Even mummies do it

Lady Rai, nursemaid to Queen Nefertari of Egypt, died in 1530 BC, somewhere between the age of 30 and 40 years. Her mummy is preserved in the Egyptian National museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

A CT scan of her thoracic aorta revealed calcium, representing aortic atherosclerosis, reported by Allam et al (including my friend from The Wisconsin Heart Hospital, Dr. Sam Wann, who provided me a blow-by-blow tale of this really fascinating project). Ladi Rai and 14 other Egyptian mummies were found to have vascular calcification of a total of 22 mummies scanned. (The hearts of the mummies were too degenerated to make out any coronary calcium.)

But why would people of that age have developed atherosclerosis?

The authors of the study comment that "Our findings that atherosclerosis was not infrequent among middle-aged and older ancient Egyptians of high social status challenges the view that it is a disease of modern humans. . . Although ancient Egyptians did not smoke tobacco or eat processed food or presumably lead sedentary lives, they were not hunter-gatherers. [Emphasis mine.] Agriculture was well established in ancient Egypt and meat consumption appers to have been common among those of high social status."

Fascinating. But I don't think that I'd blame meat consumption. Egyptians were also known to have cultivated grains, including wheat, and frequently consumed such sweet delicacies as dates and figs. Egyptians were also apparently beer drinkers. Unfortunately, no beer steins were seen in any of the scans.

Comments (16) -

  • Jim Purdy

    11/20/2009 8:52:23 AM |


    The original article said hunter-gatherers.

    However, I like hunger-gatherers better.

    Hunger is certainly quite a motivator to go seek food.

  • Peter

    11/20/2009 11:05:33 AM |

    As a person who can't figure it out, the mummy scans are interesting.

    It's not clear to me if saturated fat or grains and sugar are largely to blame for heart disease, or something else.

    It made an impression on me that Jimmy Moore (low carb blogger who eats mostly meat) and Dean Ornish (who eats mostly grains and vegetables) both scored zero on their heartscans.  They both avoid flour and sugar, that might be a point of agreement and a possible explanation.  I wish I was privy to the nutritional studies that come out a hundred years from now: long-term studies of different diets.

  • bronkupper

    11/20/2009 11:45:39 AM |

    On what ground are they basing their assumption that meat is the culprit?

    It is just blatant and annoying!

  • billye

    11/20/2009 12:18:34 PM |

    Dr. Davis, I love the way your mind works.  Which only proves once again, that the advent of agriculture produced diseases of the metabolic syndrome, even in ancient Egypt.  Wheat, Beer, and date consumption indeed.  If the ancient Egyptians avoided all starch, grains, legumes, and sweet fruit in excess, particularly high fructose types, it is quite apparent that they would have been healthier and lived longer, even in those ancient times.  We should all take heed, and throw out the so called and wrong "healthy diet", the diet that advcates eating low fat and high carbohydrates. This is the dogma that for the last 60 years pervades all medical decisions.  For the sake of our good health we must,MUST all switch to the very healthy low carbohydrate and high saturated fat diet that our ancient genes crave.  If this is not true, how did we all get here?

  • renegadediabetic

    11/20/2009 1:55:47 PM |

    Yep, the always ASSUME it's the meat or fat.  It just couldn't be all those "healthy whole grains."  Smile

    It seems to me that the Egyptian diet was a nutritionist's dream.

  • caphuff

    11/20/2009 3:11:22 PM |

    Thanks for blogging on this fascinating topic, doc.

    Unfortunately, the media reports seem to emphasize meat consumption as if that was the conclusion of the researchers.

    I'm betting they don't actually go that far in the JAMA article.

  • Dr. William Davis

    11/20/2009 3:50:34 PM |


    Yes, hunter-gatherers, not hunger-gatherers.

  • LPaForLife

    11/20/2009 4:55:44 PM |

    I have been reading about the wealthy ancient Egyptian diet. It is interesting that they used many types of vegetable oils. Many were high in omega 6. They often fried foods. The rich ate meat, bread and some dairy products. They used Honey(fructose) as a sweetner. So I ask the qestion. Was their diet much different than the modern diet?

  • Anonymous

    11/20/2009 7:49:57 PM |

    I understand the McTut burger, although quite unhealthy, was all the rage.
    This could explain it.

  • Dan

    11/20/2009 10:15:46 PM |

    I love how the LA Times summed things up in their article about this study.

    "Both groups, however, share some risk factors. The high-status Egyptians ate a diet high in meat from cattle, ducks and geese, all fatty.

    And because mechanical refrigeration was not available, salt -- another contributing factor in heart disease -- was widely used for food preservation."


  • Helen

    11/21/2009 5:01:13 PM |

    It occurs to me that the atherosclerosis could have been at least partially due to a vitamin D deficiency resulting from eating grain, which depletes the body of vitamin D.  

    Dr. Davis, are you familiar with the theory that Europeans lost their skin pigment in part as an adaptation to eating grain?

    If this was the dawn of grain-eating, it could also have been the dawn of selecting for lighter (not to say white, necessarily) skin pigments in grain-eating peoples.  (I think the same vitamin D depletion may hold true for eating dairy, so if they ate this, too, even more so.)  

    I wonder if this was also the dawn of largely indoor living for some members of the population - like the wealthy and their servants - and if this could have contributed to a vitamin D deficiency.

  • Anonymous

    11/21/2009 5:22:27 PM |

    but here we are again; Peter points out that there was no difference in calcium score between the veggie and meat diets, yet those of the paleo-diet religion will summarily dismiss this and continue to believe a meat diet is the healthy true diet for humans.  What was the life expectancy of Paleolithic man.... under 20 years maybe?  It wasn't until the diversification of diet that life span increased.... but maybe that is irrelevant if your point is to justify one's own choices

  • Dr. William Davis

    11/22/2009 2:46:42 AM |

    Hi, Helen--

    No, I wasn't aware of that particular theory. I am aware of the notion that northern Europeans lost dark pigmentation as they settled in sun-poor regions. I was not aware that grain had added to it.

  • Allen

    11/23/2009 7:22:15 PM |

    @Anonymous who claims that food diversity was the chief cause of the increase in life expectancy. First, ancient hunter-gatherers had a life expectancy of around 35 years. This dropped to under 20 years AFTER the advent of agriculture. Ask ANY anthropologist who can tell at a glance whether the bones they've found are pre or post agriculture (pre are strong, straight and healthy with no dental decay. Post are small, brittle, and diseased with plenty of dental decay.)

    As to food diversity. It is estimated that hunter-gatherers had hundreds of different food choices ranging from animals great to small, insects, and hundreds of indigenous plants/nuts/seeds/fruits. Early agriculturists primarily ate the grains that could be cultivated locally, and their food choices dropped perilously.

    As for mummies, only Egyptian royalty were mummified and ancient Egyptian royalty were known for their high-carb food depravity, where meals included plenty of honey, grains, starches, and beer. The feasts were frequent and included ritual bulimia so that the eating could continue indefinitely. That these people had heart disease should be no surprise to anyone.

    As a final note, life expectancy is much less about living long, and more about infant mortality. Infant mortality did not go down significantly until the advent of modern medicine and birthing techniques in the 19th and 20th centuries (at least for western societies.)

  • Yelena

    11/24/2009 10:35:56 PM |

    @Allen - There's no evidence that ancient Egyptian royalty engaged in ritual vomiting during feasts. Perhaps it may have happened right at the end of the last dynasties when Rome's influence was strong, as purging during a Roman feast was not uncommon. BTW, feasting Romans would just vomit right at the table and a slave would clean it up. A vomitorium is not for vomiting, it's a kind of passageway.

    Talking about an 'Ancient Egyptian diet' is a little silly anyway. Which kingdom/era? We're talking over thousands of years here with influences from many cultures and changing weather and environmental conditions. Modern analysis of residue in beer jars over various times shows that the ancient Egyptian beer was actually almost opaque and had a relatively high protein content, interestingly.