Ancient Egyptian mummies reveal what diseases plagued civilization | Trending Viral hub


Ancient Egyptian mummies reveal what diseases plagued civilization

The mummies of ancient Egypt reveal what diseases afflicted the inhabitants of the great civilization, as well as the protective role that the Nile could play.

A CT scan machine in a dark room with a blue light shining around the central opening of the machine while a mummy wrapped in linen lies on the scanner's positioning board.

A mummy passes through a CT scanner, which helps investigate tissues and bones without needing to unwrap fragile clothing.


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 lasted almost 3,000 years, was one of the first to mummify its dead, giving us a window into the culture, language and politics of its people, 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 society’s lifeblood: the the Nile River.

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

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

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In contrast, some sanitation-related conditions such as whipworms and roundworms (which are transmitted 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 it provided, which would have reduced the need to use animal and human manure to fertilize crops. However, the aquatic river snails did carry some parasites. And the cult status of cats in ancient Egypt may have caused the spread of parasitic toxoplasmosis in humans who were in 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 worm, which could have formed cysts in the body. When soft tissue was present in mummified samples, it was possible to use fragmented DNA to identify malaria and leishmaniasis. Similarly, one study used DNA analysis of muscle tissue to detect toxoplasmosis. Working with naturally mummified specimens, the researchers looked for intestinal parasites within the corpse. But in wealthier individuals, who were properly embalmed and mummified, researchers had to search for intestinal organs in canopic jars, containers that ancient Egyptians used to store organs separately after the mummification process.

Although wealthy and noble elites might have preserved their dead differently, the diseases that maimed and killed them were often the same ones that afflicted people from other social strata. “Regardless of social class, anyone who uses infected water sources is susceptible to infection,” he 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 the mummies of the nobility suffered from a heavy burden of disease. He young pharaoh tutankhamunfor example, who lived around 1341-1323 BC. C., he was infected with two different strains of malaria (although scientists do not know if either of them caused his death).

Certain diseases found in Egyptian and Nubian mummies also tell the story of a society expanding its reach. Leishmaniasis, for example, was identified in 13 percent of Nubian mummies dating from 550 to 1500 AD. C. and in 9.5 percent of Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom period (2050-1650 BC), a time when the Egyptians would have traveled to Nubia in search of gold. and slaves. Because Nubia was drier and harbored more sandflies 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 article.

Disease burden in ancient Egypt and Nubia would have had widespread effects on society, says Marisa 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 affect your ability to think and even the distance you can walk in a day,” he says. “When in a civilization there is such a high percentage of people infected with chronic diseases like this, this has a huge impact on the functioning of society as a whole.”


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