DISEASE AND HEALTH PROBLEMS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

DISEASE IN ANCIENT EGYPT


mummy of priest of Ammon with signs of Pott's disease, tuberculosis of the spine

Ancient Egyptians believed that most illnesses originated in the alimentary canal. They often fasted and engaged in other activities which they believed scoured their digestive system. Analysis of preserved mummy tissue suggests that Egyptians had smallpox, polio, kidney disease, black lung, hardening of the arteries and arthritis.

Tuberculosis, schistosomiasis---which today is mostly picked by standing in irrigation ditches or slow-moving river water--- and stunted growth (suggesting malnutrition) were also fairly common. Cholera and malaria were more common in Nile area than in the deserts. A CT exam of one mummy indicated that may have had a chronic ear infection, treated today with antibiotics, that spread to the brain causing meningitis.

From mummies and skeletons scientists have found evidence of arthritis, tuberculosis, gout, tooth decay, bladder stones and gallstones. There is also evidence of the disease bilharziasis (schistosomiasis), caused by small, parasitic flatworms, which still exists in Egypt today. There seems to have been no syphilis or rickets based on the fact that evidence of these diseases is visible on skeletons and human remains. [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com ^^^]

Christina Riggs of the University of East Anglia wrote: “ Medical texts and surviving mummies point to the prevalence of illnesses that would leave a lasting mark on the body, such as trachoma resulting in blindness, poliomyelitis and tuberculosis leading to muscular and skeletal changes, and accidental damage resulting in disfigurement, broken bones, or amputation. Both textual sources and the evidence from mummies attest that such ailments could be treated, and that the people thus afflicted remained members of society to such an extent that they received mummification and burial rites. A man whose skull showed severe hydrocephaly, for instance, would have been very disabled and required care throughout his life . [Source: Christina Riggs, University of East Anglia, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org ]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Injuries and Accidents in Ancient Egypt

Fractures were common: many were to the upper arms and fibula (bone in the lower leg). Most healed were good realignments to the bone, indicating they had been set with a splint. Archaeologists also uncovered evidence of successful amputations and skull fractures in men and women mostly likely caused by an attack from a right-handed person.


fractured forearm with a splint

Joyce M Filer wrote for the BBC: “Accidents, intentional violence and surgical intervention are all episodes of traumatic injury, and there is plenty of evidence for trauma from ancient Egyptian and Nubian sources. A fracture, which is a break in the structure of a bone, can occur in any bone in the skeleton, and the site of the fracture may give a clue as to how that injury was caused. Injuries to the head are particularly interesting as, whilst they may be accidentally caused, they are often the result of intentional violence. [Source: Joyce M Filer, BBC, February, 17, 2011 |::|]

“As in other ancient cultures, head injuries in Nile Valley populations tended to be sustained by more men than women, because men engaged in the manual work and military action that could lead to such injuries. For example, the bodies of about 60 male archers from the early Middle Kingdom period were found in a tomb at Deir el-Bahri, clearly showing head injuries caused by fighting: axe wounds, spear piercings and arrow lacerations. |::|

“Long bone injuries are frequently seen in ancient Egyptian bodies and are more likely to be the result of an accident. Injuries to the femur (upper leg bone) occurred quite commonly; whilst the relatively lower number of tibia (shin bone) fractures is thought to be caused by going barefoot, especially among agricultural workers. Fractures to the arms are interesting, as they may be the result of an accidental fall or, as has been suggested for some Nubian injuries, may be the result of using the arms defensively to ward off violent blows to the head.” |::|

Malaria and the Plague in Ancient Egypt

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malaria falciparum
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks are all believed to have suffered from malaria. Some Egyptian mummies show signs of it. Symptoms of the disease were described by Aristotle, Homer, Socrates and Hippocrates and in Nei Ching, the Chinese canon of medicine, which dates back to 2700 B.C. The decline of some Greek city states and the fall of Rome have been attributed to malaria. Alexander the Great likely died of malaria. It may have stopped the armies of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.

A 2500-year-old bas-relief revealed a priest with a shriveled leg, one of the most obvious symptoms of polio. Many commoners had arthritis, particularly in the knees and the lumbar region of the vertebrae, and bone deformities at a relatively young age.

In 2004, plague bacteria was found in 3,500-year-old fossilized fleas in a village formally occupied by the October Egyptian capital of Amman. The discovery was the first evidence of a non-Asian origin of the plague and may explain why Amman was capital for such a short time (form 1350 to 1330 B.C.). Medical papyri from that period describe a disease with symptoms consistent with that of the plague.

Artery Disease in Ancient Egypt

CT scans of some Egyptian mummies carried out by a team of cardiologists at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo revealed signs of atherosclerosis---a buildup of cholesterol, inflammation and scar tissue in the walls of the arteries, a problem that can lead to heart attack and stroke--- according to research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Natasha Singer, New York Times, November 23, 2009]

Natasha Singer wrote in the New York Times, “The cardiologists were able to identify the disease in some mummies because atherosclerotic tissue often develops calcification, which is visible as bright spots on a CT image. The finding that some mummies had hardened arteries raises questions about the common wisdom that factors in modern life, including stress, high-fat diets, smoking and sedentary routines, play an essential role in the development of cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.


arterial lession from Egyptian mummies

“It tells us that we have to look beyond lifestyles and diet for the cause and progression of this disease,” Dr. Randall C. Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo. Told the New York Times. He was part of the team of cardiovascular imaging specialists who traveled to Cairo last year. “To a certain extent, getting the disease is part of the human condition,” he said.

In February 2009, the team of cardiologists---one Egyptian and four American---conducted whole-body scans of 20 of the museum’s mummies that were well preserved and thus likely to have identifiable arteries. The study also included two mummies that had been scanned by other researchers. Sixteen of the people mummified had been members of a pharaoh’s court, among them two priests, a king’s minister and his wife, and a nursemaid to a queen. They lived between 1981 B.C. and A.D. 334, the cardiologists said.

Among the 16 mummies that had identifiable cardiovascular tissue, there were 5 confirmed and 4 probable cases of atherosclerosis. The researchers found calcification in the leg arteries and the aorta of some mummies, which means that these ancient Egyptians had risk factors for problems like strokes and heart attacks---though not necessarily that they had developed heart disease before they died. As with modern humans, arterial calcification was more prevalent among the mummies who lived longer. The study’s small sample and the subjects--- high socioeconomic status may mean the findings do not extend to more ordinary ancient Egyptians, said Dr. Adel H. Allam, the Egyptian cardiologist on the team. “They were rich people, and the habit of diet and physical activity could be a little bit different than other Egyptians who lived at that time,” said Dr. Allam, an assistant professor of cardiology at the Al Azhar Medical School in Cairo.

The group hit upon the idea of examining mummies for arterial disease in 2007, when another cardiologist, Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, was visiting Dr. Allam in Cairo and happened upon a mummified pharaoh named Menephtah in the museum. A plaque by Menephtah’s case explained that the pharaoh, who died about 1200 B.C., had been afflicted with atherosclerosis. Dr. Thomas, a clinical professor of medicine and cardiology at the medical school of the University of California, Irvine, did not believe it. “For one thing, how would they know?” Dr. Thomas said in a phone interview last week from Cairo. “For another thing, what would people be doing with atherosclerosis 3,000 years ago, without tobacco, with an all-natural diet and, presumably, with much more walking?”

The oldest mummy in whom the group found hardened arteries was Lady Rai, a nursemaid to a famous queen, who died in about 1530 B.C. when she was between 30 and 40 years old. Dr. Thompson told the New York Times the calcification in her aorta looked similar to that in images of his own patients with atherosclerosis in Kansas City.

Study Finds Clogged Arteries in a Third of Ancient Mummies

According to a study published online in 2013 in the journal Lancet, CT scans of 137 mummies showed evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardened arteries, in one-third of those examined. Atherosclerosis causes heart attacks and strokes."Heart disease has been stalking mankind for over 4,000 years all over the globe," said Dr. Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City and the paper's lead author. [Source: AP March 11, 2013 |||]

According to Associated Press: “More than half of the mummies were from Egypt, while the rest were from Peru, southwest America and the Aleutian islands in Alaska. The mummies were from about 3800 B.C. to 1900 A.D. The mummies with clogged arteries were older at the time of their death, around 43 versus 32 for those without the condition. In most cases, scientists couldn't say whether the heart disease killed them. |||

“Other experts warned against reading too much into the mummy data. Dr. Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said calcified arteries could also be caused by other ailments including endocrine disorders and that it was impossible to tell from the CT scans if the types of calcium deposits in the mummies were the kind that would have sparked a heart attack or stroke. "It's a fascinating study but I'm not sure we can say atherosclerosis is an inevitable part of aging," he said, citing the numerous studies that have showed strong links between lifestyle factors and heart disease.” |||

Cancer in Ancient Egypt

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Prosthetic toe
Out of hundreds of ancient Egyptians mummies that have been examined for diseases only one case of cancer has been confirmed:Michael R. Zimmerman of Villanova University in Pennsylvania has conducted experiments on modern mummified tissue and his results suggest that mummification does not destroy evidence of malignancy. in a mummy. [Source: CNN, October 14, 2010 <*>]

Rosalie David, professor at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom told CNN that the ancient Egyptians produced magical spells used to treat cancer-like illnesses, a few of which are described in papyri. One odd treatment for what may have been cancer of the uterus called for breaking up a stone in water, leaving it overnight, and then pouring it into the vagina. Another remedy described was fumigation: The patient would sit over something that was burning, David told CNN, adding that it’s still not certain that the maladies described were cancer. <*>

The one case of cancer, Zimmerman aid was a rectal carcinoma found in a mummy dated between A.D. 200 and 400. He confirmed the diagnosis with a microscopic analysis of the tissue — a first, he said, in Egyptian paleopathology. “The fact remains that there are only a minute number of truly ancient mummies and skeletons that show evidence of cancer,” he told the New York Times. “We just don’t find anything like the modern incidence of cancer.”[Source: George Johnson, New York Times, December 27, 2010 ==]

Some experts have suggested that most tumors would have been destroyed by the invasive rituals of Egyptian mummification. But in a study published in 1977, according to the New York Times. “Zimmerman showed it was possible for the evidence to survive. In one experiment, he took the liver from a modern patient who had succumbed to metastatic colon cancer, dried it out in an oven and then rehydrated it — demonstrating, he said, that “the features of cancer are well preserved by mummification and that mummified tumors are actually better preserved than normal tissue.”

Durham University researchers, who found evidence of breast cancer in a 3,000-year-old Nubian skeleton in 2014, called the lack of cancer in the archaeological record a possible "illusion" and said that cancer's relative absence in the archaeological record had given "rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity.” They noted that archaeologists during the 20th century uncovered other ancient remains that may have contained traces of metastatic cancer. But only the skulls were kept, so a full analysis using more modern technology couldn't be completed on them. "Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations," the Durham University researchers wrote. "Nevertheless, ancient medical documents indicate pathological conditions, tentatively identified as cancer, were known both to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks." [Source: Elahe Izadi, Washington Post, March 24, 2015]


carrying the sick


Oldest Evidence of Breast Cancer Found in Egyptian Skeleton

In 2015, A team from the University of Jaen in Spain announced that it had discovered what Egyptian authorities called the world's oldest evidence of breast cancer in the 4,200-year-old skeleton of an adult woman. Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said the bones of the woman, who lived at the end of the 6th Pharaonic Dynasty, showed "an extraordinary deterioration". "The study of her remains shows the typical destructive damage provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis," he said in a statement on Tuesday. [Source: Reuters, March 24, 2015]

The Spanish researchers said the Egyptian woman was an aristocrat from Elephantine, the Egypt’s southernmost town. Her remains were discovered in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa, west of the southern city of Aswan, the ministry said.

In 2014, British researchers form Durham University said they found metastatic cancer in a 3,000-year-old skeleton found in a tomb in modern Sudan. Publishing their findings in the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers scanned the skeleton they found in a tomb and detected traces of lesions on bones, including cancer metastases on the man's collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms and ribs. [Source: Elahe Izadi, Washington Post, March 24, 2015]

Schistosomiasis Fairly Common in 1,500-Year-Old Nubian Mummies

Evidence of schistosomiasis was found to be prevalent in a study of more than 200 ancient Nubian mummies published in the June 2011 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The species of Schistosoma worm, called S. mansoni, was previously thought of as relatively modern agent of disease, linked to urban life and stagnant water in irrigation ditches. "It is the one most prevalent in the delta region of Egypt now, and researchers have always assumed that it was a more recent pathogen, but now we show that goes back thousands of years," study researcher George Armelagos of Emory University in Atlanta said. [Source: Jennifer Welsh, Live Science, June 8, 2011 +++]

Schistosomiasis is contracted through the skin when a person comes into contact with worm-infested waters. The disease infects over 200 million people worldwide a year; once contracted, the disease causes a rash, followed by fever, chills, cough and muscle aches. If infection goes untreated, it can damage the liver, intestines, lungs and bladder. [Source: Jennifer Welsh, Live Science, June 8, 2011]

Jennifer Welsh wrote in Live Science: “Although Armelagos and his colleagues weren't able to discern how bad the infections were in these Nubians, they said those who were infected would have felt run down — which would have affected their work (mostly farming). Previous research showed that mummies from the Nile River region had been infected by Schistosoma worms, though new techniques are allowing researchers to determine which species. +++

“The team tested tissue from mummies from two Nubian populations (in the area now known as Sudan), dating from 1,200 and 1,500 years ago, respectively. The earlier population, the Kulubnarti, lived at a time when their civilization's lifeblood, the Nile River, was at a high point, and there is little evidence of irrigation. They "probably weren't practicing irrigation; they were allowing the annual floods of the Nile to fertilize the soil," Armelagos told LiveScience. The later population, the Wadi Halfa, lived a little farther south along the river and at a time when the water levels were lower; archaeological evidence indicates canal irrigation was in use to water crops. +++

“The researchers expected each population would have shown signs of distinct species of Schistosomiasis; for example, S. mansoni thrives in stagnant water, while Schistosoma haematobium, another species that can infect humans, lives in flowing waters. (The team specifically looked for the antigens, proteins associated with the parasite, as well as the body's response molecules, antibodies.) +++

20120216-shistosomaisis cdc home_page_image_shistosomiasis.jpg
shistosomiasis

“Here's what they found: About 25 percent of the 46 Wadi Halfa mummies tested were infected with S. mansoni, while only 9 percent of the Kulubnarti (191 individuals tested) were. "In the past everyone has assumed S. haematobium was the source of the infection, and this study shows it was S. mansoni," Armelagos said. The two populations also probably were infected with S. haematobium, said the researchers, who didn't test for its presence. The irrigation canals built by the Wadi Halfa are the most likely source of the S. mansoni parasite, the researchers said. The Wadi Halfa probably contracted the disease when they used the canals to wash their clothes as well as flood the fields.” +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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