Irtieru’s coffin is of fine quality, suggesting he was of high social status.

First kidney of ancient Egyptian mummy was found because the man was diseased


Over the years, scientists have found evidence of cancers, heart disease, starvation, ulcers, smallpox, tuberculosis and other infections in ancient remains from all over the world. Now, for the first time ever, researchers using CT scans have detected a diseased kidney in an ancient Egyptian mummy.

A kidney normally would decay long before the 2,800 years that have elapsed since the man named Irtieru was embalmed, but it appears he had a kidney disease called renal tuberculosis that calcified (hardened) the organ.

“Irtieru is a male mummy enclosed in cartonnage, dating to the Third Intermediate Period in the Egyptian collection of the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon,” the researchers wrote in their abstract. “The computed tomography scans of this mummy showed a small dense bean-shaped structure at the left lumbar region. Its anatomical location, morphologic and structural analysis support a diagnosis of end-stage renal tuberculosis. If this diagnosis is correct, this will be the oldest example of kidney tuberculosis, and the first one recorded in an intentionally mummified ancient Egyptian.”

Tuberculosis of another type, that of the lungs, was discovered in a mother and child found in 30 feet of water off the Mediterranean Sea shore of Haifa, Israel, in 2008.

Among other disease discoveries in ancient Egyptian remains, National Geographic reports, are DNA of parasites that cause malaria in tissue from two 3,500-year-old mummies; bone lesions typical of metastatic prostate cancer in a 2,250-year-old mummy; a man of 2,900 years ago who had a painful bone disease called Hand-Schuller-Christian disease; and evidence of gastrointestinal disease from drinking polluted Nile River water in the remains of 200 people in a cemetery near Aswan.

The National Geographic article also states that various researchers have identified smallpox DNA in a Siberian mummy from 300 years ago; stomach-ulcer bacterium DNA in a Mexican mummy from 1350 AD; and a case of a heart defect and lung infection in an infant mummified 6,500 years ago in Peru.

Ancient Origins reported in July 2015 on an analysis of the bones of soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army who died in 1812 in Vilnius, Lithuania, while they were returning home. Researchers conducted isotope studies on the bones of the some of these unfortunate victims of Napoleon’s mad attack on Russia. The studies show they had high levels of nitrogen, which is considered an indication of starvation and dehydration. Analysis of oxygen and carbon also showed where they were from, where they lived, and what types of food they ate.

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, a painting by Adolf Northern

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, a painting by Adolf Northern (Wikimedia Commons)

In March 2015, Ancient Origins reported on the earliest known case of breast cancer, in a 4,200-year-old skeleton that showed signs of deterioration. The researchers think the woman’s breast cancer metastasized (spread) to her bones.

The find in Qubbet el-Hawa near the southern city of Aswan and a Sudanese find in 2014 indicate cancer was present in the Nile Valley region long ago. The woman excavated in March was an aristocrat from Elephantine, the southernmost town in Egypt.

In 2014 researchers found the first known case of cancer of any type in a 4,500-year-old skeleton in Siberia.

Lesions and holes in the skull of the Siberian man suggest people suffered cancer in the Early Bronze Age period

Lesions and holes in the skull of the Siberian man suggest people suffered cancer in the Early Bronze Age period.  Credit: Angela R. Lieverse et al.

The oldest case of heart failure in a mummy was identified earlier this year in the remains of Nebiri, who lived 3,500 years ago in Egypt. Nebiri’s head and a broken canopic jar with his internal organs were found in a plundered tomb in 1904 and researchers were allowed to test the tissues this year because the jars were not intact.

Unlike Irtieru, who was considered elite from the quality of his cartonnage but whose family and station in life are not known, Nebiri’s status in ancient Egypt are known: his title was Chief of Stables.

Nebiri’s remains were found in the Valley of Queens in Luxor and are now at the Egyptian Museum in Turin. He was about 45 to 60 years old at death. Nebiri lived during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmoses III, 1479 to 1424 BC, during the 18th Dynasty.

Nebiri suffered from severe periodontal disease with abscesses, which were revealed by a technology called Multidetector Computed Tomography and three-dimensional skull reconstruction.

As for Irtieru, the researchers told Discovery that he probably survived, at least for a time, an earlier infection of his lungs with tuberculosis.

They said kidneys weren’t understood by Egyptians. Embalmers usually did not remove the organs, which are vitally important and filter toxins out of the blood and excrete them as urine. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that embalmers considered kidneys unimportant and difficult to excise from the body.

Many Egyptians who were mummified had their bodies dried with salt and their organs removed and placed in canopic jars alongside their coffins in the burial chambers. Embalmers left the heart intact because ancient Egyptians thought it was the seat of reason. The embalming process and mummification took 70 days and included many rites, prayers and very specific, carefully controlled processes.

The Encyclopedia Smithsonian, in an article on mummification, relates why the Egyptians took such great care to preserve bodies of people of high social status:

But why preserve the body? The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for this soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost. The idea of “spirit" was complex involving really three spirits:  the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a "double" of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or "soul," was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as "spirit," which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential.

Featured image: Irtieru’s coffin is of fine quality, suggesting he was of high social status. (Museu Nacional de Arqueologia photo)

By Mark Miller

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