Pyramids and Protein

Arabic abstract By Dr. Richard Redding, Archaeozoologist, University of Michigan
and Brian V. Hunt

Pastoral farming near the pyramids.

Pastoral farming near the pyramids.

Egyptians of the 4th Dynasty (2575-2465 BC) witnessed the construction of some of the world’s most enduring symbols: the pyramids, the temples, and the Sphinx of Giza. Tens of thousands of workers came together in great public works projects, undertaken to ensure the successful afterlife of kings. The problems this created for planners and administrators were monumental as well.

They could not, for example, solve the problems of provisioning a city of ten or twenty thousand by just scaling up the methods used for a village of a few hundred. The methods the Egyptians employed at Giza may have influenced the royal administration of the country for millennia to come.

How did the royal house manage to feed this massive workforce? What can the remains of animals in the archaeological record at Giza tell us about how the Egyptians solved this problem?

Prime beef for pyramid builders

In an area of the world where people have traditionally reserved meat eating mostly for special occasions and feast-days, we have found evidence that the ancient state provisioned the pyramid city with enough cattle, sheep, and goat to feed thousands of people prime cuts of meat for more than a generation—even if they ate it every day.

We have examined and identified over 175,000 bones and bone fragments from the excavations at the Giza pyramid settlement. The bones are from fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. About 10% have been identifiable to at least the level of the genus (a group of closely related species).

Cattle and sheep dominate the fauna. We have found:

Dr. Richard Redding examining bones.

Dr. Richard Redding examining bones.

The ratio of individual sheep and goat to individual cattle is 5 to 1.

It might appear that sheep and goats were more common at Giza than cattle, and that sheep and goats were more important. But remember that an 18-month-old bull produces 10 to 12 times as much meat as an 18-month-old ram

The ratio of sheep to goats at Giza is biased towards sheep. For the entire settlement site, the ratio of sheep to goat is 3 to 1.

There is a low frequency of pig bones.

The cattle and sheep consumed at the settlement were young.

The cattle and sheep are predominately male.

What does this tell us about life at the pyramid settlement?

Problems in scale

The agrarian society of ancient Egypt was centered on crops and animals. The Egyptians’ colorful tomb paintings depict a rich agricultural life and we find evidence of this life in the archaeological remains of their settlements.

Agricultural scene, tomb of Sennedjem at Luxor.

Agricultural scene, tomb of Sennedjem at Luxor.

The Egyptians could not catch fish, birds, and wild mammals in numbers adequate to support a large settlement like that at Giza.

Feeding the pyramid builders required an increased production of domestic mammals: sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. But there may have been inadequate space near Giza to support large herds of animals to feed the pyramid builders. Where did the supply of meat protein come from?

Expectations at Giza

Our models of animal use in the Middle East and Egypt are based on studies of the ecological, reproductive, productive, physiological and behavioral characteristics of domestic cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. These models help us make predictions.

Tomb scene: driving cattle.

Tomb scene: driving cattle.

The royal administrators had to develop a system that encouraged the production of animals beyond the needs of the villages of the Nile Delta and the Nile valley. They then collected the surplus and moved it along the Nile to Giza.

If the Giza settlement was organized and provisioned by a central authority (the royal administration), then we expect certain evidence to emerge from the archaeological data. Based on our knowledge of agrarian societies and food production, the evidence at Giza should show:

  1. Pigs are evident at very low frequency.
  2. Cattle and sheep dominate the fauna.
  3. The cattle and sheep are mostly young males.

Animal utility

Pigs would have been unsatisfactory for provisioning a workforce on a large-scale in the ancient world. They cannot be herded and do not travel well over long distances. There are no nomadic pig herders anywhere in the world today.

Tomb scene: ritual buthering.

Tomb scene: ritual buthering.

Pigs have a dispersed birthing pattern that is not seasonal; they give birth up to three times a year. Therefore, young pigs are available at almost anytime for consumption.

Pigs provided no secondary products (hair, milk, etc.) and were therefore less valuable than cattle, sheep, and goats.

Because of the pig’s unsuitability for feeding workers on a large scale, the Egyptian workforce administrators were not interested in them as stock, and pigs were not involved in inter-regional exchange the way other animal stocks like cattle, sheep, and goats were.

Our studies indicate, however, that while the central authority did not consider pigs a valued provisioning resource, Egyptian families reared pigs for protein. Even today, in rural and urban areas around the world, farmers and non-farmers use pigs (where they are not proscribed by religion).

Delivered when needed

We know that the Egyptians recorded regular and detailed counts of animal stocks throughout the Nile Valley. These counts are a clear indication of the value of animals as a commodity to the state.

Tomb model: counting cattle.

Tomb model: counting cattle.

Although they cannot provide the quantity of meat that cattle do, sheep and goats are valuable for similar reasons. They can be herded and provide secondary products.

Sheep, goats, and cattle can and do travel long distances. Americans in the 19th century drove cattle to market over vast distances. Nomadic sheep and goat pastoralists today move animals 1,000 miles (1,609 km) by hoof in migration (e.g. Qashghi in Iran).

In the 4th Dynasty, it was not possible to rear sheep, goats, and cattle around Giza in the numbers needed for the pyramid builders. We are working on an estimate of the farm area required to rear these animals in sufficient numbers to provide a surplus that would support 8,000-10,000 workers laboring at ancient Giza. Preliminary estimates suggest a required area substantially larger than the Giza environs would allow.

The administrators would have organized drives of sheep, goats, and cattle between the Nile Valley and the high desert to move the required animals to Giza. In a foreshadowing of modern manufacturing, the animals would arrive in waves—a “just in time” delivery system.

Secondary produce

Sheep, cattle, and goats all have secondary products beyond their meat:

The ancient inhabitants may also have consumed milk from cows and goats, but not in such large quantities that it would have been signficant for the diet of the pyramid labor force. Secondary produce makes all of these animals more valuable resources.

Birth cycles and surplus males

Sheep and goats have tight birthing seasons (compared to pigs) and produce age classes from which the young male surplus needs to be harvested. As with cattle, female sheep and goats are needed to produce offspring, while only a few males are needed for breeding.

Without a central authority, this surplus creates a labor problem for herders and agriculturists. Do they reduce the herd size or increase meat consumption seasonally? It would therefore have been relatively easy for administrators to encourage villages to increase production. The central authority then becomes a convenient market for the surplus in exchange for goods and services.

Ideal grazing

In Egypt, ranchers would have raised cattle in grassy areas with wells and watering holes like the Nile Delta. They would have raised sheep in the drier areas. Goats could have thrived in both places and would have complimented cattle rearing because these animals do not compete for food.

Imagine a division across the Nile Delta or Valley: cattle and goats in the middle and sheep and goats along the edges. Sheep and goats would go out into the high deserts in the rainy season and returned to the edges of the delta or valley in the dry season.

Kom el-Hisn: contradiction and example

Dr. Redding at Kom el-Hisn, 1988. Photo courtesy of Dr. Anthony J. Cagle

Dr. Redding at Kom el-Hisn, 1988.Photo courtesy of Dr. Anthony J. Cagle

The Old Kingdom (5th and 6th Dynasty, 2465-2150 BC) Egyptian village, Kom el-Hisn, was excavated by archaeologists in 1985, 1986, and 1988. A contradiction appears in the archaeological record there.

There is abundant evidence of cattle dung from the Old Kingdom level at Kom el-Hisn, which means there must have been large herds there. Yet the cattle bones indicate two things: the numbers of cattle slaughtered at Kom el-Hisn are relatively few and the bones that exist are from very old or very young individuals.

Where are the prime, young males, which provide the best cuts of beef?

The residents were not consuming the cattle they reared and were consuming few of the sheep. They only used very old animals or animals that were very young and ill. The residents of Kom el-Hisn were dependent on the pig as a source of protein and, unsurprisingly, we find a dominance of pig bone at the site.

Kom el-Hisn is just 4 kilometers from the ecotone where the Nile Valley meets the desert. The Egyptians could have reared cattle in the grassy areas around their villages and sent herders out with flocks of sheep and goats to exploit the ecotonal area.

The royal cattlemen periodically gathered up herds of young, male cattle and sheep (1 to 2 years) and drove them along the Nile to a central point for redistribution. These young male animals were not consumed locally and so their remains did not enter the archaeological record at Kom el-Hisn.

Cattle were raised at Kom el-Hisn but not consumed there. Where were the consumers?

We hypothesize that Kom el-Hisn was a regional or provincial center for raising cattle, but that the young males were sent to the core area of the Old Kingdom state—the capital zone and the pyramid zone—for feeding cities. Our systematic excavations and retrieval of animal bone from such core-area settlements, like Giza, allow us to test our hypothesis. In fact, we find the inverse ratios of Kom el-Hisn: lots of cattle, sheep, and goat but very little pig.


Our study of the 4,500-year-old animal bones at Giza are another piece of the puzzle of life in ancient Egypt. Based on the data above, we see that the pyramid settlement at Giza was a well-provisioned site, supplied by the central authority; the archaeological pattern is not one of a livestock producing site.

A central authority gathered predominately young, male sheep, goats, and cattle and brought them to the site to feed the occupants; the bones of these animals dominate the faunal remains and pigs are in very little evidence. Once again we find that an interdisciplinary approach to our examination of the evidence at Giza, yields a much fuller picture of life at the settlement and reveals clues to the organization of the ancient Egyptian state.

More to tell

There’s yet another story to tell about animal use at Giza. Further analysis now indicates that species are not equally, or randomly, distributed around the site. Patterns exist in animal use across the site and these patterns need to be explained.

Please visit our site again to read a future article that discusses the unequal distribution of animal remains across the pyramid settlement and what that might mean about the people who lived there.

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