Category Archives: Disease

ER, Ancient Egypt Style

I’ve  spent many hours over the past week on a cardiac ward in a large urban hospital, visiting my father who is suffering from heart trouble.  Over the last few days, as he and I have taken to strolling the corridors–he leaning on his walker,  and I beside him–I have begun to notice all the many gifts and tributes that grateful heart patients and their families have left behind  for nurses and doctors on the ward.

I’ve never seen so many tokens of gratitude–large engraved plaques;  framed homemade quilts;  original etchings and paintings;  an inscribed and signed moose antler; and a framed eagle feather. All are intended as permanent testaments,  and seem to bear the same phrase, “with heartfelt thanks,”  a mantra,  it seems,  from those who have survived a near-death experience and whose hearts have been healed.

As I walk these corridors,  my thoughts occasionally wander and I am reminded of similar places in the ancient world.  In the Nile Valley,  ancient Egyptians searched for relief from their ailments in sanatoriums in two major temples.   The first of these was in Dendera.   There, according to Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind’s wonderful book, Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs,  the ill took medicinal waters in a temple dedicated to Hathor, bathing in a series of stone tanks in hopes of  a cure–an approach favored even today by those visiting traditional spas.

And if the waters at Dendera offered little relief,   Egyptian patients had a second recourse.   They could journey to the great temple in Deir el-Bahri,   dedicated to Imhotep and Amenhotep.  There priests conducted the sick into a dark chapel:  as they waited hopefully,  a god-like voice suddenly boomed,  reassuring them that they would be cured.  In other chambers,  priests induced dream states in their patients,  allowing them to talk directly to the gods and plead their cases.

Did any of this succeed in curing the hopefuls?  Well,  the ancient Egyptians,  too, left permanent tokens of their gratitude.   Along the walls of one shrine, Egyptologists have found inscribed testimonials.  One reads:  “Andromachus, a Macedonian, a laborer, came to the good god Amenhotep; he was sick and the god cured him the same day.”

The nurses and doctors on Ward 2a,  where my father now is,  would recognize the sentiment immediately.

Today’s photo shows the Hathor capitals in the First Hypostyle Hall of Dendera temple. The photo was taken by Jaakko Anttila in  January 2005.

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.

Arsenic and the Beginning of Mummification

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the artistically preserved bodies of nearly 200 ancient humans found along the Pacific coast of northern Chile and southern Peru.  The bewigged and clay-covered remains, known as the Chinchorro mummies, resemble statues and date back 7000 years, making them the earliest artificially mummified bodies in the world.   Later societies who practiced mummification tended to be politically and socially complex and reserved the privilege for adult elites.   But the Chinchorro were different.   They lived in a relatively simple society of fishers and seal and sea- lion hunters, and they started out mummifying young children.   Why?

Research from an international team led by anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile, currently sheds new light on the Chinchorro people and supplies a possible explanation.  By analyzing hair samples from 46 mummies from northern Chile, the team found that the Chinchorro ingested toxic levels of arsenic—a poison known to produce high rates of miscarriages and infant mortality—in their drinking water.  Arriaza now theorizes that world’s oldest mummies were created by grief-stricken Chinchorro parents who suffered repeated losses of their children and who wanted to preserve their infants’ bodies and keep them above ground in shrinelike areas.   This very early mummification practice, says Arriaza, “is an emotional response to an environmental contaminant.”

Excavators stumbled on the first Chinchorro mummies in Arica, Chile, in 1917, and subsequent studies by paleopathologists and physical anthropologists have revealed much about their preservation.  The Chinchorro created their earliest mummies of children,  including fetuses, by removing bacteria-ridden internal organs, packing body cavities with soil, strengthening limbs with sticks, coating the face with reddish-black clay, and adorning the head with a human-hair wig.   Moreover, analysis has shown that they repeatedly repainted some of the clay masks to cover nicks and dents, strongly suggesting the mummies remained above ground, most likely in a shrine, for years after death.  Eventually Chinchorro morticians extended the practice to adults, until they stopped making mummies in this distinctive style around 1700 B.C.

Arriaza began examining the possibility of arsenic poisoning among the Chinchorro in 2007, after reading about the toxic effects of this poison on human fetuses and infants.   Arsenic occurs naturally in geological formations in many parts of the world, and as water weathers these strata, it carries the poison into local rivers.  This hazard came to public attention in Chile in the 1960s, after the city of Antofagasta started drawing much of its water from a river that turned out to be laced with 860 micrograms of arsenic per liter— 86 times higher than World Health Association’s current provisional guideline.  During the peak exposure from 1958 to 1965, infant mortality rates in Antofagasta soared by an estimated 18 to 24 %.

Arriaza suspected that the Chinchorro had suffered a similarly high infant mortality for exactly the same reason.  The four earliest Chinchorro mummies—all children—came from the Camarones River Valley, where water tested as high as 1300 micrograms of arsenic per liter.  So Arriaza collected hair samples from both Chinchorro and Pre-Inca mummies excavated from ten sites in northern Chile with the help of heavy equipment for sale collected by mutual international support, – whose water all tested above the WHO guidelines for arsenic,  and then sent the samples to Dulasiri Amarasiriwardena, a chemist at Hampshire College in Amherst, for mass spectrometry testing. The mean arsenic values in hair from all ten sites pointed strongly to the chronic poisoning of the Chinchorro and other ancient peoples.

Many researchers may have assumed that environmental contamination was a major problem only for later industrial societies, but the new findings strongly suggest that this is far from true.  “You can’t smell arsenic or taste it,” says Arriaza.  “So the Chinchorro had no way of knowing they were being poisoned.”

Smallpox Blankets

Over the years,  I have come across numerous references to an insidious  form of germ warfare that some Europeans  employed to defeat Native Americans:  smallpox blankets.  Historians suggest that the practice may have begun as early as the 1530s,  when  Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed out bedding of smallpox victims to the Inca inhabitants of Peru,  believing that the “miasma”  that caused the disease still clung to the fabric.

One of the most clearly documented conspiracies to employ this weapon comes from the letters and papers of Lord Jeffery Amherst,  the British commander-in-chief for America in 1763.  His hardliner policies against Native Americans in the Great Lakes region had sparked  Pontiac, the chief  of the Ottawa tribe,  to rise up against the British troops.   Amherst wanted victory at any cost.  To defeat the tribes,  he approved the use of smallpox blankets to,  as he said,  “Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Some historians have questioned whether smallpox can indeed be spread from blankets. But some studies clearly suggest that it can.  In Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact,  University of New Mexico anthropologist Ann Ramenofsky notes that “although the virus is most frequently transmitted through droplet infection, it can survive a number of years outside human hosts in a dried state.”

All this comes to mind thanks to a fascinating recent post on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog.  There you will find a partial transcript of an interview that CBC radio interviewer Imbert Orchard conducted in 1969 with Solomon Wilson,  a Haida elder from Maude Island Village on Haida Gwaii  in northern British Columbia.   In this interview,  Mr. Wilson recounts a story he had heard from an elder about smallpox blankets and the spread of disease on the Northwest Coast.   It’s definitely worth checking out.