Ancient Egyptian art reveals mystery goose
Artwork that had adorned the walls of an Egyptian prince's tomb for more than four millennia has been suggested to contain images of a bird completely unknown to modern science, though many believe it to depict Red-breasted Goose.
Last year Anthony Romilio from the University of Queensland in Australia took a closer look at the six birds represented in a famous piece known as the Meidum Geese, a 4,600-year-old painting historians describe as "one of the great masterpieces of the Egyptian animal genre". His research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. In spite of centuries of scrutiny, and the fact it holds a place in history as the oldest recording of birds with enough detail to nail down a species, the precise identity of most of those species has never been agreed upon – and Romilio thinks it may depict an extinct goose.
The mystery geese depicted in the Meidum Geese (Romilio, J of Arch Sci: Reports, 2021).
"Apparently no one realised it depicted an unknown species," said Romilio. "Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals." Those mammals include representations of dogs, cattle, leopards, and a white antelope known as Addax, all preserved in stunning detail inside the burial chambers of the fourth dynasty prince Nefermaat I and his wife, Itet.
While much of the artwork had been plundered within decades of its discovery, the fresco featuring the geese was relocated by the Italian Egyptologist Luigi Vassalli, ensuring its conservation. Now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, the geese remain the subject of an intense debate. Most agree that two of the three left-facing birds are Greater White-fronted Geese. But the identity of the painting's first and last bird is somewhat in doubt, with zoologists unable to decide whether it's an example of a Greylag Goose or a bean goose species.
Then there are the two, slightly smaller grey-and-red birds facing right. They bear a clear resemblance to Red-breasted Goose, but opinions vary on whether it's a closed case, or the match is passing at best. Without any remains of this species having been uncovered in any ancient Egyptian dig site, the classification is on shaky ground.
Rather than simply wing it, however, Romilio used a more objective framework to compare 13 visible characteristics on each animal according to a scale of dissimilarity referred to as 'Tobias criteria'. "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," explained Romilio.
Going by his assessment, the pair of contentious birds are too different to Red-breasted Geese to be assumed to be a near-enough match, even taking into account the possibility of artistic interpretation. As to what bird the paintings might represent, their enlarged flank plumes are distinctive enough to make them stand out as relatively unique, indicating it's more than likely we just don't see their kind any more. "From a zoological perspective, the Egyptian artwork is the only documentation of this distinctively patterned goose, which appears now to be globally extinct," said Romilio.
That said, Egypt was a much greener place thousands of years ago and it is widely assumed that geese would have wintered further south at the time. Given that Greater White-fronted Goose – a species with which Red-breasted Goose winters side-by-side in eastern Europe today – is depicted alongside the 'mystery' goose, there is a temptation to suggest that both were visitors to the country at the time. Indeed, the research states "It is unclear if the third 'Meidum Geese' type depicts a novel phenotype of an extinct taxon, a misrepresentation of an extant but locally extinct taxon, or is a fabrication that has incorporated several goose features".
Romilio A. 2021. Assessing 'Meidum Geese' species identification with the 'Tobias criteria'. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102834