The perils of borrowing citations (or: did ancient Egyptians really use palm oil?)

I admit to having read articles and books for the sole purpose of looking at their bibliography.  It’s easy to borrow a few citations from those who have done similar work before, especially if you need to fill out a section of background information. Problems arise when we don’t actually read the sources, however.

Example A: Friedel, C. “Sur des matières grasses trouvées dans des tombes égyptiennes d’Abydos.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences 124 (1897): 648–53.

In dozens (probably hundreds, at this point) of articles, poor Charles Friedel is identified as “MC Friedel.” The “M” that appears before “C. Friedel” in the article stands for monsieur. The citation for MC Friedel appears in the Cambridge World History of Food entry for “Palm Oil,” and I suspect that it where most of the copycats have taken it from.
Getting the name wrong is not, in and of itself, a serious problem. The bigger issue is that scholars have been mindlessly repeating a “fact” associated with this citation without bothering to read the original article. In 1897, Friedel conducted a chemical analysis of two jars containing organic matter that were excavated from a tomb in Abydos, Egypt. Friedel’s chemical analysis led him to conclude that one jar contained palm oil, and that the other contained beef or mutton tallow. The fats were badly degraded, and he inferred their original composition based on the proportion of residual fatty acids.
Is it possible that ancient Egyptians used palm oil imported from central or western Africa as a cosmetic (the likely use of the jars)? Certainly! All sorts of exotic luxuries from around the Old World turn up in Egyptian tombs. Were Egyptians regularly importing palm oil from tropical Africa, as many authors who cite this article infer? Maybe.
As Dr R. Montgomerie notes in his 2012 thesis, there is a great deal of debate over whether the substance found in Abydos was actually palm oil. Many fats contain palmitic acid, which was the indicator Friedel used to make his determination. Palm oil may have been used in lamps for illumination, and Herodotus and Diodorus are reputed to have identified it as an oil used in mummification (though I think the text is ambiguous… Greek scholars are welcome to weigh in here).
If palm oil were only used in cosmetics and mummification, we could treat it as a luxury good, likely traded on a small scale over great distance. If it were burned in lamps, however, we would expect a much larger volume of trade. That possibility raises major questions: Where were the oil palm trees? Who produced the oil? What were did they trade it for in Egypt?
Recent testing using state-of-the-art tools by Dr Stephen Buckley at York University identified date palm oil in a cosmetic jar from the Abydos excavations. Date palms grow in Egypt; oil palms do not. The composition of the two fats is very different (date palm kernel oil does not appear to contain substantial amounts of palmitic acid.) More work is needed to clarify the status of palm oil in the ancient world: testing Friedel’s jars (if they still exist?) would be a good start.
In short: authors would be wise to cite Monsieur C. Friedel’s 1897 paper with caution. Palm oil was probably traded up the Nile, but there is still no strong evidence showing that it was a major article of commerce in the ancient world.

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