Scientists Discover 2,700-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Stroke Victim
A detailed medical examination of the remains of one Egyptian mummy led to a surprising and unprecedented discovery. A team of researchers from New Jersey University in the United States, Alcalá University in Spain, and the American University in Cairo found strong and convincing evidence that the person inside the mummy’s wrappings had at some point in their lives suffered a disabling brain injury and was actually a stroke victim.
“The woman who lived in ancient Egypt suffered from a stroke,” the study authors wrote, in the recently released article published in the journal World Neurosurgery . “This led her left hemisphere to paralysis, and she lived with that condition for several years.” This kind of brain injury is very familiar to doctors in modern times.
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This is a remarkable conclusion, since no clear evidence of stroke-related damage has ever been found in any other ancient skeleton, from Egypt or anywhere else. A 2017 study of the skeletal remains of an 18th century Italian priest named Don Giovanni Arcangeli showed that he had had suffered a stroke before his death, and until now that was the oldest skeleton that had been identified as having belonged to a stroke victim .
Archaeological site of Dra' Abu el-Naga, view to the west, Luxor West Bank, Egypt. It is here that archaeologists unearthed the mummy which they have concluded to be a stroke victim dating back 2,700 years. (Roland Unger / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Posture Tells the Tale of Ancient Egyptian Stroke Victim
The person who suffered this troublesome fate was a woman between the ages of 25 and 40 years old, who lived in Egypt approximately 2,700 years ago. This places her in the time of the 25th Dynasty, during which Nubian rulers from the Kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan and southern Egypt filled the position of Pharaoh. The woman’s mummified remains were unearthed by the Spanish Archaeological Mission to Dra Abu el-Naga, the site of an ancient cemetery, which has been performing excavations on the west bank of the Nile River near Luxor for the past two decades.
For the purposes of this research project, the scientists studied the mummified remains with x-rays to gain more information about bone structure and other skeletal characteristics. But it was their direct physical examination of the mummy that led to their amazing discovery.
“This is the first reported evidence of an ischemic stroke for a person from ancient Egypt,” said American University in Cairo Egyptologist and study co-author Salima Ikram, in an interview with Al-Monitor. “This study found strong evidence that this woman, the mummy, suffered a stroke while she was young. This made her partially disabled, but the close care of her family and friends helped her survive to a very old age.”
It was the distortions of her skeleton that told the tale. The woman’s shoulders were contracted and her head was facing down, as if being forced in that direction. Her right arm was stretched out alongside the body, but the left arm was bent at the elbow with the forearm placed over the chest with the left hand in a hyper-flexed position. The legs were straight and together, but a small twist of the left foot was evident.
“The position of the shoulders, head, flexed arm, and, to a lesser extent, the probable inward turning of the left foot suggests that the woman was suffering from a right brain insult,” the study authors wrote. They point out that all of these abnormalities have been observed in modern stroke victims.
Experts now believe that King Tut, whose mummy is visible in the image, could also have been a stroke victim. (Nuță Lucian / CC BY 2.0 )
Was King Tut a Stroke Victim?
While the mummification process was ongoing, the embalmers tried to correct the distorted positioning of the woman’s head and chest. They did so by putting a pair of sticks behind her back, which transformed her posture into a more upright position than would have been evident when she was living. Another wooden stick shaped into the form of a crutch was also placed beside her body, presumably because she’d needed a crutch to walk after suffering her stroke-related injuries.
The discovery of the sticks in the woman’s tomb may be especially significant. This finding may force archaeologists and Egyptologists to reevaluate similar artifacts unearthed in other regional excavations over the years.
“The study allows us to reconsider and study the presence of some sticks [wooden planks] inside the tombs of the ancient Egyptians as there may be other cases of people affected by a stroke,” said Bassam el-Shamma, a well-known independent Egyptologist who was not directly involved in the research. “In the past, historians attributed the presence of these sticks inside tombs to religious beliefs; however, the latest study indicates that they were there for medical purposes.”
One tomb that contained multiple pieces of shaped wood was that of Tutankhamen, or King Tut . Over 100 walking sticks were found in his burial place, and a scan of his skeleton showed he may have some kind of medical condition that affected his bones. This was presumed to have been some type of rare disease, but it now seems possible that the boy king could have suffered a stroke.
Howard Carter opening up the shrine of King Tutankhamun’s tomb near Luxor in Egypt. ( Public domain )
The Brilliance of Egyptian Medicine Revealed
Historical accounts of Egypt during the 25th Dynasty describe a county in decline. Political and economic instability helped make it possible for Nubian conquerors to invade and take over the rule of the country, starting in 744 BC. But the shifting tides of Egypt’s political fortunes had no obvious impact on the state or progress of Egyptian medicine, which remained among the most advanced in the ancient world for thousands of years.
According to Salima Ikram, Egyptian doctors were in high demand and “traveled to other regions of the Mediterranean, sometimes at the request of kings. Later, in the Ptolemaic Dynasty [305 to 30 BC], Egyptian medical knowledge was spread all over the world for people to build on it.”
Given their impressive advancement in the medical sciences, it wouldn’t be surprising if Egyptian doctors were familiar with strokes, understood their causes and effects, and took measures to help those affected by them cope with the long-term impact.
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“Ancient Egyptians were leaders in diagnosing and treating some diseases,” noted Shamaa when speaking to Al-Monitor. “They provided the oldest accurate description of the human brain in history, and this was mentioned in the Edwin Smith Papyrus [an Egyptian medical text from approximately 1,500 BC], which also included a description of head injuries."
The discovery of wooden sticks in multiple ancient tombs suggests Egyptian doctors were worried about how their patients would fare in the afterlife, and not just during their time on Earth. That shows a dedication to their healing mission that even the most committed modern physician would have a hard time matching.
Top image: A relief depicting the god Anubis attending to the mummy of a worker. The recent study seems to indicate that Egyptian physicians were familiar with stroke victims and how to treat them. Source: Jean Robert Thibault / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Nathan Falde