by Dr. Michael R. Eades, M.D.
From time immemorial the fertile valley along the Nile River has produced an abundance of plant life. The river itself teemed with fish in ancient times and provided food and cover for birds, while the lush floodplain provided rich grazing for every sort of wild animal.
Out of this flourishing, verdant landscape the early inhabitants, the ancient Egyptians, carved the beginnings of one of the greatest civilizations of all time - pharaonic Egypt.
During the almost 3,000 years from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 395, the Egyptians refined the art of mummification and extended its practice through all social strata. The number of mummies from that period has been estimated by some experts to equal the population of Egypt today.
Medical scientists have analyzed many of these mummified remains in such detail that they have been able to determine not only blood type and body size and shape, but the presence of specific bacterial or parasitic infections and other diseases as well as the cause of death.
In effect, this legion of mummies provides us with a thirty-century-long study of health and disease.
In addition, we have the written history the Egyptians left us. Archaeologists have unearthed tens of thousands of papyrus fragments describing all aspects of life along the Nile in dynastic times.
From translations of their meticulous and voluminous records, we know how they lived and in what kinds of houses, where and how they worked, how much they were paid, and most important for our purposes, what they ate.
What the Mummies Ate
The diet of the average Egyptian consisted primarily of carbohydrates.
Their staple crops, wheat and barley, supplied a coarse stone-ground whole-wheat flour, which they baked into a flat bread and consumed in great quantity.
In fact, during the later periods, the Egyptian army rationed each of its soldiers about five pounds of bread per day, a quantity so impressive the Greeks of the time called these soldiers artophagoi, "the bread eaters."
Egyptian farmers cultivated a wide variety of fruits, such as grapes, dates, jujube, melons, peaches, olives, pears, pomegranates, carob, apples, and nuts, and several varieties of vegetables - mainly garlic, onions, lettuce, cucumbers, peas, lentils, and papyrus. They sweetened their food with honey (since sugar didn't arrive on the scene until about A.D. 1000) and used olive, safflower, linseed, and sesame oils for cooking and medicinal purposes.
The papyrus records tell us the early Egyptians sat down to dine on a diet consisting primarily of bread, cereals, fresh fruit and vegetables, some fish and poultry, almost no red meat, olive oil instead of lard, and goat's milk for drinking and to make into cheese - a veritable nutritionist's nirvana.
Except for papyrus, the Egyptians could have obtained their entire diet from the shelves of any health food store in America.
With such a bounty available, rich in all the foods believed to promote health and almost devoid of saturated fat and cholesterol, it would seem the ancient Egyptians should have lived forever or at least should have lived long, healthy lives and died of old age in their beds.
But did they? Let's look at the archaeological evidence.
What Ailed the Egyptians
We have two ways of estimating the health of these ancient people: searching the surviving papyrus writings of the time for any mention of diseases and examining the actual mummified remains of the ancient Egyptians.
Through the science of paleopathology - the application of modern techniques of pathology and other scientific disciplines to the remains of early man, from bone fragments to entire preserved bodies - scientists can determine not only the state of health at the time of death, but also the almost indiscernible responses of the flesh to the rigors of primitive life.
Obviously the more complete the specimen, the more reliable the analysis. And when scientists can study many fairly intact remains, such as the enormous number of Egyptian mummies available, all from a particular time and place, they can spot disease trends and can speculate with a good deal of certainty about the health status of the population.
Certainly we would expect to find evidence of bacterial and parasitic infections, because at that time there were no antibiotic or antiparasitic medications - those were not developed until the twentieth century.
And indeed we do find evidence of widespread infections and infestations. The ancient Egyptians suffered pneumonia, tuberculosis, probably leprosy, and many other less exotic bacterial infections, along with parasites that occur from drinking and bathing in contaminated water.
With no refined sugar in the diet, we would expect that the ancient Egyptians would have perfect teeth, right?
Mummies from all socioeconomic strata suffered terrible dental problems. Their teeth were worn down to such an extensive degree that both enamel and dentin were gone, exposing the soft pulp. Without this protective outer surface, the living tissue within the tooth dies, and the empty canal (the area dentists fill when they do a root canal) becomes a source of chronic infection, often leading to abscess formation.
The incidence of actual tooth decay was not particularly high because the teeth were worn down to the nub before decay could set in.
The Egyptians also had severe gum disease, which most experts believe was caused by two factors - diet and poor dental hygiene.
We know little of the oral hygiene habits of the ancient Egyptians, but we can suppose they wouldn't be any worse than their primitive hunting-gathering ancestors, who weren't particularly afflicted with gum disease, which scientists always find with increasing frequency in societies ascending the ladder of civilization.
It stands to reason the "civilized" diet plays some role in its promotion.
Subsisting as they did on a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables and coarse whole-grain bread, at least we would not expect to find fat Egyptians. After all, the basic Egyptian diet is the very one most experts prescribe for weight loss today.
But here is yet another health problem that doesn't correlate with our "healthy diet" paradigm: obesity.
Many ancient Egyptians, based on examination of their mummified remains, were not just a little overweight, but were actually fat.
Paleopathologists have described huge folds of excess skin of a type and distribution that indicate the presence of severe obesity. People in that early age probably viewed excess fat much as we do today - not as a thing of beauty.
But just as we find the pages of our magazines covered with pictures of slender models, so the ancient Egyptians painted and carved idealized pictures showing their citizens as slender, svelte in their form-fitting pleated linen garments.
In view of this discrepancy between the actual and the idealized, it seems unlikely the Egyptians actively worked to become obese - instead, as it does today, it probably just happened to them.
Finally, in view of the low-fat content of the diet, we would anticipate very little, if any, evidence of heart disease, but again, the low-fat, high-complex-carbohydrate high-complex-carbohydrate paradigm fails the test.
The evidence of heart and vascular disease found in the mummy and papyrus chronicles proves that cardiovascular disease occurred extensively throughout ancient Egypt.
When paleopathologists dissected the arteries of the Egyptian mummies, they did not find smooth, supple arterial walls, but rather, arteries choked with greasy, cholesterol-laden deposits that were often calcified, exhibiting an advanced stage of atherosclerotic disease.
Many subjects had arteries that were scarred and thickened, indicating the presence of high blood pressure.
Pathologists today find the same diseased changes when examining tissue from a victim of a heart attack, stroke, diabetes, or other disease found in conjunction with late-stage heart disease. In fact it appears cardiovascular disease was as prevalent in ancient Egypt as it is in America today.
We have further proof the ancient Egyptians suffered from heart disease. Among the enormous number of papyrus documents that have been discovered are several that were apparently medical textbooks of the time.
One in particular, the papyrus Ebers, written in about 1500 B.C., describes the pain from heart disease:
"If thou examinest a man for illness in his cardia, and he has pains in his arms, in his breasts, and in one side of his cardia…it is death threatening him."
This account perfectly describes the ominous signs of an impending heart attack: pain in the left side of the chest radiating down the arms.
Keep in mind the average Egyptian enjoyed a much shorter life span than we do, and therefore the vast amount of arterial disease found in the mummified remains gives us a fair indication that "illnesses in their cardia" must have threatened death at a relatively early age.
So a picture begins to emerge of an Egyptian populace rife with disabling dental problems, fat bellies, and crippling heart disease. From the evidence, we know atherosclerotic cholesterol plaque and the effects of high blood pressure narrowed their arteries at a young age.
Sounds a lot like the afflictions of millions of people in America today, doesn't it?
The Egyptians didn't eat much fat, had no refined carbohydrates as we know them today, and ate almost nothing but whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fish and fowl. Yet, they were beset with all the same diseases that afflict modern man.
Modern man, who is exhorted to eat loads of whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables to prevent or reverse these diseases.
In the words of Aidan Cockburn (in Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures), founder of the Paleopathology Association and the first to bring together an interdisciplinary team of scientists to examine mummies with all the sophisticated equipment available today:
"Atheromatous disease of the arteries is … a common finding in mummies. Nowadays, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the stress of modern life or on modern diet as factors in the high incidence of this disorder in our present-day industrialized civilization, but the etiological influences were certainly there in the ancient world, and this fact should be taken into account in any theorizing regarding causation." 1
What does all this mean in the great scheme of things?
We think it means there are some real problems with the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
Perhaps, you might argue, it simply indicates the ancient Egyptians, maybe for genetic reasons, had difficulty dealing with a high-carbohydrate diet physiologically and the same disorders wouldn't occur in other groups of ancient people on a similar diet.
In fact, they do.
Throughout history, when man has turned away from the traditional "prehistoric" diet that evolution designed him to eat, to an agrarian (grain-based) one, this decline in health has recurred.
We think you will find the following data comparing these two kinds of diets startling as well as fascinating.
The Diet We Were Meant To Eat
Most experts agree that game-hunting was the primary means of sustenance for our ancestors 700,000 years ago.
From that time until the beginnings of agriculture (about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago), man lived on a diet composed predominantly of meat of one sort or another.
Scientists estimate 60 to 90 percent of the calories these early people consumed were in the form of large and small game animals, birds, eggs, reptiles, and insects.
The forces of natural selection acting over some 7,000 centuries shaped and molded our physiology to function optimally on a diet consisting predominantly of meat, supplemented with roots, shoots, berries, seeds, and nuts.
Only within the last one hundred centuries have we reversed the order to become mainly carbohydrate eaters, with meat as the supplement. This dietary reversal - from a diet providing, on average, about 75 percent of its calories from some sort of meat, with the remainder coming from plants, to one in which only 25 percent of calories come from meat, the rest from other sources - has taken place in approximately 400 to 500 generations, far short of the 1,000 to 10,000 generations deemed necessary by geneticists to allow any substantial genetic changes to take place.
We may yet adapt to the high-carbohydrate agricultural diet, but history tells us it will probably take another 10,000 years.
Farming Away Fitness
The change to the agricultural diet created many health problems for early man. The fossil remains tell us in pre-agricultural times, human health was excellent. People were tall, lean, had well-developed, strong, dense bones, sound teeth with minimal, if any, decay, and little evidence of severe disease.
After the advent of agriculture and a change in diet, this picture of robust health began to deteriorate. Post-agricultural man was shorter, had more brittle bones, extensive tooth decay, and a high incidence of malnutrition and chronic disease - a health picture similar to that of the Egyptians.
The remarkable thing about this generalized decline in health is it occurred throughout the world. From the eastern Mediterranean to Peru, whenever people changed from a high-protein to a high-carbohydrate diet, they became less healthy.
Archaeologists consider this health disparity so predictable, that when they unearth the skeletal remains of a prehistoric society, they classify the people as hunters or farmers by the state of their bones and teeth.
If the teeth are excellent and nondecayed and the bones strong, dense, and long, the people were hunter-gatherers; if the teeth are decayed and the bones frail and deformed, scientists know the remains are those of agriculturists.
The Decline of The Hardin Villagers
A study by Claire M. Cassidy, Ph.D., an anthropologist with the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, compares two groups of people arising from the same genetic pool, living in the same area and in roughly the same-size community - two similar groups of people separated only by time and diet.
Her paper, published in 1980, documents the health differences between hunter-gatherers and agriculturists (or farmers) as a function of diet.
Dr. Cassidy's subjects were the skeletal remains of a group of farmers who inhabited an area identified as Hardin Village, in what is now Kentucky, from approximately 1500 to 1675 and a comparison group of hunter-gatherers who occupied a location called Indian Knoll centuries earlier, around 3000 B.C.
These two groups of people were similar in virtually all respects except diet: they lived in the same part of the country, had the same climate to deal with, and had the same types of wild plants and animals available.
Both lived in about the same-size population group and were sedentary or semisedentary, removing the variable of degree of exercise.
The farmers ate primarily "corn, beans, and squash. Wild plants and animals (especially deer, elk, small mammals, wild turkey, box turtle) provided supplements to a largely agricultural diet."
The hunters, on the other hand, consumed "very large quantities of river mussels and snails. …Other meat was provided by deer, small mammals, wild turkey, box turtle, and fish; dog was sometimes eaten ceremonially."
Dr. Cassidy sums up the differences: "The Hardin Village [farmers'] diet was high in carbohydrates, while that at Indian Knoll [hunters'] was high in protein."
She evaluated the skeletal remains of these two groups for bone and tooth changes indicative of iron-deficiency anemia, growth arrest from disease or malnutrition, and decay, and was able to determine the effects of the different diets on these otherwise similar peoples.
She found the life expectancies for all ages lower and infant mortality higher among the farmers.
Iron-deficiency anemia was nonexistent among the hunters, but identified in 8.2 percent of the farmers.
Growth arrests among the hunters were periodic and of short duration, possibly due to regularly occurring food shortages at certain times of the year, while growth arrests among the farmers were random and of much longer duration, indicating chronic malnutrition.
More children suffered infection in the farmer population, with evidence of infection in the long bones thirteen times more common in farmers than hunters.
Tooth decay, widespread among the farmers, rarely occurred among the hunters. 2
In Dr. Cassidy's words, "the agricultural Hardin Villagers were clearly less healthy than the Indian Knollers, who lived by hunting and gathering."
She attributes this disparity in health to the difference in diet: "The health data provide convincing evidence that the diet of the agriculturists was the inferior of the two. The archaeological dietary data support this conclusion."
Dr. Cassidy is not alone in reporting this phenomenon. Many scientific papers have been written on this subject, and they present even the most passionate believer in the superiority of the high-carbohydrate diet with some food for thought.
As Dr. Kathleen Gordon, like Dr. Cassidy an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, writes in one such paper: "Not only was the agricultural 'revolution' not really so revolutionary at its inception, it has also come to represent something of a nutritional 'devolution' for much of mankind."
The Thrifty Gene: Store That Fat!
The anthropological record provides plenty of evidence that the change to a high-carbohydrate diet caused a general decline in health of people designed to eat a high-protein, carbohydrate-restricted diet.
Why? What is there about a high-carbohydrate diet that causes the trouble?
There has been discussion in the scientific community for years about the so-called "thrifty gene." First used with reference to diabetes, this phrase has come to mean the genetic material that has been passed along to us by our prehistoric ancestors that allows us to better survive hunger and privation.
Since periodic famines, brought on by game scarcity, heavy winters, droughts, or other natural disasters, were a part of prehistoric life, it makes sense the people best suited to survive these deprivations would live to reproduce. Obviously this happened. Natural selection culled the weak and left a population that had the biochemistry and physiology necessary to squeeze every possible calorie from the food at hand and store it efficiently.
This energy efficiency or biological thriftiness was precisely what we needed to survive in prehistoric times - but what about now?
When we eat a meal, we know we are going to eat again in a few hours, but our enzymes and hormones don't. When the food comes in and is broken down into its components by our prehistoric digestive enzymes, it is absorbed into the blood and attacked by our primordial digestive hormones.
Each calorie is put to work to meet the body's immediate demands, with the remainder being stored as fat to be called on as needed.
When the next meal comes along in four hours instead of four days, this whole process repeats. Since we eat meals regularly, we end up storing too much fat, which creates a new set of problems probably never experienced by prehistoric man.
The primary hormone involved in this entire process is insulin. Insulin is our main anabolic, or bodybuilding, hormone and is called into action each time we eat - especially if we eat or drink a food containing carbohydrates.
Insulin increases the storage of fat, drives the sugar from the blood into the cells, and in general performs all the energy-conserving functions that allowed our ancestors to survive.
Unfortunately, in our plentiful time of high-carbohydrate intake insulin works to our detriment. When levels of insulin become too high, as they do on our modern diet, this hormone causes us to retain sodium (and with it excess fluid), leading to high blood pressure; it causes our bodies to increase the production of cholesterol; it causes some damage to the arteries; it makes us store fat in a particularly unhealthy way; and it even can start the entire process leading to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
All this treachery from a hormone that allowed us to survive prehistoric times.
The Bottom Line
Modern nutritional wisdom would predict the diet of the ancient Egyptians - high in complex carbohydrates, low in fat, no refined sugar, almost no red meat - should have brought health, fitness, and longevity to the Egyptians of old.
But it didn't.
Translations of the ancient Egyptian papyrus writings and modern examination of their mummified remains by pathologists tell us quite a different tale. The evidence speaks of a people afflicted with rotten teeth and severe atherosclerosis, suffering from elevated blood pressure and dying in their thirties with heart attacks.
And contrary to the paintings of the willowy svelte figures in pleated linen that adorned their tomb walls, the large skin folds of the mummies tell us their ancient low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet left them obese as well.
The Egyptians are not the only ancient people whose health suffered because of a diet consisting mainly of complex carbohydrates.
An anthropologist examining skeletal remains of early man can tell immediately whether the bones and teeth belonged to a hunter-gatherer (mainly protein eater) or a farmer (mainly carbohydrate eater) simply by their condition.
The hunters grew tall, with strong, well-formed bones and sound teeth, and the remains of the farmers usually show skeletal signs of malnutrition, stunted growth, and tooth decay.
For 700,000 years humans ate a diet of mainly meat, fat, nuts, and berries. Eight thousand years ago we learned to farm, and as our consumption of grains increased, our health declined.
Genetic evolutionary changes take a minimum of 1,000 generations - or another 8,000 to 10,000 years to adapt. Our metabolic machinery was designed to cope with an unpredictable food supply. We had to store food away for the lean times ahead. The hormone insulin did this for us.
Unfortunately, a diet heavy in carbohydrate also sends our insulin levels soaring, and our body interprets this as a need to store calories, to make cholesterol, and to conserve water - all important to our survival way back then.
Some of us inherit this conservation ability - a thrifty gene - in great measure. People who have this trait gain weight easily and have a more difficult time losing their excess, and the current nutritional low-fat, high-carbohydrate prescription leads to overweight and weight-related health problems even more quickly among them.
1 Interestingly, cancer was virtually nonexistent in ancient populations of both hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, so diet may not be a major factor in cancer development. But remember both protein and fat are crucial for a strong immune system - your first defense against cancer. There is a stronger case for heavy metal toxins as a cancer cause; the tissues of modern man have ten times more lead than is found in ancient tissues, for instance.
2 The farmers had an average of 6.74 decayed teeth, while the hunters had only 0.73. Interestingly, no hunter children had tooth decay, whereas some farmer children had developed cavities by the second year of life.
Note: For more information on this subject, read, "Obesity in Ancient Egypt" by Dr. Michael R. Eades, M.D.