Field of Science

In search of Punt: The Lost Land of Gold

"Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook, and the earth was moved. I uncovered my face, and I saw that a serpent drew near…[]…his body was as overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli….[]… it was the prince of the land of Punt…"
"The Shipwrecked Sailor", 2200 B.C.

May 9, 1871 the German geologist Karl Mauch finally spotted after one year of strenuously search was he had hoped for: the impressive ruins of gigantic stone buildings - the remains of a long lost city, at least for the European explorers. The local people of the tribe of the Shona know the ruins well - in their language the buildings were called "dzimba woye" - the venerated houses, build by an ancient African civilization. Mauch however, following the racial ideas of the time, was sure that the buildings "could not possibly being built by Negroes." * He thought that he had discovered the ruins of the mythical city of Ophir, known in legends for the immeasurable wealth treasured there, and of course founded by Asian immigrants. 
The bible cites Ophir as unidentified place from which King Salomon received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks - and all this every three years. Various scholars puzzled about the exact location of this rich land, the African continent seemed to be supported by the tales of exotic animals found in Ophir, but in 1857 the German archaeologist Heinrich Ferdinand Karl Brugsch collocated Ophir on the Arabian Peninsula.
Other scientists associated Ophir with another legendary place - "Ta netjer" the land of the gods, also known by the ancient Egyptians as the land of gold - the mythical Punt.
But Punt was more than a legend - long before 2000 B.C. Egyptian Pharaohs send expeditions to Punt to recover precious metals - gold, silver and electrum, gemstones - like malachite, wood and resin. The successful expeditions were so important, such great achievements, that the Egyptians immortalized them on their temples.
In the temple of Athribis, commissioned by Ptolemaios XII, a relief shows the various and precious trees growing in Punt - apparently Punt was a lush, tropical land.
In 1858 the French archaeologist Auguste Ferdinand François Mariette interpreted a relief in the temple of Deir el-Bahari, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, as realistic depiction of an expedition to the remote and fabled land of Punt. 

Fig.1. The expedition to Punt as immortalized in the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The ships are loaded with gifts and exotic animals, (large version) image from Institute for Egyptology - University of Bern.
The reliefs show a fleet, the five ships are loaded with gold, trees and exotic animals like leopards, apes and giraffes - species associated with the African continent. In the sea the reliefs sows various fish species, zoologist identified some of them living on the coast of Africa, but also near the Arabian Peninsula. The plants that produce frankincense and Myrrh, Boswellia sp. and Commiphora myrrha, are native to the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, Yemen) and to Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Northeast Kenya).

Maybe looking at the geology the place of Punt can be traced back to Africa? Still today in Eritrea gold can be found, associated to the old metamorphic rocks of the interior plateau. The river of Nahr Al-qa-sh is known for its gold bearing sediments. Also in Ethiopia gold is associated with the proterozoic metamorphic rocks, found to the west of the Afar lowlands, where cenozoic volcanic rocks mark the Great Rift System of the African plate. The eastern part of this proterozoic basement is found on the northern coast of Somalia. The overall geology of Saudi-Arabia - especially Yemen and Oman- is characterized instead by phanerozoic sediments mostly lacking gold. 

 Fig.2. Simplified geology of north-eastern Africa and possible localization of Punt, Mersa Gawasis was an ancient Egyptian harbour.
Geology can however give us another ulterior clue to find the lost land of Punt. Along the gifts brought back from Punt were also living exotic animals, so baboons (Papio sp.) - as clearly depicted on the relief of Deir el-Bahari. In 2010 researchers analyzed hair samples from 3.000 years old mummified baboons found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. 

Every living organism must drink water and water consists of two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Both elements exist in various isotopes, atoms who differ in mass and also (slightly) in chemical properties. The oxygen isotopic signature of a particular spring can be unique and is controlled by geology and location of an aquifer. By comparing the results of the ancient hair samples with hair samples of animals living in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda and Mozambique the research concluded that most isotopic similarity can be found with animals coming from eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.

Mystery solved? Well, the isotopic signature could be identified only from one baboon and the localization is still very vague. The search of a myth continues….

*The British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson proved in 1929 that Great Zimbadwe and the civilization that build these monuments are of African origin.


BROWN, D.M. & LYNCH, J. (1995): Africa's Glorious Legacy (Lost Civilizations). Time-Life-Books: 168
FRANZ, A. (2011): Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt. Bild der wissenschaft 9(11): 68-75
HOULIHAN, P.F. (1996): The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Thames & Hudson: 237

SCHLÜTER, T. & TRAUTH, M.H. (2006): Geological Atlas of Africa - With Notes on Stratigraphy, Tectonics, Economic Geology, Geohazards and Geosites of Each Country. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg: 255

Online Resources:

(2008): Terra X - Weihrauch für den Pharao - Aufbruch nach Punt. (Accessed on 01.10.2011)

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