4,600-Year-Old Egyptian Painting Depicts Extinct Species of Goose

University of Queensland’s Dr. Anthony Romilio has examined the ‘Meidum Geese,’ a painting from the Chapel of Itet at Meidum in Egypt.

A Meidum goose (left), life reconstruction (center) and a modern red-breasted goose (right). Image credit: A. Romilio / Tambako the Jaguar.

The Meidum Geese painting was found in 1871 in a tomb located near the Meidum Pyramid, which was built by the pharaoh Snefru (reign 2610-2590 BCE).

The tomb belonged to the pharaoh’s son, the vizier Nefermaat, and the painting itself was supposedly found in a chapel dedicated to Nefermaat’s wife Itet.

As members of the royal family, the pair was granted a large mastaba tomb close to the pyramid of the king and could employ the most sought-after artists of the day to help in its decoration.

The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner.

While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting.

“The painting, Meidum Geese, has been admired since its discovery in the 1800s and described as ‘Egypt’s Mona Lisa’,” said Dr. Romilio, a researcher in the School of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Queensland.

“Apparently no-one realized it depicted an unknown species.

“The strange but beautiful bird was quite unlike modern red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis), with distinct, bold colors and patterns on its body, face, breast, wings and legs.”

The Meidum Geese painting. Image credit: Djehouty / CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the study, Dr. Romilio used the Tobias criteria, a quantitative method for delimitating bird species, to examine the painting.

He compared the visual appearance of the coloration and body markings in the painting with greylag geese (Anser anser), bean geese (Anser fabalis), greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons), and red-breasted geese.

“I applied the Tobias criteria to the goose, along with other types of geese in the fresco,” he explained.

“This is a highly effective method in identifying species — using quantitative measurements of key bird features — and greatly strengthens the value of the information to zoological and ecological science.”

Dr. Romilio found that one goose form resembled greylag geese (but did not exclude bean geese), a second form was like greater white-fronted geese, but the third goose type did not plausibly match with red-breasted geese.

“Artistic license could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” he said.

“No bones from modern red-breasted geese had been found on any Egyptian archaeological site.”

“Curiously, bones of a similar but not identical bird have been found on Crete.”

“From a zoological perspective, the Egyptian artwork is the only documentation of this distinctively patterned goose, which appears now to be globally extinct.”

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