We are fortunate to know a lot about medicine and health in ancient Egypt due to excellent preservation of medical papyri, advanced scientific analysis of both skeletal remains and mummies, as well as using bioarchaeology.
The broad spectrum of techniques employed under the umbrella term ‘bioarchaeology’ allows for analysis of environment as well as human remains. I think ancient Egypt is so fascinating because of the excellent level of preservation and how evident architecture etc is to us. Even people who don’t know any thing about ancient Egypt can become quickly absorbed by its history when they visit the many ruins left in Egypt.
Macroscopic (visible) examination of skeletons allows us to assess pathologies that often leave osseous (bone) lesions. We can also ascertain spinal pathologies, dental malocclusion ( crowding and misalignment of teeth) and stress markers such as harris lines (particularly in juveniles) and cribra orbitalia.
CT scans of mummies have enlightened us about heart conditions, and parasites where calcified ova have been found in organs. Also, we see things like sand and ash on the lungs, the latter from close proximity to open fires for cooking in small rooms, we know from remains of a roof that things got fairly smoky in rooms for cooking.
We have to interpret the medical papyri, as they do not explicitly state ailments, instead they discuss symptoms and how to alleviate them, therefore we can make inferences from our own knowledge what conditions they suffered from.If you are interested in this area, you may want to search for the Lahun Papryrus, Ebers Papyrus, Hearst Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Papyrus.
As previously mentioned, the medical papyri discuss symptoms and remedies, so we know a great deal about medical practice and healing, The world of the doctor was never far from the world of the priest and magic and medicine intertwined so frequently that the aforementioned papyri are known as Magico-Medical papyri. Certainly, if the Egyptian’s did not have a known cure, presumably for a lot of diseases common to ourselves which have onle recently been ‘cured’; they would have turned to magic. We find a lot of stelae and amulets with magical properties linked to remedial aid.
Ailments range from things as simple (to us) as common colds, with garlic as a possible cure, to seeping buboes, which may even refer to plague in the bubonic stage. For a long time a ‘great pestilence’ has been known from the 14th Century BC from Hittite letters, during the Amarna period (the Amarna letters). Not only do the Asiatic letters attest a plague but we now see from the skeletal remains from the South Tomb’s cemetery at Amarna, a possible catastrophic burial assemblage instead of attritional mortality, with juveniles (1-15 year olds) making up a significant portion of the funerary demographic. We often see this when there are epidemics. My next blog post will talk about the Amarna epidemic in more detail including the possible aetiology of the pathogen responsible.
We know that certain diseases must have been endemic to Egypt, such as Malaria, with cases reported in royal mummies including Tutankhamun and Thuya and Yuya. The protozoan endoparasite plasmodium falciparum, was discovered in aDNA from several mummies, this parasite lives symbiotically with its host the Anopheles mosquito and causes Malaria Tropica, the most virulent form of malaria, that is still responsible for several thousand deaths a year even now.
Musca domestica, the common housefly, has been recovered through archaeoentomolgy at Amarna, and the flies habits of flitting from dump to human food and even people’s faces has been linked to gastrointestinal diseases and causing potential blindness.
I hope this has given you some insight in to the health of ancient Egyptians, I will further discuss remedies another time.
All the best,