An archaeological dig in the Delta unearths evidence of an Elephant Shrew where no Elephant Shrew should be
By Richard Hoath
Late this past summer I attended a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, organized by the Egyptian Exploration Society. The broad theme was zoo-archaeology, and there were a number of speakers including The American University in Cairo’s Dr. Salima Ikram speaking on a range of animal-related bio-archaeological goodies. My special interest — with huge apologies to Salima — was a presentation by Susan Davies on the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, a paper wonderfully titled “Holy Cow! The Mother of Apis Catacombs.” This was a dig in which I had, over two seasons, been involved with in a very minor capacity.
The cemetery on which I was working consisted of long catacombs extending deep into the cliffs at the northern and eastern edges of the plateau; these tunnels and a zillion side tunnels and ante-chambers were each lined with tens of thousands of clay jars each containing a mummified bird. Or at least a mummy that pretended to contain a bird. I spent many a happy weekend with my colleague Dr. Derek Russell carefully opening a tiny sample of these jars and unwrapping the mummies to examine the contents. If there were bones present — and a skull was what I always hoped for — I would then hit the books, measure and come up with an ID. More detail I cannot divulge as the full results have yet to be published by the leading researchers.
It was hot and sweaty work, and the tunnels themselves were heady with the mustiness and musk of bat guano. I like the smell. I am in a very small minority. The paper brought back very pleasant memories of my first dig experience.
But — and now with apologies to Sue — the paper that really captured my imagination was one given by Dr. Joanne Rowland of the Freie Universitat Berlin. Her lecture, titled The Ptolemaic Roman Cemetery and the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Quesna, summarized the work of her team, including experts from the University of Menoufia and Menoufia MSA, on the falcon galleries they had excavated.
The site is near the village of Quesna about 60 kilometers north of Cairo in the Central Delta and has been preserved as it is situated on — or until recently under — a huge sand bank known as a gezira that has protected the remains; it is also above the annual inundations that only ceased in the 1970s with the completion of the High Dam. The presentation was fascinating, and I could almost smell the bat guano again. But the site is not as spectacular as Saqqara, with the galleries constructed mostly from mud brick with only a few possible limestone features. The main galleries had been excavated by Dr. Rowland and her team between 2012 and 2014 and yielded huge numbers of raptor bones identified as Common Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon but also assorted kites, harriers and hawks as well as vast numbers of other non-raptor species.
And then came Dr. Rowland’s bombshell. Among all the bird remains excavated was a small bronze statuette and some odd jawbones. With the help of Dr. Ikram, at least one of those jawbones was identified as that of a Giant Elephant Shrew. It was now my jawbone’s turn to take center stage, as it dropped to the point I thought I was going to have to scrape it off the auditorium floor.
Mummified shrews are relatively common in these cemeteries. All those years ago I had paid a visit to a French team working on a cat cemetery, and they had found packages of shrews that they presumed had been sent with the cats into the afterlife as food. And shrews are found in modern Egypt — not common, it seems, but they are here. The Greater Musk Shrew Crocidura flavescens is the most widespread species reported from most of the Delta and south at least to Dashour. The Dwarf Shrew Crocidura nana is much smaller and very much rarer and may be confused with a much debated species Crocidura religiosa. In the Delta again (and shrews are moist habitat denizens) is the very rare Flower’s Shrew Crocidura floweri; it may even be extinct. From the regions around Marsa Matruh and possibly Sinai comes the Lesser White-toothed Shrew Crocidura suaveolens. The last two species have only been recorded once or twice in Egypt: the huge House Shrew Suncus murinus from Suez and the minute Savi’s Pygmy Shrew Suncus etruscus from the Delta — provenance unknown.
So why did my jaw hit the auditorium floor and goose bumps start prickling? It is because Elephant Shrews are not Shrews. The Shrews are of the widespread order Insectivora and the equally widespread family Soricidae; they are found in modern Egypt, and there are over 250 species recorded worldwide. My jaw may have wiggled slightly out of interest but my gob would not have been smacked.
Elephant Shrews are of a wholly separate order, Macroscelidea, and restricted to sub-Saharan Africa with the one exception of the Barbary Elephant Shrew from Morocco and western Algeria. They have never been recorded in East Africa north of Eritrea and South Sudan, and there is no known representation of them in any previous Ancient Egyptian art. Yet here was a bronze statuette that cried out Elephant Shrew, with the jawbone or bones.
I have seen Elephant Shrews in the wild. The first was a Bushveld Elephant Shrew Elephantulus intufi that I found and sketched from life while crossing the Namib Desert in, yes, Namibia way back in 1998. The second was a Four-toed Elephant Shrew Petrodromus tetradactylus that I almost trod on at dusk in the Sokoke Forest north of Mombasa in Kenya when I was in search of the even rarer Sokoke Scops Owl in 2007. Both these Elephant Shrews are the size of a mouse with long limbs and tail and with a hugely elongated and flexible nose that gives them their name. They also have prominent ears and eyes in contrast to the unrelated Shrews.
But Dr. Rowland’s discoveries were not of just Elephant Shrews. These were of Giant Elephant Shrews. These are the size of a large rat with a head and body length of over 30 centimeters and a tail not far shorter. Taxonomy is always changing but today three species are recognized: the Chequered Elephant Shrew Rhynchocyon cirnei of southern Tanzania northwest to Uganda and the Congo basin, the Zanj Elephant Shrew Rhynchocyon petersi of the eastern Tanzania and Kenyan coastal forest and the rarest of all, the Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew Rhynchocyon chrysopygus of the Sokoke Forest mentioned above and one other small area of forest.
I have seen the latter in the flesh and it is just as spectacular as the name implies. The Giant Elephant Shrews are largely active by day scampering through the forest undergrowth using a labyrinth of covered pathways that they construct through their territories. In the forest gloom, the Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew is not easy to see even being diurnal, but when there is a break in the canopy and a shaft of sunlight hits that gloriously colored posterior it sets that gloom aglow.
I commandeered Dr. Rowland at the end of her presentation and regaled her with my experiences with the critters in the wild. But I also had so many questions. The Giant Elephant Shrews go back as a group some 30 million years from the fossil records, and this same record shows that they have shown remarkably little change. The biologist Jonathan Kingdon points to this as evidence that their very restricted habitats and their ecological niche within those habitats must too have changed remarkably little over this time.
So what were they doing in Menoufia over 2,000 years ago and over 2,500 kilometers from their nearest current range? One possible answer could be that as the climate heated up here some 10,000 years ago, these creatures migrated with the human population to the Valley and Delta, and as human activity intensified there they were reduced to a single population in the southern Delta. Or perhaps they were exotics, brought back from expeditions to the land of Punt or elsewhere as curiosities, even pets.
But I have an invitation to the site for next spring and I cannot wait!
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