Famine and plague sounds bad enough, but a new study shows that ancient Egyptians also faced diseases more familiar to modern-day humans, such as cancer and tuberculosis.
Researchers from Macquarie University have analysed protein markers from skin and muscle tissue samples from ancient Egyptian mummies to understand what may have caused their deaths. The study was published today in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
“It’s a combination of history and analytical chemistry science,” says study co-author and proteomics analysis expert Professor Paul Haynes. “Any information that you can get about the protein signature in there can help tell you something about the person involved.”
Although the diagnoses researchers made are somewhat speculative due to the scarcity of biological evidence, archaeologist and co-author Dr Jana Jones says the findings still provide a valuable glimpse of the health conditions and diseases from that era.
“Our scientific study of mummies provides a historical context for medical conditions that are found in the modern world such as cardiovascular disease and cancer,” she says.
The researchers collected tissue samples from three 4,200-year-old mummies from the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, and identified proteins associated with activation of the body’s immune system and inflammation in two of them – a female known as Khepeshet and a male called Idi.
They also identified a separate group of proteins linked to bacterial infection of the lungs in Khepeshet, which the researchers conclude provided strong evidence that she may have died as a result of tuberculosis.
In a muscle tissue sample collected from Idi, Haynes identified two proteins called DMBT-1 and transglutaminase – increased expression of both of these together has previously been associated with the progression of pancreatic cancer.
“Things like cancer and lung infections are not just things from modern-day society, they’ve been around for an awfully long time,” says Haynes.
Illness in the dark age
Associate Professor Kate Domett, a biological anthropologist from James Cook University who wasn’t involved in the research, explains that studies like this are crucial for understanding of the evolution of disease.
“The study of paleopathology tells us a lot about the past – how diseases spread throughout the world, how people have adapted to the presence of diseases including developing or evolving to cope with them,” Domett tells SBS Science.
“We can learn how the way in which we lived has influenced the diseases that we have become vulnerable to.”
The age of the mummies places them in the First Immediate Period, or ‘dark age’ of Egypt that Jones explains was characterised by political unrest, changed economic conditions, drought and famine.
According to Domett, tuberculosis transmission thrived in the high population density that came with the development of agriculture and industrialisation.
“We had to come up with ways to prevent or limit transmission, such as developing good sanitation systems, reducing overcrowding, and being hygienic with our interactions with animals,” she says.
Haynes hopes to be able to gain access to more tissue samples – specifically muscle tissue, as they provide more information than skin tissue – and possibly stomach contents in order to expand the picture.
“It’s like a window into the past and that’s what I think is really exciting for something like that.”