Awsa and the Puzzle of Punt
We all knew that Ethiopia was the mythical land of the Queen of Sheba and Prestor John, but did you know that it may also be what the ancient Egyptians called the land of Punt? A respected paleontologist — and long time friend of Peace Corps — explains
By Jon Kalb
One of the greatest mysteries of African archeology is the location of the fabled land of Punt, an important trading partner with ancient Egypt from at least 4888 to 3167 years ago. Much attention has focused on countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but with little conclusive evidence. I propose that Punt was in Ethiopia, centered in the area of Awsa — as it is known geographically — in the lower Awash Valley. This hypothesis draws from pictorial and hieroglyphic records of a trading expedition sent to Punt 3495 years ago by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt. The expedition was equipped with five ships with sail and 210 men, including 30 rowers.
The major objective of the mission was procurement of myrrh incense, considered vital to Egyptian religious ritual. In previous years myrrh was obtained from Punt through intermediaries, an added expense the Egyptians were determined to avoid. As a result, the expedition was instructed to take the most efficient route to Punt and trade directly with the myrrh sellers. In previous years the Egyptians traveled to Punt many times along a well-established route. The most expedient way would be sailing to the southern end of the Red Sea, then to the western end of the Gulf of Tadjura, then walking overland through a series of east-west basins to Lake Abhé, the southern boundary of Awsa. The route was direct and the Gulf offered a protected and secluded harbor for the Egyptian ships. Most importantly, the journey led to established myrrh growers.
The expedition records reveal that the Puntites, like their Afar counterparts, raised cattle and lived among a diverse African wildlife. In the mission records Punt is depicted as forested with “inaccessible” channels and dome-shaped huts with stilts. The combination of flooded stream courses and stilts indicate a period of high water levels, although at the time of the Hatshepsut mission waters levels were falling. The more solidly built Punt houses reflect a more permanent livelihood, perhaps greater attention to trade, in addition to livestock, whereas traditionally the Afar are more mobile and exclusively pastoralists. Climatic conditions today in Awsa are characterized by “accessible” channels, shallow lake-levels, reduced forests, emerged marshes, and dome-shaped huts without stilts.
Awsa lies just above the Horn of Africa and due west of Djibouti, crossed by ancient trading routes. It is drained by the lower Awash River in the area between Tendaho and Lake Abhé. Some 6000 square kilometers of sedimentary lowlands are surrounded by desert, towering volcanic cliffs, basalt plateaus, and volcanoes. Awsa is unique for its location at the triple junction of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and East African rifts. It is also known for its water level fluctuations, cluster of lakes (the “Awsa Lake District”) fed by the Awash, and its fertile wetlands. Early Arab writers note that the Afar nomads occupied northeastern Ethiopia by at least the 13th century, no doubt drawing on the traditions from earlier settlers. Crude earthworks and primitive irrigation methods suggest Awsa was cultivated to some degree by at least the 16th century.
The largest town in Awsa is Aysaita situated on the banks of the Awash River in the middle of the Depression. Given its strategic location, Awsa has long served (and levied) traders and others passing to and from the African hinterlands, the coast, and the neighboring highlands. Archeological excavations may one day reveal Aysaita was built on top of earlier (Puntite?) settlements.
The importance of myrrh to the Hapshepsut mission is referred to repeatedly in the expedition records, particularly the acquisition of 31 “fresh myrrh trees.” In return for the myrrh and other goods the Puntites received items such as daggers, hatchets, and jewelry. The Egyptians succeeded in trading with Punt without intermediaries; however, it is unlikely they reached the area where myrrh is grown and obtained seedlings directly from the sellers, as claimed by Queen Hapshepsut. Also, it would not be surprising if the Puntites showed some reluctance to hand over to their trading partner such a commercial item as myrrh seedlings, since it’s apparent the Egyptians would use them to grow their own myrrh. Ultimately, this could undermine Punt’s lucrative trade in that product. On the other hand, by trading seedlings perhaps the Puntites were gambling that the Egyptian agriculture experiment would fail, which apparently it did, since future expeditions to Punt continued to purchase large quantities of myrrh. Overall, it is apparent the Puntites themselves invested little in this commodity; rather, acting as middlemen they obtained the plants from the growers, which presumably they sold to the Egyptians at a profit. A nearby source of myrrh would be the neighboring Somali lands known since antiquity for its high-quality myrrh.
At this stage we can say that Awsa fits a number of criteria — historical, geographical, and geological— favoring the Punt/Awsa hypothesis. In the mission record, the Egyptians treat Punt (Awsa) as the source of the myrrh; instead, it is apparent that Punt served as the intermediary between the Egyptians and the myrrh sellers. Although the Egyptian plan to trade directly with the myrrh sellers was unsuccessful, and the attempt to use seedlings to grow their own myrrh on a large scale in Egypt failed, the Hatshepsut mission succeeded in renewing its ties with Punt and returning to Egypt with ample stores of myrrh and other products from the African interior.
Until archeological evidence or some other unequivocal documentation places the land of Punt in the land of Awsa, a case for Punt’s location in the central Afar Depression remains speculative. Nevertheless, the above scenario linking the Gulf of Tadjura with the Africa mainland serves as an analog to other trading missions, such as those from southern Arabia that likely developed ties with Awsa. It would certainly be worth surveying select areas in Awsa for such evidence of commercial interchange. In 1971 on the margin of Lake Abhé I found a site littered with the cumulative debris of past visitors: cowrie shells, pottery shards, obsidian microliths, vertebrate fossil fragments, and donut-shaped stones used on digging sticks on nearby stone agricultural field grids, all situated to document traffic coming and going from the Gulf of Tadjura.
• This article was adapted from an article by Jon Kalb published in Nyame Akuma , a publication of the Society of African Archeologists, Number 71, June 2009. The author was a resident of Ethiopia from 1971-1978, where he was director of the Rift Valley Research Mission, and a friend of many PCVs who served in the area. He is author of Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression and is a Research Fellow with the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory of the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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