The ancient Egyptians, as it turns out, were up to a bit of monkey business.
They raised baboons in captivity, subjected them to poor living conditions and then mummified them, according to a study published on Dec. 6 in the journal PLOS One.
Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing a “rare” cache of baboon bones held at a French museum.
The skeletal remains had been shipped over from Thebes, an ancient Egyptian city located along the Nile River, where they were discovered around 1905.
The remains, which had been mummified, “were sometimes interred in crudely carved wooden coffins,” researchers said, noting that certain Egyptian populations revered and worshiped monkeys.
An analysis of the bones revealed that they belonged to at least 36 individual baboons, some of which were radiocarbon dated to between 794 and 520 B.C.
The skulls indicated the baboons were of all ages at the time of their death, including some which were infants.
The majority of the remains showed signs of metabolic disorders, suggesting most of the baboons were bred and raised in captivity where they suffered from a “chronic lack of sunlight and imbalanced nutrition,” researchers said.
Among the illnesses observed were rickets, a condition where bones soften and become weak and that is often attributed to inadequate vitamin D.
It’s not clear what kind of structure the animals were confined to, but it’s likely that it was dark and lacking in direct sunlight, researchers said.
An ancient building described as an “animal cage,” which measured about 6 by 10 feet, was found elsewhere in Egypt, and it may have held a baboon. The limestone structure contained a small, sealable window that could be used to pass food through.
Due to the animals’ tendency toward aggressive behavior, they likely proved difficult to keep captive, researchers said.
Evidence from other sites indicates that baboon keepers went so far as to remove or file down the animals’ sharp canine teeth. But though at least one canine tooth was missing from the skulls found in Thebes, researchers abandoned the idea that it may have been purposely removed.
The study, researchers said, provides “a glimpse of how problematic primate keeping must have been” for the ancient Egyptians.