Bird Mummy's Secret: Why Raptor Was Force-Fed by Ancient Egyptians

The mummified kestrel's stomach contained a mass of half-digested animal parts.
The mummified kestrel's stomach contained a mass of half-digested animal parts. (Image credit: Stellenbosch University, via Salima Ikram)

Its last meal wasn't pleasant.

A mouse tail was lodged in its throat when it died. Semi-digested flesh and fur still remained in its stomach when it was wrapped in mummy bandages.

A new autopsy reveals that overeating choked and killed this unfortunate raptor from ancient Egypt. Scientists suspect that Egyptians force-fed the bird so they could offer it to the sun god Ra as a votive mummy.

Mummification wasn't reserved for people in Egypt. The archaeological record is full of examples of cats, dogs, crocodiles and birds that were mummified and used as religious offerings to their corresponding animal gods, a practice that was popular from about 600 B.C. until around A.D. 250, well into the Roman period. Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, has made a living studying these animal mummies, and for her latest research, she examined the ancient remains of a European kestrel from the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town. [See Photos of Dog Mummies in Ancient Egyptian Catacomb]

An X-ray revealed a mouse tail extending from the ancient bird's stomach up through its esophagus. (Image credit: Stellenbosch University, via Salima Ikram)

New imaging technologies have made it possible to see through mummies without butchering ancient corpses: Ikram and her colleagues used an X-ray computed tomography scanner at Stellenbosch University in South Africa to see the insides of the kestrel in 3D. The images revealed the bird's stomach was stuffed with bones and teeth from at least two mice —one with its tail inside the raptor's esophagus —and a partially digested sparrow.

The kestrel's skeleton showed no signs of trauma. And whereas other bird mummies in Egypt had their gizzards removed or their beaks packed with food after death, this specimen also had no signs of evisceration. The kestrel was likely desiccated with natron (a naturally occurring soda ash) embalmed with resin and wrapped in bandages (in this case, quite haphazardly) with its stomach contents intact.

"We were extraordinarily surprised by the virtual autopsy as we had no expectation of any contents within the kestrel's body," Ikram said. "To learn that it choked was amazing."

Ikram and her colleagues say it's unlikely the kestrel accidentally or deliberately ate itself to death, as the birds are known to store food when they catch too much for a single meal. Rather, the bird likely had lots of help dying from its captors.

In Egyptian art, images show a variety of animals, from hyenas to geese, being force-fed by people, Ikram told Live Science. But this is the first time archaeologists have identified an animal mummy that died of overeating. The kestrel in the Iziko Museums might also be among the earliest evidence of falconry.

"The fact that wild birds that were not of use for food themselves were tamed and controlled provides an insight into Egyptian religious practices," Ikram said. "The ability of the Egyptians to tame and control wild bird populations, and the possible use of these creatures in falconry, either as sport or in obtaining small game, is of interest as it documents the evolving relationship between humans and animals."

The mummy arrived at the Iziko Museums in the early 20th century, but unfortunately the authors of the study don't know where it came from. Ikram thinks it likely was unearthed in a catacomb or special burial linked with the sun god. Her team is going through the museum archives to try to trace the artifact to a specific geographic area.

The findings were published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.