Ancient Egyptian Mummies Reveal What Diseases Plagued the Civilization

Ancient Egyptian Mummies Reveal What Diseases Plagued the Civilization

Ancient Egyptian mummies reveal what diseases afflicted people in the great civilization, as well as the protective role the Nile could play

A CT scanning machine in a dark room with a blue light glowing around the center opening of the machine as a linen wrapped mummy lays on the scanner's positioning board

A mummy goes into a CT scanner, which helps investigate the tissues and bones without unwrapping the fragile linen.

MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Ancient Egypt—a civilization that was one of the most powerful the world has ever seen and which lasted for nearly 3,000 years—was among the first to mummify its dead, providing us a window into its people’s culture, language and politics, as well as their health. Now a new study has uncovered intimate details of the disease landscape that set this civilization apart from others of its time, including a surprising role played by the society’s lifeblood: the Nile River.

For the study, published recently in Advances in Parasitology, University of Cambridge biological anthropologist Piers D. Mitchell analyzed data from 31 studies of mummies from Egypt and neighboring Nubia—another early civilization, dating back to 2000 B.C.E., in what is today southern Egypt and Sudan. In one study, 65 percent of mummies had parasitic worms. In another, 40 percent had head lice. Of the mummies that were tested for Plasmodium falciparum malaria (the most dangerous and deadly form of the illness), 22 percent had it. And based on two other studies, Mitchell estimates that about 10 percent had leishmaniasis, a deadly parasitic disease that causes internal organs to enlarge. “Egypt and Nubia were heavily burdened by the kind of parasites that are likely to kill you or cause a chronic burden of illness,” Mitchell says.

While infectious maladies would likely have been common among any civilization millennia before vaccinations, treated water or antibiotics, the Nile River played a unique role in the types of illnesses that took hold in ancient Egypt. Despite the region’s arid conditions, vector-borne diseases such as malaria and leishmaniasis were common because mosquitoes bred in the marshlands of the river and sand flies on the drier savanna, Mitchell says.

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By contrast, some sanitation-related afflictions, such as whipworm and roundworm—both of which are spread through feces and were common in other ancient societies—were conspicuously absent in ancient Egypt. Mitchell attributes this to the Nile’s reliable annual flooding and the fertile silt this provided, which would have reduced the need to use animal and human dung to fertilize crops. Aquatic snails in the river did carry some parasites, though. And the cult status of cats in ancient Egypt may have led to the spread of the parasite toxoplasmosis in humans who came into close contact with cats that were being mummified or used in religious offerings.

Many of the studies Mitchell reviewed used CT scans to analyze diseased tissue for parasites such as guinea worms, which could have formed cysts in the body. When soft tissue was present in mummified specimens, it was possible to use fragmented DNA to identify malaria and leishmaniasis. Similarly, a DNA analysis of muscle tissue was used in one study to detect toxoplasmosis. When working with specimens that had mummified naturally, researchers looked for intestinal parasites within the corpse. But in wealthier individuals, who were embalmed and properly mummified, researchers had to search out intestinal organs in canopic jars—containers the ancient Egyptians used to store organs separately after the mummification process.

Though the wealthy and noble elites might have preserved their dead differently, the illnesses that maimed and killed them were often the same as those plaguing people of other social strata. “Irrespective of social class, anyone using infected water sources is susceptible to infection,” says Ivy Hui-Yuan Yeh, a biological anthropologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who was not involved in the study. Yeh says this explains why even mummies from among the nobility were heavily burdened by disease. The young pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, who lived from around 1341–1323 B.C.E., was infected with two different malaria strains (although scientists don’t know if either caused his death).

Certain diseases found in Egyptian and Nubian mummies also told the tale of a society expanding its reach. Leishmaniasis, for example, was identified in 13 percent of Nubian mummies dating from C.E. 550 to 1500 and 9.5 percent of Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom period (2050–1650 B.C.E.), a time when Egyptians would have journeyed to Nubia in search of gold and slaves. Because Nubia was drier and home to more sand flies in its acacia forests, such a finding could indicate “that leishmaniasis was endemic in ancient Nubia and could also affect Egyptians who spent time [there],” Mitchell wrote in the paper.

The disease burden in ancient Egypt and Nubia would have had widespread effects on society, says Marissa Ledger, a medical microbiology resident and biological anthropologist at McMaster University in Ontario, who was also not involved in the study. “Things like anemia [caused by malaria] make people tired. They also impact your ability to think and even how far you can walk in a day,” she says. “When you have such a high percentage of people in a civilization infected with chronic diseases like this, it has a huge impact on society functioning as a whole.”

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