This week, colleagues studying Egyptology at the University in Poznań (Poland) and Université Paris-Sorbonne (France) have reached out with a question... are the leopards shown in the Ptolemaic Era artwork Africa or Persian? To answer the question, we need to consider a few key pieces of information. First, with Egypt situated in at the confluence of ranges among three leopard subspecies- the African leopard, Arabian leopard and Persian leopard (also called the Anatolian or Caucasian leopard by some groups). Second, are there physical differences among these sub-species that may make identification possible? Third, what is the likelihood that Egyptian rulers would have captured these animals or received them from neighboring trade partners.
To address the first point, Ptolemaic Empire (around 300 b.c.) expanded across Northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of southern Turkey. This area included the historic range of all three subspecies- the African, Arabian and Persian leopard. Leopards historically only lived in the Nile River Valley and along the coast of the Red Sea. Today, only a small remnant population is thought to exist in Elba National Park in the Southeastern corner of Egypt. This population is connected to the leopard sub-species of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is likely, however, that these populations were never very high. Same goes for the Arabian leopard that is found along the coastlines in the Middle East including the Arabian peninsula. Arabian leopards are still present in tiny remnant populations in Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel. Populations here were also likely very low considering the arid habitat. Leopards across southwestern Asia live in a variety of habitats including mountains, forests and the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey. It is possible that leopards may have come from any one of these locations.
Do they all look the same? Well, not too surprisingly, there are subtle differences among leopards across their range living in different habitats. For example, the Amur leopard inhabits the Russian Far-East and grows a thick, long fur coat to protect against the harsh winters. The Indochinese leopard generally keeps a short, sleek coat as not to overheat in the tropics. The Arabian leopard lives in marginal areas feeding on small mammals in the absence of large prey and therefore has a smaller body size by comparison. Next the Persian leopards of today have slightly long fur similar to other subspecies in temperate environments.
After investigating this artwork, we see that the depictions show an large size leopard, that is nearly waist- height to the human figures, disqualifying the diminutive Arabian leopard. Further, there are no signs that these animals have (seasonally grown) thicker, longer fur as the temperate cats would likely have. The artist may not have included this feature. Lastly, the Ptolemaic Empire traded with the Nubians in sub-Saharan Africa, Minoans of Greece, factions in the Middle East and southwest Asia. There are shrines depicting trade with the Nubians of sub-Saharan Africa and the Minoans of Ancient Greece. One art piece in particular shows a person walking a small collared leopard next to another man walking a baboon. This would suggest that the Nubians may have traded wildlife to the Egyptians. Further research suggests that Nubians traded much of their wildlife including elephants, giraffes, etc. to Egyptians and European powers at different times. Combined with the known wildlife trading habits of the Nubians, I would suspect that the leopards present in the Hathor Shrine of the Dendera Temple, and Temple of Deir are actually the African subspecies.
Just in case there is any doubt, leopards were also called "abi shema" or Big Cat from the South!
Another question- are these leopards male or female? Researcher Filip Taterka said, "If therefore the leopard in the Hathor Shire is female it would mean that it plays the role of Hathor herself. If, however, he is male, than perhaps he should be identified rather with the king, who happens to be compared to leopard in the moment of his wrath. " We suspect that they are males (60-70 cm shoulder height) because the figures have a more robust and stand at the relative height of male leopards compared to the human figures. These carvings occasionally show exaggerated sizes of animals, so we may be mislead by measuring relative size of animals in the carvings.
Lastly, we were curious about the lack of spots. Initially, we suspected that perhaps the paint had warn off over the years, but it appears that these pieces have been preserved quite well. Leopards and leopard skins in other pieces have spots- so perhaps this was a stylistic choice of the artist. Since the cat does resemble a lioness, but without a definitive tail tuft, this is unlikely. There are still many questions to investigate as part of the project. We wish our colleagues luck in learning as much as they can about these fascinating carvings!