Heart Attacks, Strokes and the Ancient Egyptians

On the weekend,  British researchers  published an intriguing article in Lancet on a group of people whose cravings for fat-saturated junk food led to arteries packed with plaque. The individuals in question weren’t 21st century Brits fatally fond of crisps, chips and deep-fried Mars bars, however.   They were ancient Egyptian priests who had regularly scarfed up left-over cakes and other offerings given by supplicants.

Rosalie David,  an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester and one of the world’s great experts on Egyptian mummies,  headed the team.  She and her colleagues examined  mummies of Egyptian priests and their family members and discovered to their surprise signs of serious heart disease,  including badly clogged and damaged arteries.

Intrigued by this,  David studied inscriptions on Egyptian temples describing the rituals that priests performed and the offerings that supplicants left.  High on the list of the offerings were cooked geese,  whose meat contained up to 60 percent fat, beef,  and an assortment of calorie-laden cakes made of animal fat and oil.

Moreover,  the inscriptions and other texts revealed how priestly foodies  at these temples refused to let all this fat-rich fare go to waste.  After performing rituals with their offerings three times daily,  they gathered up the leftovers and took them home to their families–hardly a heart-smart diet.

David and her colleagues now suggest that this fat-saturated diet and the arterial diseases that resulted could have cut short the  lives of these priests.    Studies of the mummies and other human remains suggest that this group did not often live past the age of 50.

It’s not surprising then that Egyptian physicians were well aware of heart disease, as attested to in the section on cardiovascular disorders in the Ebers papyrus.   Indeed Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind,  the authors of Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs, marvel at what they call the Egyptians’ “impressive grasp of cardiovascular function.”  As the two authors point out,  the Ebers papyrus even includes a description of  what might well be a heart attack.  An individual, notes the papyrus, “who suffers at the entrance to the inside (ib), when he has pains in his arm, his breast,  and the side of his stomach (ro-ib)” is in dire straits.  “Death is approaching.”

We never think of ancient Egyptians keeling over from heart attacks or strokes.   Those are supposed to be modern diseases,  but it would appear that there really is nothing new under the sun.

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