Gut Check: Autopsy Shows Mummified Kestrel Was Fed to Death

A new study suggests that ancient Egyptians may have been the first to captive-breed—and force-feed—birds.

How many animal sacrifices does it take to stay on a god’s good side? When it comes to the Egyptian sun deity Ra, that number seems to have been in the thousands. A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that to meet a massive demand for mummified raptors, ancient Egyptians may have bred kestrels and then forced the birds to gorge themselves to death.   

Animal mummification was a common practice in Egypt from 600 BC to AD 250. To pay homage to their gods, Egyptians would kill and mummify animals that corresponded to the gods’ avatar species—kestrels, for example, for the falcon-headed Ra. This was most likely the fate of SACHM 2575, a Eurasian Kestrel from the Iziko Museums of South Africa that the researchers autopsied.

Using CT imaging, scientists from Egypt, South Africa, and Germany performed a virtual autopsy of the mummified young kestrel. Unlike most other tributes, this bird’s insides weren’t removed during the mummification process, giving scientists a peek at the preserved contents of its stomach. The X-ray images show fragments of several house mice—bones, fur, numerous teeth—as well as the remains of a sparrow, all of which were consumed within the same day. Part of a mouse’s tail was also found stuck in the kestrel’s esophagus, indicating that the bird died of suffocation. Based on these clues, and on kestrel feeding habits, scientists think it’s likely that the bird’s final, fatal meal was a case of forced gluttony. 

A 3-D image showing the tail of an animal extending through SACHM 2575's esophagus, crop, and gizzard. Photo: Courtesy of Stellenbosch University

“This animal was fed far beyond its inclination and capacity,” says Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo and lead author of the study, “something that would be unlikely if this were a captured wild bird.”

To expedite their sacrificial rituals, ancient Egyptians often killed different animals, including birds and cattle, by various means, such as strangling or beating them. In the case of SACHM 2575, based on the contents of the bird’s stomach, force-feeding seems to have been the chosen method.

Normally kestrels take about 10 hours to digest their food; as part of that process, they regurgitate pellets that contain large bones, fur, or other indigestible bits. But SACHM 2575 clearly never got a chance. At the time of death, the kestrel had already finished digesting one or two of the mice, and at least some of the sparrow, but it had not yet regurgitated a pellet. Therefore, the researchers concluded, the unfortunate bird was already more than full when it consumed—and choked on—the final mouse.

SACHM 2575 is not the first kestrel to be scanned by Ikram and her team (though it’s the first with intestinal evidence), nor will it be the last. “It seems that the Egyptians had established some sort of controlled breeding and rearing program for these creatures,” says Ikram, “and the fact that hundreds and thousands of raptor mummies have been found supports this idea.” She and her fellow researchers are now planning to examine other mummified specimens to further explore this potential breeding network. In doing so, they hope to shed more light on the ancient Egyptians’ connection to nature and to other higher powers.

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