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Disease in ancient Mesopotamia

Unravelling the mystery of disease in ancient Mesopotamia

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Despite intensive research over many decades on one of the most famous kingdoms of the ancient world , scientists still know little about the diseases which plagued the people of Mesopotamia.   An analysis of thousands of cuneiform texts has only revealed 44 publications mentioning traces of disease. This either suggests that the population was incredibly healthy, or that the study of diseases was very poorly developed in comparison with Egypt and Europe.

Arkadiusz Sołtysiak of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw decided to fill this gap and collected all previously published reports of anthropologists who examined human remains in the area of Mesopotamia. His research has focused on excavations in towns and settlements, as well as on the analysis of ancient texts.

Sołtysiak found that information about disease in the ancient kingdom was scarce for a number of reasons. First, human remains in the area are poorly preserved due to the moist winters and hot summers, making the bones fragile and unsuitable for detailed analysis. In addition, the unstable political situation in the region has discouraged scientists from travelling to the area. But the absence of references to disease in ancient text is surprising, considering that so much was recorded about the civilisations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, just a few of the civilisations in the area of Mesopotamia.

The analysis conducted by the University of Warsaw, which concerned the skeletal remains from all eras, enabled the researchers to capture an overall view of the health status of residents of Mesopotamia at different times.  They found some evidence for osteoarthritis in the Neolithic period, probably caused by frequent heavy lifting, but this had reduced by the Bronze Age, the “heyday of farming communities”.  After the Bronze Age, there was an economic and agricultural collapse seen in the Iron Age. During this period, there was evidence of a gradual increase in tooth disease, which persisted all the way up until the Middle Ages, probably associated with the spread of date palms growing and changing eating habits. Nevertheless, Sołtysiak concluded that there is little evidence of significant health concerns in the region and that “the communities of Mesopotamia were quite healthy”.

In ancient times, Mesopotamian diseases were often blamed on pre-existing spirits: gods, ghosts, etc., and each spirit was held responsible for only one disease in any one part of the body. Ancient mythologies tell stories of diseases that were put in the world by supernatural forces. One such figure was Lamashtu the daughter of the supreme god Anu, a terrible she-demon of disease and death.

The bulk of the tablets that mention medical practices have survived from cuneiform texts in the library of Asshurbanipal at Nineveh (668 BC) Assyria. The vast majority of these tablets are prescriptions, but there are a few series of tablets that have been labelled "treatises". One of the oldest and the largest collections is known as "Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognoses." Although the oldest surviving copy of this treatise dates to around 1600 BC, the information contained in the text is an amalgamation of several centuries of Mesopotamian medical knowledge. The diagnostic treatise is organized in head to toe order with separate subsections covering convulsive disorders, gynaecology and paediatrics. To the non-specialist they sound like magic and sorcery. However, the descriptions of diseases demonstrate accurate observation skills.

Featured image: The skeleton of a man with an amputated leg who lived in Mesopotamia. Photo credit: A. Sołtysiak

By John Black

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