Skip to comments.Egyptologists' palm nearly extinct.
Posted on 06/06/2006 8:53:33 AM PDT by S0122017
Histories: Fruits of the tomb 03 June 2006 NewScientist.com news service Stephanie Pain
When Giuseppe Passalacqua went to Egypt in the 1820s his plan was to do a bit of horse-trading. He soon discovered a more lucrative line of work - excavating ancient tombs and selling off their contents. While Passalacqua found many priceless treasures, unlike most tomb-robbers he also made off with the more mundane. If something could be carried off, it was - right down to the dried-up offerings left to feed the ancients in the afterlife. Among these were some strange shrivelled fruits that have posed a series of puzzles ever since. They came from some sort of palm tree, but not one anyone recognised. Had the tree vanished along with the pharaohs?
IN 1826 Giuseppe Passalacqua, an Italian horse-trader turned tomb-digger, left Egypt and headed for Paris. His plan was to show off his vast collection of Egyptian antiquities and tempt the French government into buying it for the Louvre. Passalacqua had excavated tombs at several sites in Egypt and had made important discoveries. He was the first to investigate an intact burial, complete with mummy, coffins and funeral offerings, all of which he added to his haul. But although the French were fascinated by all things Egyptian, they baulked at Passalacqua's price. Disappointed, he took his collection to Berlin, where he sold it to Crown prince Frederick of Prussia for a knock-down price plus a job for life as director of the Berlin Museum.
Passalacqua's diligence in stripping tombs clean meant there was plenty in his collection for the serious scientist. For Carl Kunth, Berlin's leading botanist of the day, the greatest treasure was the assortment of plant material preserved since the days of the pharaohs. Among the bits and pieces, Kunth was intrigued to find three sorts of palm fruit. He recognised dates and the fruits of the doum palm but he couldn't identify the third. Although he had only dried and shrivelled fruits, Kunth knew they came from a tree that was new to science. He named it Areca passalacquae. Others simply called it the Egyptologists' palm.
Eleven years later, in 1837, German adventurer Prince Paul von Württemberg was exploring the desert of northern Sudan when he discovered a distinctive palm tree bearing masses of deep purple, plum-sized fruits. It was more than 20 years before botanists connected the prince's tree with Passalacqua's fruits. The Egyptologists' palm is known today as Medemia argun, the argun palm.
The palm remained tantalisingly elusive. Occasionally some doughty explorer would stumble across a few in the Nubian desert of north-east Sudan, one of Africa's driest and most inhospitable places. Two who did, in May 1863, were John Speke and Augustus Grant, fresh from discovering the source of the Nile. Heading back north towards Egypt, they reached the point where the Nile makes a vast westward loop and, bored by what had become a "tame and monotonous" boat ride, they took a short cut across the desert. Their route led them to a desolate, craggy place not far from the modern border with Egypt, where they were astonished to see a line of unfamiliar palms. The purple fruit with its large seed and thin fleshy covering was inedible, Grant reported, but "the wood would answer for beams; and we saw our camel-men make shackles for their camels of its leaves, considering them softer for the feet".
By the end of the 19th century even the sporadic sightings from Sudan had begun to dry up. British colonial officials there warned that the grove found by Speke and Grant was in danger of being destroyed by the local people, who wove matting from the palm leaves. The last specimen sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London was in 1907. "Then there were no more," says Bill Baker, head of palm research at Kew. "Botanists accepted that it had probably gone extinct."
One mystery had now given way to another: how had a tree so familiar to the ancient Egyptians vanished so completely? The ancient Egyptians seemed to value it highly. Archaeologists have found the fruits at sites dating from early pharaonic times, around 2500 BC, right up to the 7th century, and stretching all the way along the Nile from the far south of Egypt to the delta. Even King Tutankhamen went to the next world with a supply of argun fruits. The tree was cultivated in temples and gardens. It had its own hieroglyph, Mama-n-khanen, to distinguish it from other palms, and is mentioned in a few ancient texts. Enneni, a Theban official living around 1500 BC, left a record of trees in his "garden" that included 10 argun palms. There is even a painting of an argun palm in Enneni's tomb in the Valley of the Nobles.
Even Tutankhamen went to the next world with some argun fruitsThe argun palm, it turned out, had not quite vanished. In 1963, Swedish botanist Vivi Täckholm took a group of students from Cairo University to Dungul oasis, a remote spot in the Egyptian part of the Nubian desert. There they found a single argun palm bearing immense clusters of purplish fruits. A search for more trees revealed only seven small seedlings. The following year, a geologist visiting nearby Nakhila oasis reported a lone tree. For Egyptians, the discoveries had a special significance: a tree that had so long been part of their culture was alive and growing in Egypt. It wasn't extinct - not quite.
Today, the picture has improved slightly. In 1995, two palm-fanciers mounted an expedition to look for the trees Speke and Grant and other hardy travellers had seen in Sudan. They struck lucky. A local camel-drover knew the tree and where it grew. They found 14 mature trees and 15 seedlings. The following year, the camel-drover took them to a second site with hundreds of argun palms.
These few places where the argun palm survives appear to be the last remnants of the savannah that once covered the Sahara. Around 10,000 years ago, the climate grew drier and the vegetation began to retreat until all that was left were small patches of the most drought-tolerant trees and a few grasses at spots where groundwater comes close to the surface. "In pharaonic times it was still much greener and there was less desert. The places where the palms are now are what's left of the ancient vegetation," says Haitham Ibrahim, an ecologist at South Valley University in Aswan. The argun palm probably originated in the region straddling what is now the border between Egypt and Sudan, but was imported and grown throughout Egypt. Why?
Archaeologists think that the way the fruits were offered to the dead suggests they were part of the diet. Grant and Speke had declared the fruit inedible, but on the expedition to Dungul in 1963 student Loutfy Boulos, now one of Egypt's most eminent botanists, tried them and described them as sweetish and perfectly acceptable, though perhaps not to modern taste. In Sudan desert people still make ropes, matting and baskets from the leaves, which are stronger and more flexible than those of date and doum palms. It's a tradition that probably goes back millennia.
So what are the prospects for Egypt's legendary palm tree? In 1998, a team of Egyptian and German botanists visited Dungul to check on its solitary tree. It was dead. The trunk was still standing but the crown had been blown off. However, the seven original seedlings had matured and there were another 29 small seedlings. Last November, Ibrahim and Baker made the gruelling trip to Dungul to see what might be done to conserve Egypt's last argun palms. "It's not surprising it took so long to find the tree in Egypt," says Baker. "You drive south from Aswan for 180 kilometres then turn off the road and drive into the desert for 50 kilometres. The stuff on the ground isn't sand but like fine dust - one wheelspin and you're stuck."
What's at stake is not just a part of Egypt's cultural heritage but its biodiversity. Dungul oasis has fewer than 10 species of flowering plant but that makes it a hotspot of diversity in this bleak landscape, says Baker. "In terms of life in the desert, it's hugely important." Some of Egypt's most endangered animals, such as the extremely rare Nubian ibex and the slender-horned gazelle, may depend on it. "Dungul is a remarkably lively place. In the morning there are footprints everywhere," says Baker. The loss of any of the plant species could be catastrophic.
With climate change bringing even more extended dry periods, the tree's future is hanging in the balance. "We've had a very dry 10 years. Four of the seedlings have died since the 1998 survey," says Ibrahim. "If we lose a few more, what then?"
From issue 2554 of New Scientist magazine, 03 June 2006, page 54
That's nothing. Ever been to West Texas and New Mexico? So, scientists have known this tree is endangered for 200 years, yet none have bothered to protect it or transplant it in a nursery setting.
May I be the first to say it? (Ahem) It's Bush's fault!
He must be a very old hand at this...
I was thinking the same thing.
So what happened to the hundreds of argun palms at the second site? AwenDawn
I've heard Egyptologists have really hairy palms.
Thanks S0122017, will ping when I get home. :')
We had a story a couple weeks ago about the Israeli's 'bringing back' an extinct tree, a palm too, I think.
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A quick web seearch showed several nurseries offering seeds or seedlings. They probably grow pretty good in the southwest.
Welcome to FR.
Arabs wipe out palms and Israelis bring them back. :)
Why can't the palm be grown from seed in a nursery and then planted in various areas or sold to home owners for their property.
Good grief. Global warming and Bush are now making the desert well, a desert. Desertification is its own process and these frauds who make these claims are just another part of the big lie.
Yeah. Winston Churchill on islam:
"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property either as a child, a wife, or a concubine must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science the science against which it had vainly struggled the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome."
From The River War, 1899
GLOBAL WARMING - BUSH'S FAULT
Just updating the GGG info, not sending a general distribution.
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