Food and wine preparation - Egyptians

New study reveals ancient Egyptians were mostly vegetarian

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New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and reported in Live Science has shed light on the ancient Egyptian diet. By analysing the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD, the French research team were able to determine that ancient Egyptians were largely vegetarian.

The analysis was carried out on the remains of 45 ancient Egyptians that had been sent to two museums in Lyon, France during the 19 th century, and involved a cutting-edge technique involving the measurement of carbon ratios taken from bone, tooth enamel and hair.

We had an approach that was a little different," explained Alexandra Touzeau, who led the research team at the University of Lyon. "We worked a lot with bones and teeth, while most researchers study hair, collagen and proteins. We also worked on many different periods, with not many individuals for each period, so we could cover a very long time span.

All carbon atoms are taken in by plants from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis. By eating plants, and the animals that had eaten plants, the carbon ends up in our bodies. Analysing this carbon can actually reveal what a person has eaten.

The results revealed that the ancient Egyptians were mainly vegetarian and their diet was primarily wheat- and barley-based. Cereals, such as millet and sorghum, formed a minor part of their diet (less than 10 per cent).

One of the most unusual discoveries was that there seems to have been little fish in their diet. Most people would probably expect the ancient Egyptians living along the Nile to have eaten a lot of fish, and archaeological excavations have found mummified fish in large quantities. However, at least in the 45 individuals studied, fish was not prominent in their diets.

"There is abundant evidence for fishing in Egyptian wall reliefs and models (both spear and net fishing), and fish shows up in offering lists.  There is also a lot of archeological evidence for fish consumption from sites such as Gaza and Amama," said Kate Spence, an archaeologist and specialist in ancient Egypt at the University of Cambridge in England. "All this makes it a bit surprising that the isotopes should suggest that fish was not widely consumed."

In ancient cultures vegetarianism was much more common, except in nomadic populations, and eating meat was a development that occurred more recently.

Featured image:  Ancient Egyptian wall painting depicting food and wine preparation. Image source .

By April Holloway


and further studies will reveal that only a fraction the population ate animal.
The hunter/gatherer is a myth, perpetuated.
Millet and Sorghum suggests farming these also were only eaten by a fraction of the population.

The Elites ate food, real food.


This is further proof that in ancient times, people did not eat much meat, as is commonly supposed. In fact, as recently as the 1940s, may people, even in the modern world, did not eat much meat. My parents living in the Netherlands up until 1953, had meat pretty much only once per week. Only after they moved to Canada did they eat more. (It has been reported that during the early years of WWII, the major beef, pork, poultry and other meat producers of the US gathered in Chicago to plot out post-war strategies, once of which was to continue with war-time levels of production after the war. This has been going on ever since then.)

According to scientific evidence, our digestive systems are meant to digest less meat and more plant proteins. Shorter digestive tracts means that the animals eat more meat-based proteins as they have "hotter" digestive systems. Longer tracts means slower digestion to be able to break down more complex plant-based proteins. The average human digestive tract is at least four times the length of their bodies, indicating a much slower system. We can also chew food "sideways" as horses and giraffes do, by moving our jaws in a sideways motion. Our teeth are less like carnivores than they are like plant eaters and finally, we can digest plant starches in our mouths, unlike true carnivores. Try this, take a piece of raw (or cooked) potato (for those who are not allergic to them) and place it in your mouth for a few minutes without chewing. Then try the same with a piece of cooked meat. See what happens to the potato as opposed to the meat.

So it is no surprise to me that the ancient Egyptians had a largely vegetarian diet. Our digestive system gives that away.

The idea that our human ancestors were primarily vegetarians based on evidence Egyptians were primarily vegetarians is fundamentally flawed. The actual answer is that your diet reflects the climate and habitat you live in. It is absolutely no surprise that Egyptians ate a lot of grains because they lived on one of the most fertile agricultural flood plains on Earth with a warm predictable climate. It was the foundation of their civilization. But not all humans lived in Egypt or had their own flood plain. Generally, as you travel northward into colder climates, or travel to higher altitudes or rockier less fertile terrain, it becomes increasingly more difficult to grow cereal crops with as much reliability. So these people had to be prepared for disappointing harvests and had to supplement their diets with other foods. What does an Eskimo diet look like? The exact opposite of the Egyptian diet. They ate fish and seal and caribou meat as their staple foods. Why aren't Tibetan Buddhists vegetarians like their other Asian Buddhist brethren? Because they lived at 8000 feet or so in the Himalayas. Often times it is easier to let a goat or a yak eat the simple grasses of high altitude mountains and convert that grass into milk or meat than it is to farm for cereal crops. Animals can be transported and herded easily, they don't rot and grow mold sitting in the cellar, even when you can get by without eating them they supply wool or milk, they provide a very useful alternative to plants in many ways. So in warmer climates like Egypt and of course India you see substantially vegetarian diets, although still relying on dairy products as at least occasional backup protein sources. As the climate gets colder or the geography becomes less productive for farming, you see a gradual transition to animal based foods like cheeses, meats and seafoods. The Vikings grew grains when they could, but you can't grow soy beans very well near the Arctic Circle. Their staple food wasn't salted fish because they like risking their lives splashing around in the North Sea, it was a way to stay alive.

Agree, these veggie pushers look at one small biased study or the diet of a certain region and assume it's magically applicable worldwide. All that is known is that fish specifically mentioned was not a major part of the diet, didn't read it saying it was non-existent. They still ate fish, just not by American standards of let's pretend we're locusts, eat everything in sight and see how fat we can get.

That would explain the good health of their teeth, plant bases food does not produce so much cavities if its not sweet(suggar).

Grain is the number one culprit of cavities, prior to agriculture of grains, cavities were relatively low.

Luccas and RR you both hold the key.

In ancient cultures, vegeterianism was much more common because of their religion's mentality and science's findings. But I think meat protein is necessary for people too. Soy beans are not growing everywhere.

The comments suggesting humans traditionally ate very little meat, or that the human body is not well adapted to eating meat, are ludicrous in the extreme.  Do these people suppose the myriad spear tips and arrowheads dug up around the world were designed for self defense?  Were hunting scenes painted on cave walls rooted in fantasy?  How many primitive cultures today are vegan?  What evidence is there that civilized cultures by and large abandoned meat?  Hopeful conjecture does not comprise evidence.

The anti-meat argument from a physiological standpoint is even more ridiculous.  Not only do our bodies digest meat with relative ease (easier than grains), which obviously signifies an omnivorous evolutionary history, but they depend on it.  How many plants supply vitamin B12?  Carnitine?  Creatine?  A study done a few years back found that vegetarians/vegans who didn’t take a creatine supplement had significantly lower IQs.  How about omega 3 fatty acids, which are necessary for the repair and maintenance of your heart, brain, and joints?  Even if every ancient culture cultivated flax or another vegetable source, which seems unlikely, it contains the ALA form which is impotent compared to the EPA and DHA found in fish.  And then there’s the most obvious consideration—protein.  To get enough protein to support a strong, healthy body without dietary supplements—especially for a man—you pretty much need to eat meat.  From the standpoint of building and maintaining muscle tissue, restricting your diet to plants is highly impractical.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to be a healthy, energized vegan requires a scientific understanding of human physiology, access to a number of supplements, and the ideological motivation.  Putting aside the lack of evidence, I can’t think of any reason whatsoever to assume, or even suppose, the majority of our ancestors avoided meat.

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