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Source of Egyptian Sacrificial Birds Revealed

Mummified black bird on table in lab

There are millions of bird mummies in Egypt’s Nile Valley. Scientists have long wondered whether these birds were raised to be sacrificed or hunted for the purpose. Researchers based in France examined 20 of the remains, and they now have their answer.

Animal Sacrifice

It certainly wasn’t great to be a bird (or cat, or lizard, or any animal really) in the Nile Valley from about the third millennium BC to the third century AD. That’s because, to keep their gods happy, if locals got their hands on you, you’d likely wind up as a mummy.

In trying to appease and honor their gods, Ancient Egyptians regularly practiced animal sacrifice and mummification. The god Thoth has a name that means “he who is like the Ibis,” so it makes sense that this breed of bird was sacrificed in his name. Birds were also sacrificed to the closely related gods of Horus and Ra, including birds of prey.

Birds From a Feather

But did the Egyptians raise these birds for sacrifice, or did they hunt them?

The French researchers got their answer by analyzing bits of feathers, bones, and embalming strips from 20 different birds held at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon. Using chemical analysis, they determined that the food sources eaten by the birds varied extensively and were quite different from the food eaten by humans at the time.

Had the birds been raised for sacrifice, their diets would have been more homogenous, so the researchers concluded that the birds were, indeed, hunted. Not only does the finding paint a more vivid picture of ancient Egyptian religious practices, but it also sheds light on the ecological stress such practices would have placed on wild bird populations at the time.

The findings have been reported in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.