As a University of Queensland researcher examined a 4600-year-old Egyptianpainting last year, a speckled goose caught his eye.
UQ scientist Dr Anthony Romilio said the strange but beautiful bird was quiteunlike modern red-breasted geese ( Branta ruficollis), with distinct, boldcolours and patterns on its body, face, breast, wings and legs.
“The painting, Meidum Geese, has been admired since its discovery in the 1800sand described as ‘Egypt’s Mona Lisa’,” he said.
“Apparently no-one realised it depicted an unknown species.
“Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, butartworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds andmammals.”
Dr Romilio said no bones from modern red-breasted geese ( Branta ruficollis) had been found on any Egyptian archaeological site.
“Curiously, bones of a similar but not identical bird have been found onCrete,” he said.
“From a zoological perspective, the Egyptian artwork is the only documentationof this distinctively patterned goose, which appears now to be globallyextinct.”
Dr Romilio said extinct animals had been identified previously in ancient art,but not all the species had been scientifically confirmed.
“I applied the Tobias criteria to the goose, along with other types of geesein the fresco,” he said.
“This is a highly effective method in identifying species – using quantitativemeasurements of key bird features – and greatly strengthens the value of theinformation to zoological and ecological science.”
Dr Romilio said Egypt was not always predominantly desert and had “abiodiverse history, rich with extinct species”.
“Its ancient culture emerged when the Sahara was green and covered withgrasslands, lakes and woodlands, teeming with diverse animals, many of whichwere depicted in tombs and temples,” he said.
“So far, science has confirmed the identity of relatively few of thesespecies.”
Dr Romilio said the artwork he examined was from the tomb of Nefermaat andItet at Meidum and was now in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
“Art provides cultural insight, but also a valuable, graphical record ofanimals unknown today,” he said.
“These include the predecessor of modern cattle, the auroch ( Bosprimigenius ), and previously unknown forms of gazelle, oryx, antelope anddonkey.
“These ancient animal representations help us recognise the biodiversitythousands of years ago that co-existed with humans.
“I see it also as a reminder of humans’ influence over the survival of speciesthat are with us today.”
The research has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science:Reports (DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102834).
Dr Romilio said myriad species with colour markings not matching those ofmodern animals were detailed in A Guide to Extinct Animals of Ancient Egypt.
Images: ‘Meidum Geese’, Chapel of Itet, mastaba of Nefermaat and Itet(Dynasty 4), Meidum, Egypt. Image: C.K. Wilkinson.
Ancient goose depiction, photo CK Wilkinson, life reconstruction, A. Romilio,and modern species, photo Tambako the Jaguar. Above: Life reconstructions fromancient Egyptian art that may depict extinct species. All fromA Guide toExtinct Animals of Ancient Egypt.
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