X-Rayed Mummies Reveal That Ancient Egyptians Had Heart Disease

By Andrew Moseman | November 18, 2009 11:36 am

mummyxray220The elites of ancient Egypt had money, power, divine status in the case of the pharaohs, and also heart disease. In a study in today’s issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers reports performing x-ray scans of 20 Egyptian mummies and finding them rife with cardiovascular disease like clogged arteries, one of the commonest ailments in modern American society.

On a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, one of the researchers had been intrigued by a nameplate on the remains of Pharaoh Merenptah, who died in 1,203BC. The plate said the pharaoh died at the age of 60 and suffered diseased arteries, arthritis and tooth decay [The Guardian]. So the scientists obtained permission to scan that mummy and others in the museum collection.

The common people of ancient Egypt weren’t mummified; only elites like royal families, their nursemaids, and priests got such a treatment. The elites ate salted fish, bread, and cheese like everyone else, but they also dined on rich foods such as cow, sheep, and goat meat, as well as honey and cakes with butter, says Abdel Nureldin, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, who worked on the investigation. At the same time, virtually no one in ancient times was sedentary, and that may have helped counteract their fatty diets [ScienceNOW Daily News].

Still, the researchers found, 16 of the 20 x-rayed mummies showed signs of heart disease. Men and women were affected equally. The most ancient of the mummies afflicted with atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, who had been a nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti. She died at the age of 30 or 40 around 1530 BC, about 300 years prior to the time of Moses and 200 years before King Tut [Los Angeles Times].

Because only elite Egyptians were preserved so well after death, researchers can’t say how widespread cardiovascular disease might have been in the ancient society, or the ancient world at large. But what the finding does tell them is that while heart disease is exacerbated by the overindulgent and sedentary style of modern life, there’s more to it than that.

Related Content:
80beats: 19th Century Mummy Autopsy Flubbed the Cause of Death
80beats: Egyptian “Scorpion King” Made Medicine from Herbs & Booze 5k Years Ago
80beats: Could Stem Cells Patch Up a Broken Heart?

Image: Michael I. Miyamoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • http://www.rahchis.blogspot.com Rahsaan

    I’m not surprised that the mummies show evidence of heart disease, tooth decay and atherosclerosis. Those diseases are consistent with the Neolithic Era and the commencement of agriculture. Grains in particular with all their sugar, antinutrients and enzyme inhibitors are known to drive the human body toward these ailments. (Look at what corn domestication did to the health of Pre-Columbian populations… tooth decay and decreased height over the generations). Unfortunately when many humans left behind the ways of their Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer forebears they took up cheap food sources, like graind and dried legumes that could stay on shelves for months on end. These cheap sources of food were used to sustain non-nomadic, growing populations.

  • Christina Viering

    Good information!

  • Enid Fox

    You mention that the elites ate rich, fatty meats but down play the intake of breads and sweets which were most likely not as frequently eaten by the working class. Also the wealthy, elite were most likely much less physically active than the working class. I agree with Rahsaan that the culprit is more likely to be refined grains and sweets than the other mentioned foods in their diet and we would find this more in the elite than working class Egyptians. The working class were not mummified so there is nothing to compare to except the elite class Egyptians who ate more refined foods.

  • Michael Henein

    How confident were the researchers that what they saw was arterial disease rather than clots in the lumen of the coronary arteries which are expected to happen after death

  • http://www.skyedental.com Dental Milpitas

    Did the study make the connection between the Egyptians’ oral health problems and the occurrence of cardiovascular disease?

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