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The History of Mongooses

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Egyptian Mongoose - Herpestes ichneumon

Egyptian Mongoose - Herpestes ichneumon, 1780 drawing by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber

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Mongooses are members of the Herpestidae family, and they are small carnivorous mammals with 34 separate species found in about 20 genera. As adults, they range in size from 1-6 kilograms (2-13 pounds) in weight, and their body lengths range between 23-75 centimeters (9-30 inches). They are primarily African in origin, although one genus is widespread throughout Asia and southern Europe, and several genera are found only on Madagascar. Recent research on domestication issues (in the English language academic press, anyway), has principally focused on the Egyptian or white-tailed mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon).

The Egyptian mongoose (H. ichneumon) is a medium-sized mongoose, adults weighing about 2-4 kg (4-8 lb), with a slender body, about 50-60 cm (9-24 in) long, and a tail about 45-60 cm (20-24 in) longer. The fur is grizzled gray, with markedly darker head and lower limbs. It has small, rounded ears, a pointed muzzle and a tassled tail. The mongoose has a generalized diet that includes small to medium sized invertebrates such as rabbits, rodents, birds and reptiles, and they have no objections to eating the carrion of larger mammals. Its modern distribution is all over Africa, in the Levant from the Sinai peninsula to southern Turkey and in Europe in the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula.

Mongooses and Human Beings

The earliest Egyptian mongoose found at archaeological sites occupied by humans or our ancestors is at Laetoli, in Tanzania. H. ichneumon remains have also been recovered at several South African Middle Stone Age sites such as Klasies River, Nelson Bay and Elandsfontein. In the Levant, it has been recovered from Natufian (12,500-10,200 BP) sites of el Wad and Mount Carmel. In Africa, H. ichneumon has been identified in Holocene sites and in the early Neolithic site of Nabta Playa (11-9,000 cal BP) in Egypt.

Other mongooses, specifically the Indian gray mongoose, H. edwardsi, are known from Chalcolithic sites in India (2600-1500 BC). A small H. edwardsii was recovered from the Harrappan civilization site of Lothal, ca 2300-1750 BC; mongooses appear in scupltures and associated with specific deities in both Indian and Egyptian cultures. None of these appearances necessarily represent domesticate animals.

Domesticated Mongooses?

In fact, mongooses don't seem to have ever been domesticated in the true sense of the word. They don't require feeding: like cats, they are hunters and can get their own dinners. Like cats, they can mate with their wild cousins; like cats, given the opportunity, mongooses will return to the wild. There are no physical changes in mongooses over time which suggest some domestication process at work. But, also like cats, Egyptian mongooses can make great pets, if you catch them at an early age; and, also like cats, they are good at keeping the vermin down to a minimum: a useful trait for humans to exploit.

The relationship between mongooses and people seems to have taken at least a step towards domestication in the New Kingdom of Egypt (1539-1075 BC). New Kingdom mummies of Egyptian mongooses were found at the 20th dynasty site of Bubastis, and in Roman period Dendereh and Abydos. In his Natural History written in the first century AD, Pliny the elder reported on a mongoose he saw in Egypt.

It was almost certainly the expansion of the Islamic civilization that brought the Egyptian mongoose into southwestern Iberian peninsula, likely during the Umayyad dynasty (AD 661-750). Archaeological evidence indicates that prior to the eighth century AD, no mongooses were to be found in Europe more recently than the Pliocene.

Early Specimens of Egyptian Mongoose in Europe

One nearly complete H. ichneumon was found in the Cave of Nerja, Portugal. Nerja has several millennia of occupations, including an Islamic period occupation. The skull was recovered from the Las Fantasmas room in 1959, and although the cultural deposits in this room date to the latter Chalcolithic, AMS radiocarbon dates indicate that the animal went into the cave between the 6th and 8th centuries (885+-40 RCYBP) and was trapped.

An earlier discovery was four bones (cranium, pelvis and two complete right ulnae) recovered from the Muge Mesolithic period shell middens of central Portugal. Although Muge itself is securely dated to between 8000 ad 7600 cal BP, the mongoose bones themselves date to 780-970 cal AD, indicating that it too burrowed into early deposits where it died. Both of these discoveries support the intimation that Egyptian mongooses were brought into southwestern Iberia during the expansion of the Islamic civilization of the 6th-8th centuries AD, likely the Ummayad emirate of Cordoba, 756-929 AD.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Animal Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Detry C, Bicho N, Fernandes H, and Fernandes C. 2011. The Emirate of Córdoba (756–929 AD) and the introduction of the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) in Iberia: the remains from Muge, Portugal. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(12):3518-3523.

Encyclopedia of Life. Herpestes. Accessed January 22, 2012

Gaubert P, Machordom A, Morales A, López-Bao JV, Veron G, Amin M, Barros T, Basuony M, Djagoun CAMS, San EDL et al. 2011. Comparative phylogeography of two African carnivorans presumably introduced into Europe: disentangling natural versus human-mediated dispersal across the Strait of Gibraltar. Journal of Biogeography 38(2):341-358.

Palomares F, and Delibes M. 1993. Social organization in the Egyptian mongoose: group size, spatial behaviour and inter-individual contacts in adults. Animal Behaviour 45(5):917-925.

Myers, P. 2000. "Herpestidae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed January 22, 2012 http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Herpestidae.html.

Riquelme-Cantala JA, Simón-Vallejo MD, Palmqvist P, and Cortés-Sánchez M. 2008. The oldest mongoose of Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(9):2471-2473.

Ritchie EG, and Johnson CN. 2009. Predator interactions, mesopredator release and biodiversity conservation. Ecology Letters 12(9):982-998.

Sarmento P, Cruz J, Eira C, and Fonseca C. 2011. Modeling the occupancy of sympatric carnivorans in a Mediterranean ecosystem. European Journal of Wildlife Research 57(1):119-131.

van der Geer, Alexandra. 2008 Animals in Stone: Indian mammals sculptured through time. Brill: Leiden.

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