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The Mysterious Land of Punt: Birthplace of the Ancient Egyptians

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

The Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor, Egypt, was constructed in 1740 BC. Paintings on its walls depict a journey to Punt.

The Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor, Egypt, was constructed in 1740 BC. Paintings on its walls depict a journey to Punt.

Ancient Egyptian trading records mention the land of Punt numerous times but do not provide its location.

The nature of the descriptions suggests that the Ancient Egyptians were in awe of Punt, which they referred to as "God's land". What sort of place must Punt have been to draw such admiration from the people who ruled the mightiest empire yet known to man?

In A Short History of the Egyptian People, Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge claims that: “Egyptian tradition of the Dynastic Period held that the aboriginal home of the Egyptians was Punt”. If the Egyptians saw Punt as their ancestral homeland, it would go some way to explaining their reverence for it.

What do we Know About Punt?

A bas-relief in the Temple of Hatshepsut shows an Ancient Egyptian trading expedition arriving in Punt.

A bas-relief in the Temple of Hatshepsut shows an Ancient Egyptian trading expedition arriving in Punt.

That an ancient land could hold such significance, yet leave no trace of its existence, is enough to make Punt an object of fascination.

It's believed that the civilization prospered between 2450 and 1155 BC and that it must have had peaceful relations with Egypt; since there's no record of any attempts to conquer Punt despite it being described as a land of riches.

Bas-reliefs on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut depict a trading expedition sent to Punt by Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt during the 15th century BC. Much of what we know about Punt comes from records dating back to her reign.

The bas-reliefs include an image of a sea voyage, and another showing the Egyptian delegation arriving in Punt. One relief even names the rulers of Punt at the time; Queen Ati and King Perahu.

Ancient Egyptian drawing showing a trading expedition being greeted by the rulers of Punt; King Par-hu, and Queen Ati.

Ancient Egyptian drawing showing a trading expedition being greeted by the rulers of Punt; King Par-hu, and Queen Ati.

Where was Punt?

As mentioned, the Ancient Egyptians did not provide an exact location of Punt, for reasons known only to them.

But there are a number of clues that point to its possible location:

Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs in The Temple of Hatshepsut don't provide Punt's location, but they do include it among the nations situated south of Egypt.

Images
Depictions of the voyage to Punt show flora and fauna native to Africa, such as rhinoceros, giraffes, and various species of plants.

Trade records
The goods imported from Punt include resources that were abundant in Africa; such as gold, ivory, and ebony. Most significant of all is the mention of a particularly prized substance known as Myrhh – a resin derived from trees indigenous to central and northeast African regions.

The voyage to Punt
The bas-reliefs include images of ships sailing on water populated by deep-sea fish. Furthermore, the remains of Ancient Egyptian ships carrying ebony and obsidian – substances included in records of goods imported from Punt – were discovered at Mersa Gawasis, which in ancient times was the location of a harbour used by the Egyptian empire to access the Red Sea.

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All of this suggests that the journey to Punt required Egyptian vessels to cross the ocean. This would appear to support the notion that Punt was located in the Middle East, as surely a journey southward through Africa would have been via the Nile River?

However, this is not as clear-cut as it seems. The lands to the south of Egypt were populated by hostile Nubians and were difficult to traverse even by river. It's conceivable that Egyptian trade expeditions could have circumvented such obstacles by accessing the northeast African coast from the Red Sea.

DNA evidence
Probably the biggest clue of all lies in the mummified remains of two baboons brought back from Punt as gifts for the Pharoah. Scientists from the American Research Centre in Egypt studied samples of these remains and identified the species as having originated in Ethiopia and Eritrea.


A map showing the supposed location of Punt.

A map showing the supposed location of Punt.

Conclusion: The Ancient Egyptian Empire Originated in Africa

All the evidence seems to point towards the northeast region of Africa, specifically Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, as being the true location of Punt. And since the Ancient Egyptians claimed Punt to be their ancestral homeland, this indicates that the founders of the Egyptian empire originated in northeast Africa.

Of course, such a revelation flies in the face of what many choose to believe about Ancient Egypt, particularly 19th-century scholars such as Josiah Clark Nott who made the absurd claim that the Ancient Egyptians were caucasian, despite Aristotle and Herodotus describing them as dark-skinned.

Another bas-relief in the Temple of Hatshepsut depicting the trade expedition to Punt; this one shows goods being unloaded from the boats.

Another bas-relief in the Temple of Hatshepsut depicting the trade expedition to Punt; this one shows goods being unloaded from the boats.

The Legacy of Punt

Whatever the case, Punt remains one of history's great mysteries. The lack of archaeological evidence only enhances its appeal, while the ambiguity of Ancient Egyptian descriptions of Punt ensure that it remains as much an object of fascination for us as it was for them.

References

The Land of Punt (Maps of World). Retrieved from https://www.mapsofworld.com/world-ancient-history/land-of-punt.html

Andrew Curry. (2011, 6 September). Egypt's Ancient Fleet: Lost for Thousands of Years, Discovered in a Desolate Cave (Discover Magazine). Retrieved from https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/egypts-ancient-fleet-lost-for-thousands-of-years-discovered-in-a-desolate

David Perlman. (2010, 8 May). Scientists zero in on ancient Land of Punt (San Francisco Chronicles). Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Scientists-zero-in-on-ancient-Land-of-Punt-3189601.php

Itibari M. Zulu. (1993). The Ancient Kemetic Roots of Library and Information Science (California University, Los Angeles. Afro-American Studies Center). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED382204.pdf




This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on January 30, 2015:

The kingdom of Sheba was also to have existed in the same area as indicated on the map. Perhaps Sheba is another word for Punt.

Matthew Flax (author) from Cape Town, South Africa on September 01, 2014:

Thanks, Greensleeves. Good point about the Egyptian perception of non-desert sites. Regarding whether the Egyptians could travel along the Nile to Punt, I think I remember reading somewhere that the lands to their south were very hostile. They probably could have travelled that way, but the Nubian kingdoms in that area wouldn't have taken kindly to them, so they decided a longer journey along the Red Sea was better than getting a spear through the gut.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on August 30, 2014:

Very interesting Matthew, and for me it's a useful introduction. I have heard of 'The Land of Punt' before, but only as a name. Like so many names of places and people in ancient history, I did not know whether it was real or mythological or anything else about it. Voted up accordingly.

My guess, based solely on what I have read here, is that a North East or East African site does seem most likely. Bearing in mind that Egyptian society was dependent upon - and confined to - a narrow band of fertile land around the Nile, almost any non-desert site would have seemed like a veritable 'Garden of Eden' (to mix up one's mythologies) to them.

As for travelling up the Nile towards its source, I'm sure navigation of the Nile may become more difficult the further one goes towards its source. Perhaps it was simply beyond their capabilities to reach Punt via the Nile?

Carolyn Emerick on June 23, 2014:

Hi Matthew, what an interesting topic! I have never heard of Punt before. Upvoted and gave this a share with my followers :-)

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