Bolton Ferret Welfare

Egyptian Ferrets?

by Bob Church

This is in response to Ron's post regarding Egyptian ferrets. It is not a flame; I will discuss issues only and leave any personal feelings where they belong--off this list (I actually have no personal feelings toward Ron; I don't know him and I don't think I've ever met him. But I would like to think we can both discuss these issues without personal feelings or politics getting in the way. I know I can.) I apologise for the complexity and length of these posts; I am just attempting to take the time and effort to fully explain why the "Out of Egypt" idea of ferret domestication is wrong. In the past, shorter and simpler explanations have not been convincing enough to overcome decades of misinformation.

Ron posted on the FML: "The Egyptology museum in Cairo has mummified remains of ferrets and meercats (a kind of mongoose native to Africa). These are among only the most ancient of animal mummies found dating about 3700 to 4300 years BC!"

I suspect Ron means "The Egyptian Museum" located in Cairo. There are something like 60+ museums in Egypt, many in or near Cairo, but the majority are extremely small and have only a small number of artefacts. Ron's dad could mean any one of them, but since most tourists only see the major spots, my guess is the Egyptian Museum. In the past, I have spoken (via telephone) with several curators at this museum, and they assure me there is not a single domesticated ferret or European polecat housed there. Lots of mongeese and meercats, a few weasels and zorillas, but not a single domesticated ferret or European polecat. However, since Ron's report, I will call later this week and confirm the earlier conversations.

The lack of polecats and ferrets in ancient Egypt is supported by several recent books on the subject, including Douglas J. Brewer etal 1994 "Domestic Plants and Animals: The Egyptian Origins," Dale J. Osborn and Jana Osbornova 1998 "The Mammals of Ancient Egypt," Rogar A. Caras 1996 "A Perfect Harmony: The Intertwining Lives of Animals and Humans Throughout History," Rosalind and Jack Janssen 1989 "Egyptian Household Animals," Patrick F. Houlihan 1996 "The Animal World of the Pharaohs," Joachim Boessneck 1988 Die Tierwelt des Alten Agypten : Untersucht Anhand Kulturgeschichtlicher und Zoologischer Quellen," Geoffrey T. Martin etal 1981 "The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara : the Southern Dependencies of the Main Temple Complex," and Dale J. Osborn 1980 The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt (Including Sinai). There are dozens of other references in my stack and not a single one identifies domesticated ferrets or European polecats in ANY Egyptian archaeological OR present day material. According to ll contemporary scientific sources, ferrets and polecats were NEVER in Egypt. Well, actually a few could have been; some might have been traded in for the Pharonic collections, but there is no evidence of this, none have been found, and that wouldn't even be close to domestication. In light of the scientific evidence, if ANYONE wants to say polecats or ferrets were in Egypt, they have to prove it I'm not saying Ron's father is wrong on his own account. He could have been misinformed, or even the English translations in the descriptive texts could be wrong. I have a Russian paper on the hybridisation of European polecats and domesticated ferrets where "polecat" is translated as "skunk." The St. Louis zoo identified domesticated ferrets on display as wild European polecats. The King James/Old English translation of the Hebrew word "Anakah" was mistranslated as "ferret" when the literal translation meant "groaner" or "sigher," and is more properly translated as gecko (or mouse-shrew). It happens all the time an only fuels misunderstanding and myth. I suspect either someone told Ron's father the animal was a ferret, he saw the obvious physical similarities between polecats and mongeese and mistook it for a ferret, or the animal was misidentified on some sort of placard. The mistake is an easy one to make, and has been made even by reputable scientists.

Then Ron wrote, "Also there are paintings of a ferret type creature guarding the granaries of three cities in Upper Egypt," and "It is thought that cats replaced these early ferrets."

There are quite a few paintings of "ferret-type creatures" in Egyptian paintings, as well as statuary, pots, models, and, of course, as glyphs; I have photocopies of dozens of them. If you look at the above listed references, you can see reproductions of many of them, including the one cited by Chuck and Fox Morton as their basis of arguing ferrets were domesticated in Egypt. "Ferret-type creatures" is a great description; Egyptologists and zooarchaeologists have universally agreed the animals depicted are mongeese. In fact, the ancient Egyptians nearly domesticated the mongoose and what some people claim for ferrets (early Egyptian domestication) actually applies to mongeese. Ron is right about the cat replacement; one-theory holds cats were easier to breed and had a higher fecundity than mongeese, others say the cat seemed "more regal in carriage," or were better hunters. Whatever the reason, mongeese were replaced by cats, although they are still kept as pets and as mousers to this day. Reportedly, they are good pets, especially those which normally live communally, like meercats.

Then Ron said, "It is possible either the ferret or the meercat may have been worshipped in Upper Egypt at this time, but no solid proof exists."

Egyptians were extreme animal worshippers and worshipped most animals in the area, including mongeese. There is good evidence that the Egyptian god Atum is sometimes represented by a mongoose because he was thought to have transformed into that animal from time to time. Although most depictions of mongeese do not usually refer to Atum, they reportedly were mummified and saved in his temples. The early Egyptians not only worshipped animals, but were fanatical in preserving all of them, from birds to shrews and from crocs to hippos, so they would exist in the afterlife. Very little was missed; Even tiny shrews were preserved as mummies. Because of this, even those animals that were not extensively worshipped were mummified in great numbers. However, those animals that were worshipped, like cats and ibis, had entire temples dedicated to the preservation of their remains, which were stored in the millions.

Then Ron said, "Very few of these mummies still exist because the were used to feed the furnaces of locomotives in the late 1800's." Yes and no. Yes, tremendous numbers of mummies were destroyed, but the part regarding the existence of only a few mummies is incorrect. Even now, there are hundreds of thousands of animal mummies still stored away in archaeological sites and stuffy museums. British, French, USA and German museums store thousands and that is not even counting what is in Egypt. It is correct that both animal and human mummies were used extensively for fuel, including powering locomotives (they were also used by the tons for fertiliser). I have read estimates that perhaps 80 to 90 percent of the mummies (both human and animal) were destroyed in this manner. However, that doesn't mean the rare mummies were lost or destroyed, or that the reason "ferret mummies" are rare is because they were all burned up. Shortly after the translation of the Rosetta stone, a world-wide Egyptology fad took place, and people were buying everything from scraps of papyrus to huge stone artefacts. Mummies of all types were extremely popular and it was considered a public coup to have a party with a mummy on display. The rare mummies commanded the highest prices, so they were constantly being watched for, collected and sold. The common mummies (cats, dogs, ibis, humans, etc.) were destroyed in quantity, but not to such an extent that they are "rare" today.

Here is why the destruction of the mummies doesn't matter. If the destruction of all animal mummies was RANDOM, then the loss of a single type of mummy is proportional to the loss of all other mummies. In other words, if 25% of 1000 mummies are ferrets (250/1000), even if you randomly destroy 90% of them, you would still have 25% ferret mummies (25/100) in the leftover collection. Now, since we are talking about MILLIONS of animal mummies that were randomly destroyed, there would STILL be scores of rare mummies left to play with. If you believe that ferrets were domesticated by the Egyptians, you do NOT want this to be the case because it would mean that ferrets are so rare in the record, that they were completely lost in the mummy destruction. In other words, the "rarity" of ferret mummies proves they were not domesticated by the Egyptians and the occasional mummy found is due to deliberate importation, NOT domestication. You see, if ferrets were domesticated as mousers, they would be found in great numbers, just like the other Egyptian household animals. But they are not found, so they are either extremely rare, OR they were never there. Both cases prove non-domestication.

If the destruction of all animal mummies was NOT RANDOM, that is, someone pulls out the rare ones to sell, such as hippos or cows, then you would expect ferret mummies to be either saved if rare, or destroyed at the same rate as common mummies such as cats, dogs or ibis, if not rare. If you believe that ferrets were domesticated by the Egyptians, you do NOT want this to be the case because it would mean that 1) ferrets are so rare in the record, that they were never found for saving, or 2) they are still commonly found in similar proportions as cats or dogs or ibis. Since we KNOW the second option is incorrect, that only leaves the possibility that ferrets were too rare to be found for saving, which proves, again, they were not domesticated.

Random or not, the destruction of the animal mummies, as horrific as I feel about it, has no real impact on deciding if ferrets were in Egypt of not. In a very real sense, it was nothing more than crude sort of sampling, but with an "N" in the thousands, which makes for some really great and powerful statistics. So even though a tremendous amount of information was lost, it doesn't matter because what was left behind is more than good enough. Why? The official phrase is "sampling to redundancy." What this means is, as you continue to sample the population, you reach the point where even though you continue to add numbers, the final results stay the same. OK, consider a town where 100 people own red cars, 500 people own blue cars, and 1000 people own white cars, making a ratio of 1:5:10. As you sample, you reach the point where even though you might have only randomly counted a few hundred cars, the ratio of 1:5:10 has already been reached (when rounding off to whole numbers). Continued counting changes nothing, so you have sampled to redundancy. Now, let's say a single person owns a green car. What are the chances of sampling it? Very poor; you could count every car in town before you found it. So sampling to redundancy does not attempt to find the very rare objects, but it is very accurate with the more common ones.

And that's the rub. You see, if ferrets were domesticated in a land where there was an almost fanatical obligation to preserving the wildlife for the afterlife (either as mummies, models or drawings which could come to life) and where the "zoological record" preserved as art and glyphs was an accurate account of the animals living in the area, then ferrets wouldn't be rare. By its very nature, domestication implies a somewhat common and large population; after all, the "Out of Egypt" hypothesis does say ferrets were domesticated and used in Egypt as mousers at granaries and in homes. By implication, there had to be a lot of them. They may not be as common as other animals, but they still would not be so rare as to be missed when sampling to redundancy. It is their rarity (or non-existence) that PROVES ferrets were never domesticated in Egypt.

You see, domesticated animals are not rare in archaeological records. In some cases, their remains outnumber those of wild animals by a large degree. If Egyptians domesticated ferrets for mousing, and only later replaced them with cats, then you would expect to find ferret remains, then ferret and cat remains, and finally just cat remains as you move from older to more modern deposits. But you don't. You only find cat remains. Now, either something is purposely taking ferret remains out of the archaeological record, or they were never there. If you think it is the former, be prepared to list the reason to prove the removal.

Now, here is something for everyone to suck on. Lets assume you actually found a mummy or bones of a ferret. How do you know it's a ferret? Exactly how can you show it is NOT a polecat? I have been directly studying that question for some time, and I have just started to get some ideas on how it can be done. But I am a long way from publishing those ideas. At this point in time, you cannot tell the difference between a ferret and a polecat, except for some very small differences in the skulls of some individuals. So, if you cannot prove the remains did not come from a polecat, how can you prove they are from a ferret? To prove domestication, you have to prove any remains are ferrets, not polecats. If you had a lot of mummies or remains, you could make such an argument, but if you only have rare remains, you cannot support domestication.

There is ONE other line of evidence, and that is folklore. Most mammals (or actually "types" of animals--there may have been no distinction between types of mice or bats, etc.) usually are mentioned--even if rarely--in the folklore of the locals. The first possible ferret tale are several of the Aesop's fables, where modern translations of early texts suggest "house-weasel." This could be a reference to the ferret or its ancestor. BUT, if used with other evidence, like Aristophanes' works, then it supports the idea that ferrets were in existence in Greece about 400-300 BC. Ferrets in early folklore are only found in Europe, and not a single tale from Egypt. There are tales regarding cats, dogs, cattle and other domesticated animals from Egypt, but not a single ferret tale. Now, the astute reader may point out there is a lack of fossils of ferrets in Europe as well, assuming as I do that Europe is the probable domestication area. It's a good point, but a faulty one. First, while ferret subfossils ARE rare, the remains of polecats are not; it is more than likely that since it is nearly impossible to presently tell a prehistoric ferret from a polecat, some of the remains are undoubtedly from ferrets. Second, Egypt is not Europe; in Egypt, people were purposely making mummies out of any animal they could get their hands on, which would have included ferrets if they where there. Also, bones do not preserve well in damp acidic forest environments like those found in Europe, but do great in dry alkaline environments like those in Egypt, so you can't blame it on preservation. Finally, everyone and their mother has run off to Egypt for a little archaeology, but vast areas of central and eastern Europe have had very little archaeological investigation, and what has been done is only reported in obscure journals. So, the ferrets are probably there; they just have not been found. Yet.

So this is what you have. No prehistoric polecat or ferret remains in Egypt; plenty of polecat remains (and some ferret) in Europe. No ferrets mentioned in Egyptian literature, lots mentioned in early European literature. No ferrets in Egyptian art, lots in European art. No stories or tales about ferrets in Egypt, some found in Europe. You can blame the rarity of ferrets in Europe due to lack of preservation, lack of archaeology, little accessible reporting, and inability to tell the difference between ferrets and polecats, but these conditions did not, for the most part, exist in Egypt. I think the burden of proof exists with the "Out of Egypt" camp; they should offer it or drop the subject.

Now, why is this so critically important anyway? Because we, as ferret owners, are fighting the twin spectres of misinformation and prejudice. Like each incident of a ferret biting a baby, each occurrence of misinformation will come back to bite us hard and deep. Already there is a CaCaLand Fishing Gestapo and Door Breaking webpage that uses the "Out of Egypt" argument to cast doubt on our other claims. After all, if our ferret research is flawed on this one easy-to-disprove subject, what is it like in our more critical and important issues, like ferrets going feral, or low bite incidence? As my dad used to say, once you kiss the butt of a horse, you are labelled, regardless if it was accidental or not.

In an honourable argument designed to overcome unfair laws, prejudice and misinformation, the truth is critical. The use of unproven "ideas" in order to bolster a case is not only unethical, it runs the risk of tainting our other evidence, WHICH IT IS CURRENTLY DOING! I would LOVE to be able to prove ferrets were domesticated longer than cats; in fact, all my early research was done in an attempt to do that very thing. But I can't, nobody can. All I know is, like a bad apple, the "Out of Egypt" hypothesis of ferret domestication is damaging our other, more important arguments. We can't afford this. Our ferrets cannot afford this. I, for one, believe the truth will set ferrets free; who cares if ferrets were domesticated 5000 or 2500 years ago? I wouldn't care if they were only domesticated 1000 years ago because, the fact is, they are domesticated now, which is all that matters.

I don't know exactly when or where ferrets were domesticated; not a single person knows the location or timing of ferret domestication. I suspect it was in south central Europe maybe 2500 to 3000 years ago, but I have no physical evidence to support that idea. But I do know this; the "out of Egypt" hypothesis is wrong, promoting it is wrong, and even allowing it to be a possibility is wrong.

It is an argument constructed of smoke and mirrors, easily explained away, whose "proofs" consist of mistranslations, misinterpretations, misidentifications and misdirection. People are free to believe in illusion all they want; I prefer to watch the hands of the magician and realise truth is not what which is perceived, but what which is provable.

Again, I have to apologise for the length and complexity of these posts; I simply knew of no way to offer the argument without this minimum space or discussing some difficult concepts. Also, again, I want to stress that this post is not a flame or a put-down. It is nothing more than a discussion of the issues as brought out by Ron. Ron, I hope you don't see it as a flame, and I apologise beforehand if you think so.

(Originally posted on the Ferret Mailing Liat: 1999)

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