Have kangaroos been found in Egypt? Many websites repeat a brief story which says that in January 1984 the Cairo Times reported that kangaroo fossils were unearthed by archaeologists in Egypt’s Fayum region. This is usually cited along with a range of other equally vaguely referenced ‘proofs’ that Australia was familiar to the ancient Egyptians.
The story is often repeated by cut-and-paste methods that dump large amounts of text into a post. I have not been able to source the original Cairo Times article, but the earliest mention I can find is in Maggie’s Farm from 1984, an alternative lifestyle magazine that later developed into New Dawn and Nexus.
Some deft googling established a few facts and corrected some misconceptions. The Fayum Depression, about 50-100 km southwest of Cairo, is well known for its Tertiary period palaeontological remains, including very early primates. In 1981 the first discovery of a marsupial in Africa took place in the Fayum. A small marsupial jaw was found in field survey in the Jebel Qatrani formation. The following year additional jaws were found securely associated with the same formation. The specimens came from a new species, Peratherium africanus, a didelphid marsupial, i.e. the family containing the American opossums, not closely related to the Australian marsupials [Simons and Bown 1984; Bowns and Simon 1984]. In size the Peratherium resembles one of the smaller possum body sizes, perhaps similar to the Australian pygmy possum. The finds come from Oligocene deposits, dating from 34-23 million years ago. This is well before any human intervention, and also quite a while after the Australian marsupial fauna had begun to follow its own evolutionary trajectory. The jaw is comparable to other marsupials of similar or older date found in Europe and probably related closely to earlier European marsupials.
Clearly, when the discovery was first reported the idea of a marsupial conjured up the best known form – the kangaroo. Further confusion came once it was published and repeated through uncritical repetition on the internet, without an opportunity to check the facts.
So, when someone says ‘Weren’t kangaroos found in the Egyptian desert?’, you can say with great certainty, and in a totally unpatronising manner, ‘No, early marsupial remains dating many tens of million years ago were found in Egypt, but their presence is entirely consistent with what we know of marsupial evolution and biogeography. There were no kangaroos, and there was no human intervention.’
Anon. , 1984
[brief note on marsupial discovery in Fayum], Maggie’s Farm, 34.
Bown, T.M and E.L. Simons 1984
‘First record of marsupials [Metatheria: Polyprotodonta] from the OIigocene in Africa’, Nature, 308, pp. 447-449.
Cairo Times 1984
[article on marsupial finds at Fayum] – not seen.
Simons, E.L., and T.M. Bown 1984
‘A new species of Peratherium [Didelphidae; Polyprotodonta]: the first African marsupial. Journal of mammalogy, 65, pp. 539-548.