After many years of often rancorous debate, Africa’s last, lost, great civilization, The Land of Punt, has been proven to be located in the modern East African country of Eritrea.
Using laboratory analysis of Baboon mummies from Punt found in ancient burials in Egypt, scientists have conclusively established that the nearest relatives to the Punt baboons are found in Eritrea on the Red Sea. The closest relatives were found in the hills behind the modern port city of Massawa, which lies at the mouth of Zula Bay behind which can be found the ruins of the ancient city empire of Adulis.
In Africa’s Nile Valley civilization known today as Egypt, the Land of Punt was frequently written of as “Punt, the land of the gods.”
From Punt came, amongst other precious goods, Frankincense and Myrrh, which when combined with onycha, styrax benzoine, and operculom shell found only along Eritrea’s coastline, were used to create the sacred incense used in Egyptian (and Hebrew) temples. Myrrh oil was used to anoint the bodies of the Pharaohs, a requirement for their souls to pass into the afterlife.
From Punt came other trade goods of high value, such as gold (from the highlands of the northern African Rift Mountains), salt (still harvested in Massawa and used as currency in much of the region in not so ancient times) and ebony and ivory (ebony wood is found at its furthest point north in East Africa in Eritrea’s western lowlands where even today a
herd of elephants still roam).
Such was the prestige of Punt that the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut sent a flotilla of ships there during her reign in the 18th dynasty that some historians claim was an attempt to legitimize a female head of state in ancient Egypt by linking her rule with this most ancient and sacred of lands.
Though the ancient libraries of Africa’s Nile Valley were destroyed by order of the Emperor of Rome in the 4th century a.d. (the burning of the Library of Africa, a.k.a. the Library of Alexandria, the greatest destruction of knowledge in the history of mankind) records of Punt going back to the 4/5th Egyptian dynasties remain.
Punt is again found mentioned in the 12th dynasty and, of course, found carved into the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut on the Nile River from the glorious 18th dynasty, where frankincense and myrrh were planted upon the return of the mission.
In later periods, Punt became the center of a major maritime trade between, first, Greece and then Rome.
Known as the “Persepolis of the Erythrean (Red) Sea” (equating Punt with the city of Persepolis in Persia, considered one of the wonders of ancient times is a major mark of respect if not awe) the civilization based in today’s Zula Bay was a critical port of trade between Greece and Rome, and India and the Far East.
At one point Rome had a colony of several thousands on the eastern coast of India and a major maritime trade was carried on bringing spices, silks, precious stones, animals and Asian manufactured goods to meet the demand of the Roman Empire. All of this passed through Punt or, as it was later known, Adulis.
History shows that in ancient times, as is still the case today, sailors stick to the west African, coast of the Red Sea where water is available, safe anchorage easily found and the sudden storms that blow up out of the Arabian Desert do not threaten disaster. When sailing down the Red Sea from present day Egypt or up from the Indian Ocean, landing in Massawa is still a preferred safe harbor.
Today, all that remains of this great, glorious, lost African civilization are sand covered ruins a few miles from the coast of Zula Bay, where the city empire of Adulis is only now being uncovered.
It is only in the past two decades since Eritrean independence in 1991 that any significant archeological work has begun along the Red Sea coast where once a long lost civilization flourished. In 2006, a British team did a very cursory survey of Zula Bay and discovered at least 4 major maritime complexes (multiple ports to each complex).
This writer is the only historian so far to lay the foundations of a survey of what must be thousands of years of shipwrecks from Punt, the world’s earliest and longest lived maritime civilization, along the windward reefs of the islands lining the channels leading into Zula Bay.
What great discoveries lie under thousands of years of coral reefs still waiting to be discovered? Gold and silver from Greece and Rome headed for India (the Indians like the Chinese, had little use for the crude manufactured goods of Europe, forcing Rome to bleed its precious metals in exchange for the precious goods from the east).
Rubies, emeralds, sapphires and jade, along with porcelain, from the east may still survive, though the silks and spices would have long since disappeared.
Much has still to be learned about Punt but studying modern Eritrean society has already lead to a major breakthrough in historical research with the language of the Nara ethnic group, known now to be a survivor of ancient Kush, today’s Sudan, and is being used to finally decipher the mysteries of the Demotic scripts.
And what of the lost land of Saba or Sheba, which most historians seem to think lay in the modern land of Yemen?
An Italian linguist has found pre-Arab dialects in remote Yemeni villages that are cousin to the Eritrean language of Tigrinia, making a connection between the Land of Punt and Saba even more interesting.
Geez, the “Latin of Africa,” used today in the Eritrean and Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Churches is reputed to have come from Yemen, where today little trace of it can be found.
One must not forget that before the rise of Islam, Christianity spread across East Africa from Egypt in the north, to the pre-Islamic Christian kingdoms of Meroe and Napata (found in present day Sudan, both of which successfully resisted the military invasion of the Islamic armies from the north for hundreds of years) across the Ethiopian highlands to the Christian city empire of Adulis on the southern Red Sea coast.
Time will bring more discoveries and more discoveries will certainly bring more light to Africa’s last, lost, great civilization, Punt, land of the gods.
Thomas C. Mountain is the most widely distributed independent Western journalist in Africa, living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. He created and co-taught with an Editor of The Journal of African Civilization the graduate level course The African Influence on World Civilizations beginning in 1993. He can be reached at thomascmountain at yahoo dot com.