Australia voted it its second favourite bird in 2017 – and a Griffith University researcher has confirmed that the Ancient Egyptians were also big fans of the ibis, aka the ‘bin chicken, mummifying millions of the birds for placing in underground catacombs.
A new paper co-authored by Professor David Lambert from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution revealed more than eight catacomb sites in Egypt were the final resting places for millions of sacrificed ibises.
The sacred ibis, commonly regarded as the black and white bin lover in Australia, was a worshipped bird in Ancient Egypt and sacrifices were homage to the god of wisdom and writing, Thoth.
It is thought families would offer gifts to appease the gods, such as a mummified ibis to Thoth if a child was sick, for example, and rather like lighting a candle in a church in the present day.
Professor Lambert, an expert in genomics who performed the research in a bid to see how the species changed over time, said the fact that millions of ibises found in one catacomb site proved they were a highly valued bird to the Ancient Egyptians, but it also raised questions.
“How did they get their hands on so many birds? Did they farm them?,” Professor Lambert said.
“Griffith University PhD student Dr Sally Wasef came from Egypt to study this problem. She now works as a postdoctoral fellow in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.
“And a lot of Dr Wasef’s genome work has been about trying to see if these birds found in these sites are genetically variant.”
It turned out the Sacred Ibis debate was the first test of evolution. Professor Lambert’s research, published in PLOS Biology today, places the discoveries of the highly revered bin chicken in these sacred sites at the heart of a historic debate on the theory of evolution.
Fifty years before On The Origin Of The Species by Charles Darwin was published in 1859, two French naturalists Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck were at odds over whether evolutionary change could have been detected by comparison the ~3000-year-old birds collected from the Egyptian sites with modern birds of the same species.
Cuvier declared that it hadn’t, and suggested that this was proof that evolution had not occurred over the 3000 years. Lamarck also admitted there were no evolutionary changes, but this was due to the lapse of time being in sufficient – evolution is a slow process and the environment had not changed much over that duration.
But Lamarck was convinced that evolution was a reality, and he recognised many of the major principles of evolution we accept today and did this before any other scientist.
“Cuvier’s rejection of the idea of evolution set back acceptance of the idea in Europe, by many decades,” Professor Lambert said.
“I believe there has been evolutionary change of the ibis over time, but only the study of genomes will reveal this.
“Lamarck was responsible for many of the major findings in the field of evolution. This even included that living forms arose from abiotic ancestors – from non-living matter.
“He is rightly one of the elder statesmen of the field, having identified 12 of these basic principles in evolution.”