Ancient artwork from Egypt is assisting researchers in studying the extinction of animals over a 6,000 year period.
University of California researchers were able to piece together much of the history of wildlife in Egypt, based on artistic renditions of hunts.
Rising human populations, combined with an increasingly-dry climate, appears to have driven many species to extinction in the area. This suggests the ecosystem in the region is becoming less stable, with less diversity than was seen thousands of years ago.
Local extinctions of mammals may have led to a loss of stability of the ecosystem, according to the study. During times when the diversity of life was great, the loss of one or two species did not have a great effect on the environment. In modern times, when fewer species are present in the area, extinctions can have a greater impact.
Only eight species of large mammals are currently found in the wild in Egypt. Sixty centuries ago, that number stood at 37 distinct varieties of animals. Giraffes, lions, elephants, wild dogs, and the large oryx antelope can all be seen in an artwork from 5,100 years ago. None of those species can be found in the wilderness of modern Egypt.
"What was once a rich and diverse mammalian community is very different now. As the number of species declined, one of the primary things that was lost was the ecological redundancy of the system. There were multiple species of gazelles and other small herbivores, which are important because so many different predators prey on them," Justin Yeakel, from the University of California, said.
Dale Osborne, wrote The Mammals of Ancient Egypt in 1998, a book which pieced together the history of wildlife in the northern African nation. His work, based on historical and archaeological records, was used as a basis for the latest research. Osborne's book contained data showing the times when different species were painted in pieces of art. This allowed Yeakel and his team the ability to model extinctions over time.
Nathaniel Dominy, then employed as an anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, visited a Tutankhamun exhibit with Yeakel in 2010. The pair, amazed at the quality and diversity of artwork displaying images of animals, began discussing how Osborne's book could be used to model the history of extinctions in Egypt.
Investigation of artwork from ancient Egypt and what it can tell us about the extinction of species over 60 centuries is profiled in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.