Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Head and shoulders of an Egyptian mummy

Ancient Mummies Reveal Heart Disease Is Not Just A Modern Ailment

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Heart disease is often viewed as a modern malady, fueled by sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary habits, and the stresses of modern life. However, a groundbreaking study led by Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute challenges this idea, revealing that heart disease has been a human affliction for millennia. 

The Global HORUS Study, recently published in the European Heart Journal, has found widespread evidence of atherosclerosis—a build-up of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes—in ancient mummies from diverse cultures around the world. 

Uncovering Ancient Atherosclerosis 

According to the new release by Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, researchers conducted CT scans on 237 adult mummies spanning over 4,000 years and found signs of atherosclerosis in more than 37% of the cases. The mummies, hailing from seven different cultures—including ancient Egyptians, lowland Peruvians, highland Andean Bolivians, 19th-century Aleutian Islander hunter-gatherers, 16th-century Greenlandic Inuits, ancestral Puebloans, and Middle Ages Gobi Desert pastoralists—offered a unique glimpse into the health issues faced by our ancestors. 

“We found atherosclerosis in all time periods—dating before 2,500 BC—in both men and women, in all seven cultures that were studied, and in both elites and non-elites,” said Dr. Randall Thompson, lead author of the study and cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. 

This discovery supports the idea that atherosclerosis is not solely a product of modern lifestyles but rather a condition with deep historical roots. 

Volume-rendered CT image demonstrating extensive atherosclerosis (arrows) in the aorta of a female mummy from ancient Peru

Volume-rendered CT image demonstrating extensive atherosclerosis (arrows) in the aorta of a female mummy from ancient Peru. (Thompson et al. 2024/European Heart Journal) 

Implications for Modern Health 

While the presence of heart disease in ancient populations is notable, the researchers emphasized that most cases found were consistent with early disease stages, often discovered incidentally in modern patients during routine CT scans. The mean age of the mummies at death was around 40 years old, young by today's standards, yet indicative of the onset of cardiovascular issues. 

Dr. Thompson explained: 

“This study indicates that modern cardiovascular risk factors—such as smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet—exacerbate an underlying, inherent risk that is part of the human aging process. It is crucial to control the risk factors we can manage to mitigate the impact of heart disease.” 

Challenges and Future Directions 

Although the researchers acknowledge certain limitations of their study, such as the varying degrees of preservation among the mummies and the potential effects of the mummification process on tissue, they believe the conservative assessment methods ensured a rigorous analysis of atherosclerosis presence. 

The study corroborates the findings of an earlier study that found the presence of the same heart disease in mummies. This 2019 study published in the American Heart Journal, found cholesterol buildup in the arteries of five mummies dating back to 2000 BC. 

The Global HORUS Study adds to existing evidence that heart disease is not merely a byproduct of contemporary life but a condition that has affected humans for thousands of years. This research not only enriches our understanding of ancient health but also reinforces the importance of managing modern risk factors to combat the inherent risks of atherosclerosis. 

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of our ancestors' health, we gain invaluable insights into our own well-being and the ongoing battle against heart disease. 

Top image: Head and shoulders of an Egyptian mummy, the best-known of mummification methods. Source: Andrea Izzotti/Adobe Stock 

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

Next article