls, there is no satisfactory evidence that oxen were known. In the daytime cattle were driven out onto pasture or harvest fields. To ensure that grass was not over-trampled the animals were tethered by thick date palm-fiber ropes to stones buried in the ground.

To protect them from wild beasts and thieves, cattle were herded each night into palisaded pens or, in the colder winter months, into byres. A wooden model in the 11th-dynasty tomb of the noble Meketre at Deir el-Bahari shows one with two compartments and an interconnecting door. In the rear four cattle are feeding from a trough; in the front half two men are fattening up a pair of cows destined for slaughter, while the ubiquitous guard stands with his stick in the doorway.

Animals were tethered to rows of thick wooden pegs like those found during the excavation of the New Kingdom town of Gurob. Large cattle-herds formed the basic capital of the big estates. This is demonstrated in another wooden model from Meketre's tomb where we see this landowner seated with his son in a pavilion, watching his herds in a kind of march-past. No doubt the occasion was a cattle-census for tax purposes, as indicated by the presence of four scribes, busily recording. A row of herdsmen are steering the cattle into single file; there are three men counting the numbers aloud while the chief herdsman bows and kneels before the landlord.

Ever since prehistoric times Egyptians had kept flocks of Ovis longipes palaeouegyptiaca, a sheep with long spiral horns spread out horizontally, of tall stature and with a long tail. In the Middle Kingdom another species arrived, Ovis platyura aegyptiaca, with spiral horns close to the head, lower build and short fat tails. The former type was seen as the incarnation of Khnum, god of the First Cataract, and a few other deities with ram's heads, while the second was the symbol of the Theban god Amun, who became the chief divinity during the New Kingdom. Despite, or perhaps because of this, sheep's milk and meat did not figure among offerings to the dead. Priests were forbidden, especially during the Late Period, to eat mutton or wear wool.

The domestic shorthaired goat, in both short and long-horned forms, can be seen on some tomb murals. It played no part in religious or funeral rites, but it provided skins, milk and meat that even the poorer could afford. Texts indicate that goats were more numerous than sheep up to Ptolemaic times, when the proportions were reversed. The farm pig is a domesticated form of the wild boar, tamed independently in several places including the eastern half of the Delta as well as in the Crimea, Thessaly, eastern Asia and elsewhere. It was farmed probably in Neolithic times at Merimda Beni Salama; it is attested in the 3rd dynasty.

Old Kingdom reliefs still show it as a slender animal with long legs, a thick growth of bristle on the back and a long snout, showing that it had not been long domesticated. But both in pictures and in food remains the pig occurs rather infrequently. Only from the 18th dynasty do we have many textual references to large herds of hogs. The noble Renen, for example, is shown on his tomb-relief at el-Kab inspecting his stock and glorying in the possession of 4500 pigs.

Thousands of swine were among the property dedicated to the Memphite deity Ptah by Amenophis III. 0..00.The value of pork as a food item for Akhetaten emerges from the latest research by Barry Kemp into the walled workers' village south of the city. A number of stone animal enclosures subdivided into smaller compartments, carefully painted in one case with several layers of plaster, were here used - to judge by the bristles and coprolites that have turned up - for large scale pig-breeding. The clean whitewashed areas were no doubt used for butchering the carcasses after the removal of the bristles by steam-scolding. The design and scale of the accommodation suggests that it was not used for village requirements only but was a pork-production center for the whole city. To spare the villagers the smell, the enclosures had been sited on the south and east sides in the lee of the prevailing winds. Recent examination of bones in waste-tips has also confirmed the popularity of pig-meat among working-class Egyptians.

A common beast of burden in Egypt (and for a long time the only means of transport) was the donkey. It was domesticated from the Nubian wild ass Equas asinus africanus in the fourth millennium BC, probably in North Africa and perhaps, as some believe, in Upper Egypt. Up to the Persian Period Egyptians relied exclusively on the donkey for land travel in their own country and even for long expeditions to Sinai, to the mountain valleys of the Eastern Desert and to distant oases in the west. As the donkey could not survive long without food and water, travelers across the desert had to take fodder with them, and water for their mounts as well as themselves. Their slow speed was another disadvantage. Nevertheless every peasant kept donkeys, since harvest and other field work would have been hard to manage without them.

Wild camels were probably known to the Egyptians from the distant past. There is a camel's grave in the Helwan cemetery (1st and 2nd dynasties) and camel-shaped vases have been found at the Old Kingdom site of Abusir el-Meleq. The Bedouin of northern and central Arabia are credited with having domesticated camels in the latter half of the second millennium BC. Authors differ in dating the first occurrence of domesticated camels in Egypt - theories range from 525 BC to the turn of the millennium. With its proverbially modest requirements of food and water, both being stored in its fatty hump, the camel enabled long desert treks to be accomplished much faster and more safely than before.

As regards the horse, originally perhaps domesticated on the steppes of what is now the Ukraine, we know that it first turned up in Egypt in the army the Asiatic Hyksos invaders at the end of the Middle Kingdom. The Austrian Archaeological Institute team recently found a number of horse burials at Tell el-Dab'a, which is probably the site of Avaris, the residence of the Hyksos kings. During the New Kingdom the Egyptians started horse-breeding for themselves, but this was restricted to the stables of the king and the highest dignitaries, where there were special stablemen to look after them. They used to be harnessed to light two-wheeled chariots, in which the king attended ceremonies, hunts and army parades - or rode to war.

Some of the pharaohs were so fond of their steeds that they tended them themselves. Amenophis Il's affection for horses, for example, is demonstrated on the stele that he had erected in front of the Sphinx at Giza. When the 25 th-dynasty king Piankhi had conquered Hermopolis he visited the stables there and found that the horses had starved to death during the long siege, and this caused 'great grief to his heart'. We know that two of Ramesses II's horses were named 'Theban Victory' and 'Mut is Content'. Occasionally senior dignitaries were allowed to own horses; a painting in his tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga shows the 18th-dynasty royal physician Nebamun hunting hyenas in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by a pair of horses with colored plumes.

The arrival on the scene of man's faithful friend the dog through domestication of the wolf was brought about independently in several parts of the world during the Mesolithic age. The oldest domestication sites have been given as Persia, North America and possibly Northeast Africa - though probably not Egypt itself, where the earliest records of dogs are from the Predynastic Period. We find them often on murals, starting in the Old Kingdom.

The only animal we know for certain to have been domesticated by the Egyptians is their cat, descended from the North African wild subspecies Felis silvestris lybica; it is attested in Neolithic times. Joachim Boessneck concluded that the domestication process took thousands of years, so that we can only speak of tame cats from the New Kingdom onwards. The cat's popularity arose primarily from its capacity for ridding houses of rodents. It was in this protective role that Bastet was honored, a goddess represented as a cat, or woman with a cat's head. From the New Kingdom the same animal is sometimes associated with the goddess Tefnut, from whom it took over her title of the 'Eye of King Re', personifying the sun's life-giving heat.

Poultry had been kept since time immemorial, notably geese as shown in the celebrated painting in the tomb of Princess Itet of the 3rd dynasty. The birds are here rendered in such faithful detail that experts have been able to identify two species of Anser and two of Branta, closer to ducks. A fifth native kind, the wild Egyptian Goose, was never farmed. Five species of duck were also bred, notably the pintail. The domestic hen was introduced to Egypt only later, after the first Persian conquest according to some, according to others not before Ptolemaic times. It seems though that where the report of Tuthmosis III's Syrian expedition speaks of a bird that lays eggs every day, it is referring to the hen. Isolated finds of egg-shell, and what looks like a cock drawn on a New Kingdom ostracon from the Valley of the Kings suggest that the domestic chicken may have been bred even then

Egyptian poultry scuffled about for food in courtyards or feeding-pens. There were even specialized poultry farms with their own offices, store-sheds and rooms for the staff. But even there birds were never cooped up without a free run. The principles of artificial incubation were also known, though for this purpose eggs were simply buried in dunghills which produced the
requisite heat. Dovecotes were set up either on rooftops or as separate buildings of mud and straw, the variety of design adding a picturesque touch to towns and villages then as now. Their denizens probably included the Rock Dove, ancestor of modern domestic pigeons, but this is not quite certain.

As early as Paleolithic times man had acquired a taste for wild bees' honey, as we know from cave paintings at Bicorp in Spain. The oldest Egyptian drawing of honey being taken from a nest of wild bees dates from the Neolithic Age. The practice continued in historic times; there were professional honey-collectors (bityw) who plied their trade along the desert fringes and deep into Nubia. The domestication of bees, however, goes back at least to the Old Kingdom.

It is interesting to note the attempts made in ancient Egypt to domesticate other wild creatures by snaring them and trying to breed them alongside tame species. We know that this was done with several kinds of antelope and gazelle, with the Nubian ibex, the Barbary sheep and even the hyena, heron and crane. The object of such experiments is clear from illustrations in mastabas where the animals are shown with collars round their necks to which a leash could be fastened. Force-feeding of cranes by stuffing balls of flour down their throats, as with geese, is shown not only in several Saqqara mastabas but also in that of Ptahshepses at Abusir and in the tomb of Djehutihotep at el-Bersha.

There is evidence of crane-farming in the Middle Kingdom and these birds feature in a sacrificial procession in the 18th-dynasty temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari with their beaks tied for safety to their necks. There are famous portrayals of hyena-feeding in the 6th-dynasty mastabas of Mereruka and Kagemni at Saqqara, where two keepers are having a hard time holding one animal down on his back while they stuff pieces of meat and poultry into its muzzle.

The most ferocious specimens had to have their hind legs tied together first. Some writers believe the intention was to train hyenas for taking part in hunts. A few other animals may be mentioned which kings or nobles kept as pets or curious rarities. There are pictures showing gazelles tied like dogs to a chair that some dignitary is seated on. Ladies liked to take dorcas deer with them for walks.

During the Old Kingdom in particular aristocrats amused themselves with the antics of monkeys brought from Nubia or remoter parts of Africa, especially baboons and guenons. There are records of mongoose-breeding in Roman times. Tame cheetahs may have been used in hunts. One dangerous hobby was keeping a lion about the house. Only a pharaoh could go in for this, of course; we know that Tutankhamun did, and likewise Ramesses II, Ramesses III and Ramesses IV.



Queen Hatshepsut had a regular menagerie set up. According to Dale Osborn it was stocked with animals brought back from the Land of Punt - baboons, giraffes, cheetahs and exotic birds. In his northern palace at Akhetaten, too, King Akhetaten had a wild animal enclosure and an aviary.

In the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods in particular Egyptians used to catch, for ritual purposes, animals that they believed to be the incarnations of various gods. Foremost among these was the falcon, as the incarnation of Horus (though other birds of prey could be substituted, according to recent research on bird-mummies): the vulture (for the goddess Nekhbet); the sacred ibis (Thoth); the crocodile (Sobek) and several kinds of fish. At the New Kingdom site of Gurob, William Loat discovered a unique fish-cemetery where dried Nile perches and other species had been placed in hollows, wrapped up in dry grass.

Other animals, such as baboons and various monkeys (again symbolizing Thoth) were imported to be kept in temples. Some common animals were also recruited to act as divine reincarnations, such as the cow (mother of the god Apis), the bull (Apis himself), the cat (the goddess Bastet) and the dog (Anubis). Mummified animals, brought along by the devout as sacrifices, were laid in their hundreds of thousands in underground corridors at the sacred-animal cemeteries such as those of Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel. The custom must have contributed to reduction or extermination of several species in Egypt (falcon, ibis and crocodile).

Those who kept animals knew them well - their mating habits, their diet and growth, their ailments and all their characteristics. They took pleasure in breeding them successfully, but did not see them merely as utilities.

A balanced relationship between people and beasts was seen by the ancient Egyptians as one element in the eternal global and cosmic order. Anyone who really knew his animals understood how close they were to him or her, in their physiology, their ailments and, to a degree, their psychology. People could not fail to see moreover the close kinship that much mythology reflected. The sound relationship between them benefited not only the animals, but humans too.

Love of the hunt had come down to the Egyptians from their prehistoric forebears. It had at one time, after all, been the only way of getting meat. In Neolithic and predynastic days hunting and fishing were still an important supplement to stockbreeding. A famous hunting scene that has survived from the time of the country's unification shows a party out for lions, gazelles, stags and ostrich. By historic times, however, agriculture and stockbreeding had increased to the point where hunting was losing its economic significance. It gradually became the sport of kings, courtiers and dignitaries, in which they could display their strength and valor. Scholars such as E. V. Cherezov, however, have pointed out that there were even in later times areas of food-gathering and procurement of materials for certain crafts where hunting did not become entirely redundant.

Prehistoric Egypt had been a hunter's paradise. Human settlements were still limited to the edge of the valley where the ground started sloping up to the high plateaus, or to the mouths of the side-valleys: from there the first farmers had only begun gradually to cultivate the fertile alluvium. At that time it was a watery jungle of trees and scrub, mixed with boggy thickets of reed and papyrus, alive with elephants, giraffe, lions, rhinoceros, wild boar, antelopes, gazelles, deer of many sorts, ibex, mouflon, all kinds of birds, fish, crocodiles and hippopotamus. However, the draining of the marshes and extension of the cultivated area during the first three dynasties forced the larger game out of the valley proper.

The siting of royal palaces in the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis indicates that hunting was pursued at the time mainly on the plains beyond the nearby line of pyramid burials. Each of the pharaohs employed a master of the hunt to accompany him, along with a whole troupe of attendants and beaters. The usual quarry were the many species of gazelle and antelope (dorcas, addax, oryx, etc.), ibex, little ox, Barbary sheep and ostriches. A higher degree of skill and courage was demanded for chasing hyenas, lions and leopards. Hyenas abounded in the desert; there were still a fair number of lions, to judge from the frequency with which they appear in Old Kingdom art, but leopards were less common.

Like fowling, angling was pursued for two purposes, sport and utility. As a sport it was cultivated by aristocrats in the Old and Middle Kingdoms who normally used a harpoon while standing in their papyrus canoes. By the time of the New Kingdom anglers had evidently become lazier: they are now often portrayed with rod and line, sitting in armchairs beside their garden pools.

Economic fishing, with a tradition going back to prehistoric times, was carried out continually by professionals on the Nile and its canals, as well as on Lake Moeris in the Faiyum.

Fishing seems to have been particularly important during the Middle Kingdom. In several Saqqara mastabas we see fishermen with rods and lines, sitting in their I papyrus canoes and waiting for a bite. Fishing scenes often contain a tussle between the crews of two papyrus boats. Two fishermen try to knock each other into the water with long poles. We are usually shown one of them in the act of falling in. These were evidently friendly sporting fights serving to break the monotony.

Not even angling was without its dangers, for there was one species of catfish armed with a poisonous spine on its dorsal fin. According to Strabo even crocodiles were afraid of it. On one relief a man is shown sitting on the riverbank, pulling one of these fish out of the catch and extracting the dreaded spine. Khety's Instruction mentions another peril. 'And now I will tell you about the fisherman, who has a harder time than any. His work takes him to a river infested with crocodiles. When the time comes to count up [the catch], he wrings his hands over it, without even thinking "There might be a crocodile around!" Too late he is gripped with fear. Then as soon as he reaches the water he falls as if struck by the hand of god.' Even if the scribe exaggerates as usual in order to highlight the advantages of his own profession, it was true that if a canoe capsized not even the best swimmer could be sure of escaping the dreaded jaws.

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