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Hamadryas Baboon (Papio hamadryas) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names (Kummer 1968b; Kummer 1995)

  • Hamadryas Baboon
  • Sacred baboon
  • Desert baboon
  • White monkey (in Ethiopia)

Scientific name (Brown 1956; Gotch 1995; Kummer 1995)

  • Etymology
    • Papio from Latin meaning baboon
    • hamadryas referring to an ancient Greek wood nymph
  • Synonyms
    • Papio cynocephalus hamadryas

Evolutionary History

Order Primates

  • Likely originated at Cretaceous-Paleogene (formerly Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary, c. 66 million years ago (Ma) (Shotake 1981; Wildman et al. 2004; Winnery et al. 2004; Zinner et al. 2013)

Superfamily Cercopithecoidea 

  • Diverged in the early Miocene (c.32 Ma) (Finstermeier et al. 2013)
  • Family Cercopithecidae includes baboons, macaques, and vervet monkeys (Szalay and Delson 1979)

Papionini tribe

  • Diversified c. mid-Miocene (Finstermeier et. al 2013)

Genus Papio  (Shotake 1981; Zinner et al. 2013; Williams et al. 2012)

  • Arose in the Pleistocene, splitting from genus Parapapio
  • Fossils suggests Papio spread out from tropical forests c. 2 Ma

P. hamadryas

  • Most closely related to olive (P. anubis) and yellow (P. cynocephalus) baboons
  • Arabian hamadryas are native and not human imports to the region (Wildman et al. 2004; Winnery et al. 2004)
    • Settlement likely occured in the mid-Pleistocene (Shotake 1981; Wildman et al. 2004; Winnery et al. 2004; Zinner et al. 2013)

Cultural History

Ancient Egypt (Ions 1982; Kummer 1995; Macdonald 1965; Morris and Morris 1966)

  • Exotic animals, transported to the Nile region from Punt
  • Depicted in artwork; god, guardian and servant
  • Deified, incarnation of the god Thoth
    • Weigher of souls and a scribe to the gods
  • Given sacred status within temples
    • "Taught" to write
      • Writing implements were given to males upon entry into the temple; those picking up the implement and making writing motions were given special status
  • Canopic jars housing the lungs of mumified bodies were sealed with lids shaped as male hamadryas, depicting the ape god Hapi (or Hapy)
  • Symbol of masculinity

Medieval Europe (Morris and Morris 1966)

  • Devil depicted as an ape by early Christians

Popular cultural references

  • Appearances
    • Arkive - 4 videos of the Hamadryas baboon


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Family: Cercopithecidae (Old World monkeys: baboons, macaques, and vervet monkeys)

Subfamily: Cercopithecinae

Genus: Papio

Species: Papio hamadryas * (Linnaeus, 1758) - Hamadryas Baboon

Classification according to Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS 2013).

* Important note: Experts disagree on taxonomic ranking within the genus Papio. This fact sheet presents a more traditional, conservative handling of species. For more refer to Finstermeier et al. 2013, Zinner et al. 2013, Jolly 1993.

Canopic Jar with Ape God

a jar with a baboon head

Canopic jar sealed with the head of Hapi, an ape god. Housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Image credit: © CESRAS from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Brown (1956)
Finstermeier et al. (2013)
Gotch (1995)
Ions (1982)
ITIS (2013)
Jolly (1993)
Kummer (1968b)
Kummer (1995)
Macdonald (1965)
Morris and Morris (1966)
Szalay and Delson (1979)
Shotake (1981)
Wildman (2004)
Williams et al. (2012)
Winnery et al. (2004)
Zinner et al. (2013)

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