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Representational image of a child mummy. Child mummies have been scanned to reveal the prevalence of anemia in ancient Egyptian children. Source: Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 4.0

Why Did So Many Ancient Egyptian Children Suffer Anemia?

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In a “first-of-its-kind” fascinating osteoarchaeological study, scientists have found that anemia was common in ancient Egyptian children who had been mummified. Through the use of CT scans, it was revealed that one in every three children (7 out of 21 mummies examined from German, Italian and Swiss museums) suffered from anemia, along with other blood conditions like thalassemia.

Chronologically, the oldest of these mummies dates back to the Old Kingdom (2686 to 2160 BC) and the First Intermediate Period (2160 to 2055 BC), though most date to the Ptolemaic (332 to 30 BC) and Roman (30 BC to 395 AD) periods.

3D volume rendering CT scan reconstruction of the skull of an ancient Egyptian child, which was part of the study that revealed that anemia was prevalent in ancient Egyptian children. (Panzer et. al. / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

3D volume rendering CT scan reconstruction of the skull of an ancient Egyptian child, which was part of the study that revealed that anemia was prevalent in ancient Egyptian children. (Panzer et. al. / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The Science Behind This First-Of-Its-King Anemia Study

“Our study appears to be the first to illustrate radiological findings not only of the cranial vault but also of the facial bones and postcranial skeleton that indicate thalassemia in an ancient Egyptian child mummy,” the researchers wrote in their study published in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

This was as a result of the researchers running full-body CT scans on 21 child mummies between the ages of one and 14. This process allowed them to analyze the entire skeleton. They found evidence of pathological enlargement of the cranial vault, the part of the skull that holds the brain, according to a Phys.org report.

The famed King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut, is believed to have died of sickle cell disease, a type of anemia. However, the researchers of the recent study caution that “the direct evidence of anemia in human remains from ancient Egypt is rare.” Therefore, it is still unclear whether anemia was the cause of death for the majority of the child mummies studied.

“The collection of investigated child mummies did not represent a population,” note the authors of the anemia study. “The purpose of this study was to estimate the prevalence of anemia in ancient Egyptian child mummies and to provide comparative data for future studies.”

The researchers also acknowledged that they were unable to measure the porosity and thinness of bones. These require a certain level of contrast, which is often reduced in the CT scans by the density of the preserved tissue and surrounding embalming. Due to insufficient CT image quality, this assessment was not “feasible in the study.”

CT scan technology was used in the study of ancient Egyptian child mummies to study the prevalence of anemia. (Panzer et. al. / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

CT scan technology was used in the study of ancient Egyptian child mummies to study the prevalence of anemia. (Panzer et. al. / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Anemia: A Multi-Pronged Attack on the Immune System

Anemia is a medical condition characterized by the body's inability to produce enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the tissues. The researchers used CT scans to examine child mummies, and the scans were able to show the insides of the mummy wrappings without removing them. This allowed the scientists to study the remains in greater detail and to identify signs of anemia and other conditions.

Those suffering from anemia typically suffer from other problems too, which include iron deficiency, gastrointestinal tract bleeding, inflammation and chronic infections, all a result of a significantly weakened and compromised immune system.

Malnutrition, parasitic infections and genetic disorders, all of which are still common causes of anemia today, are thought to have been the primary reasons for anemia in children during ancient times. The German, Italian and American researchers also found that children in ancient Egypt were more likely to suffer from anemia than adults, with child mummies exhibiting more signs of the blood condition. It is possible that anemia caused the early death of some of these children.

One of the mummies was of a child who died before reaching its first year, suffering from an enlarged tongue (Beckwith–Wiedemann syndrome) and thalassemia. In this condition, the body cannot produce hemoglobin, which can lead to anemia in many cases. This ancient Egyptian child most certainly succumbed to the plethora of symptoms that arise as a result of this often debilitating disorder.

All in all, by using CT scans this anemia study has deepened our understanding of the health of ancient Egyptians, though it does come with certain caveats. “The collection of investigated child mummies did not represent a population; they are rather a collection of externally well-preserved mummies from different time periods and with different provenances. As mentioned above, reference values for the frontal cranial vault thickness had to be transferred from x-rays to CT, and the available CT data had limitations,” concluded the authors of the study.

Top image: Representational image of a child mummy. Child mummies have been scanned to reveal the prevalence of anemia in ancient Egyptian children. Source: Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sahir Pandey

References

Dyer, R. 29 April 2023. “Egyptian Child Mummies Reveal High Prevalence of an Ancient Sickness” in Science Alert. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/egyptian-child-mummies-reveal-high-prevalence-of-an-ancient-sickness

JP Staff. 1 May 2023. “Mummies reveal children in ancient Egypt were largely anemic – study” in The Jerusalem Post. Available at: https://www.jpost.com/archaeology/article-741729

Panzer, S., et al. 13 April 2023. “Anemias in ancient Egyptian child mummies: Computed tomography investigations in European museums” in International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.3227

 

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

Anemia is a well-documented effect of exposure to a nuclear bomb, otherwise known as ‘radiation sickness’.  The Japanese have a lot of the data on this.  

But here, we need to revisit the dating of the remains.  Could ALL be circa 115k BC, adding the zero back to Plato’s Atlantis timeline, to correlate with the sudden emergence of the Ice Age.
 

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Sahir's picture

Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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