By Megan Gannon, Live Science Contributor | September 09, 2015
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
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.
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
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
"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.