The History of Mongooses

Banded Mongoose (Mungos mungo)
Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) standing in grass on hind legs, watching. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Anup Shah / Digital Vision / Getty Images

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 sculptures 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.


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