Land of Punt

One of the key factors in pinpointing the location of the Land of Punt is its geographical proximity to ancient Egypt. In this regard, scholars have often indicated that the territory was situated to the south and east. But what exactly do they base this on?

In the 1850s, the Antiquities Service of Egypt discovered hieroglyphic texts in the vicinity of Thebes (Luxor) in Upper Egypt. These inscriptions identify Punt as a source of aromatics found to the east of Egypt. This, in turn, would prompt the Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch to postulate that the ancient land was located in the Arabian peninsula. A few years later, his colleague the archaeologist Auguste Mariette came upon geographical lists at the Karnak Temple, which had been left by the Pharaoh Thutmose III of the Eighteenth Dynasty (r. 1458–1425 BCE). These hieroglyphics include Punt among the territories that lay to the south of Egypt. The Egyptologist Abdel Monem A. H. Sayed explains:

The first lists of this kind, and the most comprehensive, are those of Thutmoses III, where the regional and site names are arranged in a manner coinciding with their geographical locations.

The list of toponyms of the African side of the Red Sea begins with the heading Kush, the Egyptian name for Upper Nubia. Under this heading are recorded 22 toponyms. Then comes the regional name Wawat or Lower Nubia, with 24 toponyms listed under it. After that, the list begins again from the south, recording regional and site names closer to the Red Sea shore. The regional name Punt is mentioned as a heading for 30 toponyms. After Punt comes Mejay as a heading of 17 toponyms. Lastly comes the regional name Khaskhet extending along the Red Sea shore of Egypt, with 22 toponyms listed (Schiaparelli 1916, 115-9).

This clear hieroglyphic account allows the following important deductions[…] The relation between Punt and the other regional names in the list (Kush, Wawat, Mejay and some of the toponyms under the heading Khaskhet), of which the African locations are agreed among Egyptologists, shows clearly that in the time of Thutmoses III Punt was the most southerly region and adjacent to the Red Sea coast. This is of great value for locating Punt during the New Kingdom in general, and the time of Queen Hatshepsut in particular.

A 26th Dynasty stela was also recovered from the ancient site of Dafnah (Daphnae) near the Delta, which contains an inscription stating that “when rain falls on the mountain of Punt, the Nile floods”. This is a clear allusion to the Ethiopian highlands, where the Blue Nile rises (cf. Sayed (1989)). Coupled with some of the floral and faunal evidence discussed below, Mariette’s discovery and the Dafnah tablet helped shift scholarly opinion as to where Punt was situated (including eventually that of Brugsch himself) away from a hypothesized Arabian location to the adjacent northern Horn of Africa.

The Palermo Stone contains the earliest hieroglyphic description of an ancient Egyptian expedition to the Land of Punt, during the Fifth Dynasty (Sci-News).

Cozzolino (1993) enumerates over 50 other hieroglyphic inscriptions relating to the Land of Punt, and a few additional engravings have subsequently been discovered. The earliest of these writings is the Palermo Stone. It informs us that an ancient Egyptian expedition to Punt brought back 80,000 measures of ‘ntiyw (a particular type of incense), among other items, during the thirteenth regnal year of Sahure (ca. 2445 BCE), the second Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty. Unfortunately, the Palermo Stone does not specify where Punt itself was located. We do, however, have an idea of how Sahure’s men got there. In 2002, an inscribed block was found at the pyramid of Sahure in the Abusir necropolis, with two of its registers depicting the arrival of ancient Egyptian cargo vessels transporting goods from Punt. From this, we know that the Sahure expedition was carried out by sea rather than overland. Punt was therefore not a landlocked territory.

A Sixth Dynasty inscription provides an even clearer indication of the route that the ancient Egyptians took to get to Punt during the Old Kingdom. Phillips (1997) notes that Pharaoh Pepi II or Neferkare (2278/2269–2184/2175 BCE) dispatched one of his expedition leaders, Pepinakht, to retrieve the body of the official Anankhti, who had been killed by bedouins in the Eastern Desert (the “desert of the Asiatics”) while overseeing the construction of a ship intended for another commercial expedition to Punt. Thus, the particular water route that was favored by the ancient Egyptian rulers appears to have been via the Red Sea. This is confirmed by a later, Middle Kingdom rock inscription at Wadi Hammamat from the reign of Pharaoh Mentuhotep III or Senekhkere (r. 2004–1992 BCE) of the Eleventh Dynasty. According to the chief treasurer Henu, he was ordered by the king to build a vessel destined for Punt along the Red Sea littoral:

[My lord, life, prosperity] health[…] sent me to dispatch a ship to Punt to bring for him fresh myrrh from the sheiks over the Red Land, by reason of the fear of him in the highlands. Then I went forth from Koptos upon the road, which his majesty commanded me…

I went forth with an army of 3,000 men. I made the road a river, and the Red Land (desert) a stretch of field, for I gave a stretch of field, for I gave a leathern bottle, a carrying pole[…], 2 jars of water and 20 loaves to each one among them every day. The asses were laden with sandals[…]

Then I reached the (Red) Sea; then I made this ship, and I dispatched it with everything, when I had made for it a great oblation of cattle, bulls and ibexes.

Now, after my return from the (Red) Sea, I executed the command of his majesty, and I brought for him all the gifts, which I had found in the regions of God’s-Land. I returned through the ‘valley’ of Hammamat, I brought for him august blocks for statues belonging to the temple. Never was brought down the like thereof for the king’s court; never was done the like of this by any king’s-confidant sent out since the time of the god.

In 1971, the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen demonstrated the feasibility of such ancient travel down the Red Sea coast by charting an actual itinerary to get to Punt. This maritime gazetteer includes 80 possible anchorage points, as well as the intervening distances between them. It stretches from the Port of Sudan to northern Eritrea, a broad region that Kitchen suggests was coextensive with the Land of Punt.

So we know from the existing hieroglyphic texts that the ancient Egyptians preferred to reach Punt by water, and through the Red Sea specifically. We also know that this navigation was doable. The question is, what actual port did the ancient Egyptians use for these trading expeditions once they had finished constructing their vessels? A stela that was discovered at Wadi Gawasis (Wadi Gasus) provides an answer. Erected by Khentkhetwer, an official under the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhet II or Nubkaure (r. 1922–1878 BCE), it contains an engraving that explicitly identifies Saww as the port where Khentkhetwer and his men arrived after their voyage to Punt. The Khentkhetwer stela inscription reads:

Giving divine praise and laudation to Horus[…], to Min of Coptos, by the hereditary prince, count, wearer of the royal seal, the master of the judgement-hall Khentkhetwer[…] after his arrival in safety from Punt; his army being with him, prosperous and healthy and his ships having landed at Sewew (Saww). Year 28.

Wooden cargo boxes labeled “wonderful things of Punt”, which were discovered at Mersa Gawasis, the ancient Egyptian port of Saww (Traveltoeat).

In 2004, archaeological excavations led by the Egyptologists Kathryn Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich at Mersa Gawasis in Egypt identified this harbor as the old port of Saww, which the ancient Egyptians used during their expeditions to Punt. The diggers found a number of commodities at the site that may have been brought back from Punt, including fragments of carbonized ebony wood (Diospyros sp.) and obsidian. Since the latter volcanic glass does not occur naturally in Egypt, it was clearly imported from elsewhere. The researchers also discovered actual shipbuilding materials dating to the Middle Kingdom, such as anchors, timbers and huge steering oars, as well as 26 well-preserved coils of vessel-rigging rope that were lying on the floors of a cave. Most intriguingly, they came upon 43 cargo boxes from the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat IV (r. 1990–1800 BCE). Two of these boxes were engraved with a package label, which had been recorded by the scribe Djedy; it included inscriptions for his name, a cartouche of Amenemhat IV and regnal Year 8, and the phrase “wonderful things of Punt” in hieroglyphics. The cargo boxes were made of sycamore wood and were all empty since their contents, which are believed to have included frankincense, were apparently unloaded into containers or bags for later transport via caravan across the Eastern Desert. Additionally, Bard found a limestone stela with hieroglyphic text on it that commemorates two royal maritime expeditions to Punt and Bia-Punt (“Mine(s) of Punt”) during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhet III (r. 1831–1786 BCE).

That the ancient Egyptians journeyed to and from Punt through a Red Sea route, and via the old port of Saww in particular, has thus been confirmed. What we shall now see is that the main landing point of these trading expeditions, at least during the New Kingdom, was in northern Somalia. As such, Punt was located in a more expansive area between Cape Guardafui and the Port of Sudan.

Flora and fauna of Punt

Mural from Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s temple showing the Puntites and Egyptians transporting frankincense trees from inland to the shore (Sayed (1989)).

Besides the route taken to get there, another key aspect in situating the Land of Punt is the flora and fauna of the various proposed locations for the ancient territory. Specific plants and animals, which are said to have been native to Punt, are depicted on Egyptian temple walls and murals. Some of these “wonderful things of Punt” were also brought back to Egypt as gifts and offerings. Combined, this leaves us with invaluable information as to what kind of habitat the Puntites actually lived in.


In 1858, Mariette discovered a wall in the funerary temple of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut (r. 1479–1458 BCE) at Deir el-Bahri, which depicts an Egyptian expedition to Punt during the queen’s reign. The temple reliefs show in detail the flora and fauna of Punt, as well as the Puntites themselves. Among the clearly identifiable plants are doum palms (Hyphaene thebaica), tree species that were regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. Kitchen argues that on the Somali coast, the doum palm is restricted to the southernmost areas, far from the suggested Puntite nucleus in the north. In actuality, the doum palm grows throughout the Somali territories. The traditional gourd used by Somali pastoralists (who historically expanded from the north) is, in fact, crafted in part from doum palm fibers.

Accordingly, the Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA) foundation describes the geographical distribution of Hyphaene thebaica as follows:

Hyphaene thebaica is distributed from Senegal and Gambia eastwards to Somalia, and is especially common between latitudes 8°N and 12°N. It also occurs in Libya, Egypt, Israel, the Arabian Peninsula and western India. Hyphaene thebaica is often planted. It was already cultivated in ancient Egypt, where it was considered sacred.

One of the main products that the ancient Egyptians traveled to Punt to obtain was ebony. Through hieroglyphic inscriptions, which indicate that the Egyptians themselves chopped down the plant while in Punt (“cutting ebony in great quantity”), ebony is known to have grown wild in the territory. The Puntites apparently did not import it from elsewhere for later resale to the Egyptians. Barnett (1999) notes that analyses of plant specimens found in tombs have confirmed that the particular variety of ebony that was used in ancient Egypt is Dalbergia melanoxylon. This species is endemic to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan alike, according to PROTA. In Somalia, ebony today has a limited distribution. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that the plant was more abundant there too in Pharaonic times. On this likelihood, Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, a scholar who recently led excavations in northern Somalia (more on that below under Traces of ancient civilization), writes:

[Over] the past several millenia, so much has changed in the composition of vegetation in the Somali peninsula. The discovery of crocodile artifacts in Hargeisa valley suggest that a tropical riparian ecosystem existed in those areas. Therefore, it cannot be discounted that ebony, one of the chief exports from Punt, was sourced from the area. Diospyros spp., locally known as ‘Kolaati‘, is still found to a limited extent in riparian formations in Somalia.

Of all the items that were exported from the Land of Punt to ancient Egypt, frankincense was by far the most important. Sayed (1989) notes that the Deir el-Bahri murals record Pharaoh Hatshepsut as specifically commanding her party “to fetch (as the texts say) ‘fresh incense’, and ‘frankincense living trees’ from ‘the frankincense terraces of Punt’.” The main purpose of that Egyptian voyage to Punt — the largest sojourn of its kind to the ancient territory — was, therefore, to retrieve the prized aromatic resin. Indeed, the very reason why Hatshepsut organized such a massive expedition was because she wanted her men to bring back live frankincense trees for later transplantation in Egypt. Her temple reliefs show that each of the 31 heavy incense trees required 4 to 6 men to transport them to the cargo ships, or 124 to 186 Egyptian and Puntite carriers in total. Since there were around 150 crewmen on the expedition’s five vessels (30 per ship), this would mean that “the frankincense terraces of Punt” had to have been situated near the shore.

Sayed asserts that this incense-yielding locale, “the frankincense terraces of Punt”, was the northern Somali littoral. He bases this in part on historical texts, which hail this region as an early center of incense production and exportation. Chief among these old documents is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Periplus Maris Erythraei), a travelogue written in the 1st century CE by an Alexandrian merchant. It indicates that a top-grade libanos peratikos or “incense from beyond the straits” (Bab el-Mandeb straits) was exported from ancient city-states that dotted this part of the Red Sea area, including Malao, Mundus, Mosyllum and Akannai. The Periplus specifies that the laurel-grove of Akannai/Acannae is “where alone is produced the far-side frankincense, in great quantity and of the best grade”. Likewise, the historian and philosopher Arrian of Nicomedia testifies that the best frankincense of his day was exported from the same area around Ras Fiel/Ras Filuk (Cape Elephant/Cape Elephas), just off the Akannai harbor in present-day Alula.

Sayed (1989) remarks that the ancient Egyptians imported two types of frankincense: a lower grade variety called sntr, and a higher grade variety known as ‘ntiyw or nty. According to inscriptions from the Sixth Dynasty travelers Harkhuf and Sebni, the lower grade sntr type was obtained from the Nile Valley or in Punt and was transported overland to Egypt. The higher grade ‘ntiyw incense was, on the other hand, exclusively acquired from Punt and was typically imported by sea. F. Nigel Hepper of the Royal Botanical Gardens reports that botanists have identified this ‘ntiyw variety with Boswellia frereana. Along with Boswellia carteri, he indicates that these are the incense types that are prevalent on the northern Somali littoral (cf. Sayed (2002)). Both species of frankincense have also been found in actual ancient Egyptian tombs (Lucas (1945)). This is pivotal since, according to Hepper, northern Somalia is the only area where Boswellia frereana grows in close proximity to the seashore, and on the requisite rocky hills to boot. Although such “terrace” land formations also occur in other parts of the Red Sea region, in Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan, frankincense here grows instead at a minimum of 100 kilometers inland. The tree varieties that are found in this hinterland are likewise different from Boswellia frereana.


As with its flora, the fauna of Punt that is depicted on the Egyptian frescoes and described in hieroglyphic texts is native (though not entirely exclusive) to the Red Sea region. Among these animals is the giraffe, which today is only found in Africa. Superficially, this seems to rule out an Arabian location for the Land of Punt. A closer reading of the ancient testimonials, however, reveals that the giraffe was apparently also present in parts of the Arabian peninsula and Levant during the classical period. The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus refers to the species as “camel-leopards”, and notes that it used to roam the area between northern Arabia and Syria (cf. Scott (2012)).

In an analogous vein, the representation of what may be a one-horned rhinoceros on the Hatsheptsut temple reliefs has been suggested as being indicative of an Indian location for Punt. This is because two-horned rhino species are today limited to Africa, whereas the one-horned rhino is restricted to the Eastern Himalayas. However, as Kitchen (1971) observes, the rhinoceros figure in question, unlike the other animals depicted at Deir el-Bahri, is badly damaged, and this makes its identification difficult. Going by a similar “one-horned” rhino representation that was discovered at Kerma in Sudan, the depiction thus appears to have been an error. Kitchen writes:

That the beast seems only to have one horn (not two, as has the African rhino) is simply an error, analogous with that of one of the two Kerma representations of Middle Kingdom date

Hilzheimer, ZÄS 67 (1931) 40), and with the stylized determinative of Louvre C. 14 accepted by Keimer (ASAÉ 48 [1948] 52 and fig. 5).

The archaeologist John Bimson also indicates that early Egyptian hieroglyphs included a pictogram of a one-horned rhinoceros. This, in turn, suggests that the species may have once inhabited the Nile Valley (cf. Sweeney (2006)). In short, the ultimate geographical origin of certain of the land-dwelling fauna of Punt is inconclusive.

Deir el-Bahri mural showing a Puntite village surrounded by Red Sea aquatic species, myrrh trees and other flora and fauna native to Northeast Africa (Edwards (1891)).

A rather different situation exists with the fish and other aquatic creatures that are illustrated on the same murals. Sayed (1989) points out that the Hatshepsut temple walls show marine species whose natural habitat is saltwater, including the lobster (palinurus). The body of water that is depicted therefore could not have been the freshwater Nile river, but instead more likely the Red Sea. Correspondingly, an analysis of the aquatic fauna on the Puntite temple reliefs by Eva Danelius and Heinz Steinitz found that the bulk of the specimens are indeed Red Sea varieties. As Kitchen (1971) notes, only a handful appear to be freshwater species, a fact which can be easily explained:

One factor largely discounted by Herzog (pp. 27, 55) is that of the fishes in the Deir el Bahri reliefs. These are, almost throughout, Red Sea/Indian Ocean fauna, with only two or perhaps three fresh-water species; see Eva Danelius and H. Steinitz, JEA 53 (1967) 15-24. If Hatshepsut’s expedition had reached Punt solely by travelling up the Nile, the overwhelming majority of Red Sea fishes is totally inexplicable. Why not solely Nile fauna, as in other Nile scenes? On the other hand, the Red Sea fauna fit a Red Sea route to Punt. The very few fresh-water fishes (a turtle; catfish, able to go in salt water, anyway; tilapia, dubious) could reflect the Nile part of the journey (Koptos-Thebes) or even fauna in Punt (River Baraka into Tokar Delta?), and pose an infinitely less problem.

A Puntite man walking a Papio hamadryas baboon (Edwards (1891)).

The most definitive faunal evidence regarding where Punt was located comes from baboons (Papio hamadryas). These are among the creatures that are depicted on the Hatshepsut temple walls at Deir el-Bahri, as well as on other ancient Egyptian murals. Baboon remains have also been found within actual tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In 2010, a research unit led by Salima Ikram of the Egyptian Museum and Nathaniel Dominy and Gillian Leigh Moritz of the University of California analyzed hairs from two such mummified baboons, which had been kept at the British Museum. To determine the place of origin of the specimens, the scientists compared the baboons’ oxygen isotopic values with those of living baboon specimens from various hypothesized Puntite locations, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. Although the isotope data of one of the baboons was distorted, initial results from analysis of the other specimen indicated that its oxygen isotopic values matched closest with those of modern baboons from Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia. This prompted Dominy to posit that “Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea”. He also suggested that the port of Massawa in Eritrea may have been the landing point of the ancient Egyptians’ expeditions to Punt since a baboon specimen from that harbor matched well with their ancient baboon mummy.

In 2015, the same Egyptian and American researchers conducted a more comprehensive isotopic study to confirm their preliminary findings. This time they compared both hair and bone samples, which they had extracted from two New Kingdom baboon mummies, with those of living baboons from the primary hypothesized locations of the Land of Punt. Analyzing both oxygen and strontium values, the scientists found that the closest matches were with specimens endemic to eastern Somalia and the Eritrea-Ethiopia corridor. They thus concluded that this area was the likeliest source of the baboons that were exported from Punt to Ancient Egypt:

The tandem origins of maritime trade and international diplomacy have roots in the Red Sea region. Graphic and epigraphic accounts of this trade often provide specific place names, or toponyms, with unambiguous geographic locations. Yet the location of one crucial polity, Punt (or Pwnt), remains uncertain. Punt was a major emporium of gold, electrum, and biological materials such as myrrh, ebony, ivory, short-horned cattle, leopards, and baboons (Papio hamadryas). The importance of these materials is reflected in the 1200-year duration of trade between Ancient Egypt and Punt (Vth-XXth Dynasties; ca. 2458-1163 BC). The recovery of mummified baboons from several New Kingdom tombs, which was a period of thriving trade with Punt, raises the possibility of using stable isotope analysis to source their provenience. Here we report the oxygen and strontium stable isotope composition of two P. hamadryas mummies from XXth Dynasty tombs. We also analyzed the hair and bone of modern baboons in 106 habitats spanning five hypothesized locations of Punt: (1) Eritrea-Ethiopia; (2) Mozambique; (3) Somalia; (4) western Uganda; and, (5) Yemen. Isoscapes based on kriging interpolation of hair keratin δ18O values and bioapatite 86Sr/88Sr ratios were produced and an index of similarity was calculated based on the geometric mean of the two kriged maps. Our results reveal a high likelihood match with eastern Somalia and the Eritrea-Ethiopia corridor, suggesting that this region was the source of Papio hamadryas exported to Ancient Egypt.


In various hieroglyphic texts, the ancient Egyptians refer to Punt by another name: Bia-Punt. This roughly translates as “Mine(s) of Punt”, indicating the primacy of gold among the imports from the old territory. Punt, or at least some of the districts under its control, was thus a center of gold production. This fact is of considerable value in helping to narrow down its location since gold was and is only mined in select areas around the world.

The first mention of the new toponym comes from the Sixth Dynasty traveler Harkhuf (ca. 2250 BCE). In inscriptions recorded at Aswan, he asserts that he brought back products from “Bia-Punt”. Sayed (1989, 2002) notes that this is a clear allusion to gold, which Harkhuf had presumably imported overland through northern Sudan. In 1976-77, Sayed led a University of Alexandria expedition at Wadi Gawasis, where his archaeological team also found a Twelfth Dynasty stela “inscribed with a hieroglyphic text recording an order issued by King Sesostris I to his vizier Antefoḳer to build ships to be sent to the region of Bia-Punt” (cf. Sayed (1978)).

Hence, Bia-Punt could be accessed through a water route. This implies that the region in question may have been coextensive with the Atbai desert in Sudan, which has long been a hub of gold mining. Other possibilities in the interior include the gold mines of western Ethiopia, as suggested by Eric Robson in his 2007 monograph In Search of Punt: Queen Hatshepsut’s Land of Marvels. Furthermore, Ibrahim (2013) reports that geologists have identified a zone in northwestern Somalia as potentially containing gold reserves. The Nubian Gold Corporation signed an agreement to prospect there, and the site has gold-quartz deposits with an estimated 13.5 gold parts per million. Since gold in Northeast Africa is associated with old metamorphic rocks — Precambrian geological formations that are found in all of these areas — Bia-Punt could conceivably have been situated anywhere within this traditional Puntite sphere.

Berber connection

Hieroglyphic signs for brbrta, the ancient Egyptian ethnonym for the Puntites (AECR (1976)).

One of the most insightful clues as to the location of the Land of Punt involves the etymology of the word Berber. It has often been assumed — incorrectly — that the appellation originated with the ancient Greeks as a cognate of barbaros (“barbarian”). However, the first mention of the term actually dates earlier to the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1500 BCE), when it served as an ethnonym for the Puntites. Specifically, during the Hatshepsut expedition to Punt, the ancient Egyptians identified their Puntite counterparts as brbrta in hieroglyphic symbols. This is believed to have been an onomatopoeic imitation on the Egyptians’ part of the “bar” or “ber” sound that was apparently common in the Puntite language (cf. AECR (1976); Bowersock (2013)).

In light of these hieroglyphics, the Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli suggests that the Puntites inhabited a region coinciding with northern Somalia, Eritrea, and the Atbara zone in northeastern Sudan. He bases this on the aforementioned Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a document which repeatedly alludes to “Berbers” living in these same areas. As a result, this territory was known to the ancient Greeks as “Barbara” or “Barbaria”, meaning the “land of the Berbers” (Huntingford (1980)). The Periplus indicates that there were Berber commercial settlements all along the Red Sea coast during the 1st century CE, with two such concentrations: one in the “Barbaria” in the Nile Valley around southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and the other in the “far-side” ports of the “other Barbaria” in the Horn (viz. “there are other Berber market-towns, known as the ‘far-side’ ports”). These Berbers/Puntites were therefore still trading in frankincense and other commodities in the southern part of their territory, just as they had over a millennium before in Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s time. This is confirmed by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who tells us that the Pharaoh Sesostris — a ruler that, as seen on the Wadi Gawasis stela, ordered at least one expedition to Punt during his reign — led his men to the “far-side” Berber port of Mossylon (Mossylum), which was a cinnamon emporium.

Another key aspect of the Barbaria connection is the form of governance that the territory’s denizens were said to have adhered to. The Periplus indicates that the Berbers were divided into tribal communities, each ruled by its own chief. These independent city-states in the greater Barbaria were, in turn, overseen by a learned king or paramount chief named Zoscales:

On the right-hand coast next below Berenice is the country of the Berbers. Along the shore are the Fish-Eaters, living in scattered caves in the narrow valleys. Further inland are the Berbers, and beyond them the Wild-flesh-Eaters and Calf-Eaters, each tribe governed by its chief; and behind them, further inland, in the country towards the west, there lies a city called Meroe.[…]

These places, from the Calf-Eaters to the other Berber country, are governed by Zoscales; who is miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature.[…]

The voyage to all these farside market-towns is made from Egypt about the month of July, that is Epiphi. And ships are also customarily fitted out from the places across this sea, from Ariaca and Barygaza, bringing to these far-side market-towns the products of their own places; wheat, rice, clarified butter, sesame oil, cotton cloth, (the monache and the sagmatogene), and girdles, and honey from the reed called sacchari. Some make the voyage especially to these market-towns, and others exchange their cargoes while sailing along the coast. This country is not subject to a King, but each market-town is ruled by its separate chief.

Like in the Berber period, the various Puntite districts were apparently governed by separate leaders. This is clear from Egyptian hieroglyphics, which Balanda (2005) notes repeatedly allude to the “chiefs” of Punt in the plural. For example, an inscription at Deir el-Bahri reads: “pitching tents for the king’s representative and his (the king’s) expedition to the myrrh terraces on both sides of the sea[…] in order to receive the chiefs of this land”. The loosely centralized governmental structure of the Berbers/Puntites, therefore, also appears to have remained essentially unchanged since the New Kingdom.


As seen at Deir el-Bahri, among other archaeological sites, the ancient Egyptians consistently show the Puntites on their temple walls as being very similar to themselves in physical type — just as though these groups were sibling populations. The Puntites are depicted as moderately tall and of gracile build, with “Caucasoid” features and reddish-brown skin; they also frequently wear their hair long. John Desmond Clark writes:

The Puntites are depicted in several Eighteenth Dynasty scenes. Typically, the men have dark reddish skins and fine features; characteristic negroid types are not shown, although they occur amongst depictions of riverine southerners (of Wawat, Kush, Irem, etc.). Other Puntite features are also not found amongst other southerners. Long hairstyles are typical for Puntites until the reign of Amenhotep II; during his reign and earlier, in that of Tuthmosis III, an intermediate ‘bobbed’ hairstyle appears, and thereafter Puntites have close-cropped hair similar to that of the chief of Punt under Hatshepsut. A long or medium dressed goatee is found at all periods.

Such external morphological traits are relatively common among the Afro-Asiatic populations on either side of the Red Sea (see, for example, Billy (1988)’s anthropometric study on The Elongated African fallacy). For our purposes, then, the skeletal characteristics of these groups are more useful in locating Punt.

Accordingly, Kemp (2006) found that the ancient and modern Egyptians are craniometrically closest to other Afro-Asiatic speakers inhabiting Northeast Africa. They are also more distantly related to populations in the Near East, but share no significant affinities with the ancient and modern “Negroid” populations in Africa. Spradley (2006) compared the skulls of recent populations from northern Somalia and Egypt with those of various Subequatorial African groups and racially mixed African Diaspora populations, including African Americans. She similarly observed that the individuals from “Somalia and Egypt are closest to one another”. The biological ties between the Afro-Asiatic groups in Northeast Africa are, in fact, so well established that researchers have moved on to exploring which specific ancient “Hamitic” series in the region they share the most immediate affinities with (e.g. Batrawi (1946), Mukherjee (1955), Billy (1981b), Rösing (1990)). G. Billy (1975) summarizes these findings thusly:

In addition to the preceding, Egyptologists have noted a sporadic occurrence of blondism in the Land of Punt. This can serve as a helpful hint as to where the territory was situated, for blond individuals were relatively uncommon in the ancient world. The Hatshepsut expedition murals show the Egyptians being received by a chief of Punt, one Parahu/Perahu, who the Egyptologist Édouard Naville writes is depicted as “flaxen” or blond-haired. Sweeney (2006) argues that this precludes both the Horn and Southern Arabia as prospective locations for the Land of Punt since there are few blond individuals today among the Afro-Asiatic populations in these areas. He asserts that the blondism points instead to an Indo-European source centered in the Near East; either the Indo-Iranian mariyanna elites of the Levant, or the Phoenicians (whom he suggests may have acquired such an element through intermarriage in western Europe). However, ancient blond individuals did, in fact, exist in the Nile Valley itself. Archaeologists working in burial sites associated with the Meroitic culture have unearthed a number of clearly blond specimens. Janssen (1978) reports that “330 graves were excavated in cemetery 221 (Meroitic) and a proportion of blond individuals of Caucasoid type found”. Given these finds, the minor incidence of blondism among the Puntites more likely reflects a Meroitic strain in this population than an Indo-European one (for empirical evidence of such an influence, see Batrawi diagram above). This too is in agreement with a Northeast African locus for Punt.

A Deir el-Bahri temple mural depicting the Puntite chief Parahu (right) and his wife Ati

Puntite carriers, from a mural at Deir el-Bahri. Note the “Caucasoid” facial profile, lithe build, reddish-brown complexion, long wavy hair and chin-tuft typical of this ancient population

Puntites - Cretans - Hamitic (Kushite)

Foreign tributaries on the top three registers of the Grand Procession mural at Thebes.
Top row=Puntites (left), Nilotes (far right); Middle row=Cretans; Bottom row=Hamitic-type Nubians, Nilote (center-right)

Chief of Kheta - A man of Punt