Fossils: The Other Ancient Egypt

The Other Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Henry Stone

When we think of ancient Egypt, we see majestic temples and beautifully decorated tombs. Some of us also think of the medieval Islamic mosques, with their wonderful geometric designs and even crusader fortresses, such as the Citadel. But few of us think of a much older Egypt, where the fossils of a huge variety of our very ancient world may be found.

They are found all over Egypt. Dinosaurs have certainly been found in the Western Desert, and other fossils surface in such places as lake Moeris north of Wadi Natrun. But traditionally, the most important site for ancient fossils in Egypt is the Fayoum, which modern scholars have called "the best known Paleogene site in Africa".

Whatever their nature, these fossils provide key insights into many aspects of mammalian evolution in the Old World. The impressive list of Fayoum fossil vertebrates includes:

1. anthracotheres - a group of artiodactyl (even-toed ungulates), hippopotamus-like ungulates,

2. arsinitheres (Order Embrithopoda-extinct) - large, rhinoceros-like ungulates which have no descendants,

3. creodonts (Order Creodonta) - archaic, hyaena-like hunters and scavengers who constituted the main predators during the early Tertiary, but which later were replaced by modern carnivores,

4. giant hyracoids (Order Hyracoidea) - primitive ungulates, some attaining the size of boars whose earliest representatives dated from the Fayoum Oligocene,

5. proboscideans (Order Proboscidea) - including ancestral forms that shed light on the evolution of the mastodons and the modern elephants;

6. barytheres (Order Barytheria) - unusual elephant-like forms that left no descendants (their exact taxonomic position is unknown but they are generally placed closest to the proboscideans);

7. basilosaurs - ancestral whales with external limbs that link older land-dwelling ungulates to modern cretaceans;

8. sirenians (sea cows) (Order Sirenia), rodents (Rodentia), bats (Chiroptera), jumping shrews (Macroscelidea),

9. insectivores including the new order Ptolemaiida,

10. marsupials (Diprotodonta), the first known from Africa,

11. primates including the genera Apidium, Oligopithecus, Parapithecus, Propliopithecus, and Aegyptopithecus

The Fossil Hunters

A petrified tree in the sands of Egypt's vast desert

A. B. Orlebar as the first person to document a petrified tree in the Fayoum in 1845. However, it was George Schweinfurth, a German geologist, who while exploring the single island named Geziret al-Qarn in the middle of the lake, Birket Qarun, discovered shark teeth and bones in 1879. This was the first fossil animal find, and he continued to explore what became known as the Qasr al-Sagha Formation where he eventually found ancient whale fossils that he named Zeuglodom osiris.

The Geological Survey of Egypt, headed by Hugh Beadnell, surveyed Fayoum in 1898, and together with Charles Andrews, a paleontologist with the Museum of Natural History in London who joined him in 1901, they unearthed a wealth of fossils which they published beginning in 1901. It was this team who recognized the fossils of a Palaeomastodon, the oldest known elephant, discovered by a Bedouin in the Fayoum. This was the first land mammal fossil discovered in Egypt. Later, in 1905, Eberhard Frass came to the Fayoum region looking for fossils, but we know very little of his work.

In the early 1900s, Richard Markgraf came to the Fayoum to live and collect artifacts for museums in Europe and the United States. In 1906, a pocket of fossils he discovered included the jaw of a primate later identified by Osborn as Apidium phiomense. This turned out to be the first primate ever discovered in Egypt as well, thought to be a dawn ape. Markgraf continued to have considerable luck, uncovering both large and small mammal fossils until he died in Sinnuris in 1916.

One of the best known, as well as most documented fossil expeditions to the Fayoum began in 1907 when the Museum of Natural History in New York, under the direction of Walter Granger, began its long term investigation and collection of fossil remains. Granger was assisted by George Olsen and this team represented the first time that American paleontologists had left the continental United States to look for fossils. The curator of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, Henry F. Osborn, also accompanied them, and they stayed in the Fayoum for a number of months, even providing us with a dairy of their efforts. They sailed out of Egypt on June 15th of that year with twenty-seven cases of fossils.

Apparently there was little investigation of fossils during the first or second world wars, and for that matter, even between those two universal conflicts. However, at the end of World War II, in 1947, the Pan African Expedition under Wendell Phillips of the University of California at Berkeley collected a number of fossils. However, it was not until 1961, when Elwyn Simons came to the Fayoum to investigate its fossils, that fossil work in the area once more intensified. Work has continues ever since then, resulting in many outstanding finds. Some seventeen expeditions were mounted between 1961 and 1986, and during that time, Simons collected tens of thousands of fossil specimens. Today, they may be seen in the Cairo Geological Museum as well as at Yale Peabody and the Duke University Primate Center in the United States. Since the 1980, work as continued under the direction of Bowm and Rasmussen.

Types of Fossils

Petrified Wood

Not just the Fayoum, but the entire Western Desert of Egypt is covered in Petrified wood. This is certain one of our clues that the region was at one time had a tropical climate. The petrified wood is very diverse and many samples are very beautiful, often actually littering the ground in certain areas.

Various Trace Fossils

Trace fossils are actually only the trail or debris left from the activity of plants or animals, preserved as fossils. Animal trails are called ichnofossils, while the root of a plant leaves a rhizolith. Of course, we can find examples of trace fossils almost anywhere on earth, but they are exceptionally prolific in the Fayoum. However, it is not the number of trace fossils that amaze scientists investigating the region, but rather their variety.

One authority on Fayoum trace fossils, Thomas M. Brown, has identified fifteen types of animal trail fossils (ichnofossils) which he as classified into four groups. The four groups consist of communal nesting social insects like termites and ants, burrowing invertebrates, worms and excavators. Brown believes that the most important formation relevant to trace fossils is the Gebel Qatrani, which he says contain the "most important assemblage as yet described from fluvial rocks of the world".

The Testudo ammon Turtle

Also, further evidence that the area was a coastal plain at one time is found along the base of the Gebel Qatrani Formation at Madwar al-Bighal, consisting of Mangrove rhizoliths.


Turtle fossils are the most common reptiles found in the Fayoum, including Testudo ammon, a land tortoise as large as those on the Galapagos Islands today. Charles Andrews discovered the first examples of these in the early 1900s. We also find the fossil remains of Podocnemis blanckenhorni and Stereogenys pelomedusa, where were both river and tropical land turtles.

An Artist's Rendition of a Feeding Gigantophis

An Artist's Rendition of a Feeding Gigantophis

Perhaps more interesting to some are the gigantic snake fossils, including Gigantophis, measuring some 9 meters (29 feet), and hence possibly the longest snake known to man. This was a mid-Eocene reptile found in the Qasr al-Sagha Formation. Another snake found in the same formation was Pterosphernus, a sea snake. We also have the Tomistoma, an crocodile type animal which is not extinct today, but is also no longer in Egypt.

Modern Day  Tomistoma (Not in Egypt)


Even today, the Fayoum, as well as a number of other areas in Egypt are considered havens for many migrating birds. In fact, bird watching is a growing pastime and tourist activity in the region. The fossils of thirteen different bird families have been identified in the Fayoum, of which only two are extinct. Interestingly, we may find the remaining species alive and living together in a limited area of Uganda bordering Lake Victoria and the upper Nile River even today. That area is not unlike the climate of the Fayoum long ago.

The Fayoum has provided us with the earliest known records of both the ospreys (Pandionidae) and the gigantic shoebilled stork (Balaenicipitidae). Other bird fossils discovered include the jacanas, sometimes called lily-trotters (Jacanidae), herons, egrets, rails (Rallidae), cranes (Gruidae), flamingos (Phoenicopteridae), storks (Cinconiidae), cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae), and an ancient eagle named Accipitridae. Of course many of these types of birds continue to visit the Fayoum.


After years of research, we know that there are at least twenty orders of mammal fossils in the Fayoum. Some of these animals were natives of Africa, while others migrated from Eurasia. While a large Hyrax (megalohyrax oecaenus) was probably the most common mammal of the Fayoum, some of the most interesting animals included the Arsinoiherium, various Elephants and mastodons, as well as the Zeuglodon, the Fayoum's famous whale.

Fossilized bone fragments from a Zeuglodon

Over 240 skeletons of the Zeuglodon, or more precisely the Basilosaurus (which means "King of Reptiles, a mistake made in when it was named in 1835 since whales are mammals) isis, have been found in an eight square kilometer (5 square mile) area of the Fayoum known today as Wadi Zeuglodon (or wadi al-Hitan, Whale Valley). Apparently this area was once a bay where the animals died in great numbers.

These early whales averaged about twenty meters (64 feet) in length, were rather slender compared to many modern whales, having an eel shaped body and saw like teeth. This spectacular example of evolution, unlike modern whales, also had feet. While modern whales retain small nubs where their hind legs once were, the Zeuglodon had small, fully-developed hind legs with a femur, patella, tibia, fibula and four toes.

How a Zeuglodon may have  appeared

It should be noted that it existed in the Fayoum over forty million years ago, while the oldest known whale, the Pakicetus, dates only to fifty million years ago. The Zeuglodon was probably an evolutionary dead end, but it does teach us about the transition of whales from land mammals to sea mammals.

Another whale found in Wadi Zeuglodon is the Dorudon, which though much smaller at only 3 to 5 meters (12 to 15 feet) in length, may actually prove to have a link with modern whales.

The Arsinoitherium, named for the Egyptian Ptolemaic (Greek) queen, Arsinoe, from the order of Embrithopoda looked much like a rhinoceros with two horns, but is today extinct. Originally, they were thought to have existed only in the ancient Fayoum forest (during the Lower Oligocene 25 to 45 million years ago), but examples of this mammal appear to have now been found elsewhere, including Romania and Turkey. The original Arsinoitherium was about the size and shape of a modern rhinoceros at about 3.4 meters (11 feet) in length. The animals had five toed hooves, forty-four high crowned teeth and was probably semi-amphibian living in marshy areas. This animal, discovered by Beadnell in 1902, was named Arsinoitherium zitteli after one of the members of the Rohlfs expedition. In 1903, Andrews and Lankester discovered Arsinoitherium andrewsi, a similar animal though about one third the size of the Arsinoitherium zitteli. While research continues and many questions remain unanswered about these animals, it is almost certain that the two types of Arsinoitheriums could not have existed at the same time.

The Arsinoitherium

Elephants (mastodonsdiscovered in the Fayoum include the Moeritherium, and his descendants, Palaeomastodon and Phioma. The Moeritherium, which lived between 36 and 45 million years ago, is often considered a Dawn Elephant who's remains have been found in both marine deposits of the Eocene in the Fayoum, and in the lake beds of Moeris north of Wadi Naturn. It was well suited to the swampland where it lived, with its short, heavy legs and wide feet with flat hooves. This fat animal standing only about one meter (3 feet) high, had more of a snout than a trunk, with its upper lip elongated and very mobile. It had cusped theet.

An artist's  palaeomastodon

The Palaeomastodon and Phioma both had four tusks with one pair each in the upper and lower jaws, and probably at least short, real trunks. The mature Palaeomastodon stood about 1.5 meters (8 feet) tall at the shoulders.

Both the slow moving Arsinoitherium and the early elephants were probably easy prey for the Apterodon, Pterodon and Hyaenodon with their razor sharp teeth.


The Fayoum primates which existed between 28 and 35 million years ago represent the most investigated fossils in the region. When first discovered, this unique and varied group of fossils were thought to be the earliest relatives of apes and moneys, and their study has certainly altered scientific theories about primate evolution.

When Richard Markgraf found the first piece of Apidium in 1907, which was later published by Henry Osborn in 1908, they were not even sure that it was a primate. Since then, we have learned a great deal about Fayoum primates. We now know from these intensive investigations that primates lived in the forested Fayoum of the Eocene and Oligocene periods.

The two groups of Fayoum primates are referred to as lower sequence primates and upper sequence primates, though little is actually known of the lower sequence primates. The lower sequence primates include Oligopithecus savagei, who's teeth pattern may identify it as a link between Eocene prosimians and Oligocene anthropoideans, and the Qatrania wingi. However, our only evidence of these animals appears to be a few and a few teeth, discovered by Simons in 1962, of the Oligopithecus savagei, and three small jaws of the Qatrania.

Artist's rendition of an Apidium

The upper sequence primates are much better known, and scientists know of no other site in the world where they are so varied. So far, some eleven different species have been identified.

The oldest known actual primate from the Fayoum is Catopithecus browni and Proteopitheus sylvia which date to the late Eocene. These would be followed by Oligopithecus, and then by Apidium moustafai and Apidium phiomense, discovered respectively by Simons in 1962, and Osborn in1908. Both of these primates are short faced monkeys. The Apidium phiomense was the most common mammal in the upper sequences of the Gebel Qatrani Formation, while the Apidium moustafai was the smallest Fayoum primate.

Other primates include Parapithecus fraasi, discovered by Schlosser in 1911 and Parapithecus grangeri, who's fossils were unearthed in 1974 by Simons in upper level quarries. Both are squirrel monkeys with teeth that associate them more with Old World monkeys rather than the Apidium.

Next, we find the arrival of the true "dawn apes". These include Aegyptopithecus zeuxis and four species of Propliopithecus, consisting of P. chirobates, P. ankeli, P. haeckeli and P. markgrafi. Of these, the Aegyptopithecus zeuxis was the largest of the Oligocene primates at almost twice the size of the earlier primates. According to Simon, it was similar to a howling monkey, with a short tail and low brow. Dating from 28 to 30 million years ago, Leakey and Leakey compared it to Afropithecus, finding vary similar facial cranium and mandible traits. Simon speculates that it is the "first striking indication of a strong link between a particular species of Oligocene primate with a species of ape from the succeeding Miocene epoch." It is possible that Aegyptopithecus zeuxis evolved into dryopithecines which finally turned into orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas.

How an Aegyptopithecus  zeuxis may have appeared

Chirobtes is the smallest of the Propliopitheci primates, and is set apart from the haeckeli and markgrafi by a different tooth structure. However, the haeckeli and markgrafi bear the closest resemblance to human beings and have actually been called the earliest known hominoids. In fact, in the world of evolution science, they are thought to perhaps be mankind's earliest ancestors.


Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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