Our modern lifestyles are often blamed for many common health problems, but surprisingly our ancestors suffered many of the same diseases.
It was believed that ancient cultures were not stricken with the same heart diseases as modern men, mainly due to their diet which was free from high levels of sugar and fat.
However in March 2013, findings were published that found signs of heart disease in mummies from five different ancient cultures. Researchers who examined around 140 mummies found that not only the wealthy, who enjoyed a richer diet and a more sedentary lifestyle, but also the lower class people suffered from heart disease. Researchers believe that chronic inflammation from parasites, repeated infections and smoke from cooking fires could have been additional risk factors.
Recent debates have emerged discussing whether cancer is man-made or environmental. There are so few examples of mummies with cancer, that it seemed as if the ailment didn’t exist in ancient times. Recently evidence has been uncovered that our ancestors also had to battle with cancer.
In the region known as the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, scientist have discovered the earliest known case of cancer. An aggressive type of cancer called osteosarcoma was found in a foot belonging to a human ancestor that died 1.6-1.8 million years ago. In 2007 the oldest known case of prostate cancer was found in the remains of a 2,700 year old Russia Scythian king. Also in 2016, scientists identified a genetic mutation that increases cancer risk in an 18th century mummy.
Common to rural farming areas in the Mediterranean, brucellosis, a bacterial infection, was believed to have only been around since the early 20th century. The most common way to be infected is by eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products. In 2012 a researcher found 2 Albanian skeletons believed to belong to teenage males from the 10th to 13th century. Examinations on both showed bone damage consistent with brucellosis, suggesting that the disease has been present in Albania since the Middle Ages.
Schistosomiasis - Parasitic worms
Schistosomiasis is contracted through the skin when a person comes into contact with worm-infested waters. Prevalent in the delta region of Egypt, researchers have always assumed that it was a more recent pathogen, linked to urban life and stagnant water in irrigation ditches.
In 2011 Researchers took tissue from Nubian mummies that dated between 1,200 and 1,500 years ago. They found around 34% were infected with Schistosomiasis, showing that the disease dates back thousands of years.
Sugar was introduced to England in the 13th century and things went downhill quickly. Queen Elizabeth 1st was known for her love of sweets, which ended up causing black and decaying teeth. It was reported that foreign ambassadors found it difficult to understand her speech because she had lost so many teeth. At that time sugar was expensive, making it a luxury that only the rich could afford and black teeth became a sign of wealth. It soon became common among lower classes to darken their teeth as to appear more wealthy.
A 2,100 year old Egyptian mummy was found to have a mouthful of cavities and tooth ailments. The man, in his 20's or 30's, had sought out an ancient dentist to help relieve the pain. Researchers found one of his cavities packed with linen cloth, which was perhaps dipped in medicinal oil to help relieve his pain.
Japan’s custom of dyeing one’s teeth black, Ohaguro, had been around until the 18th century. It was commonly practiced by imperial and aristocratic families. We would usually assume that this became common because of rotting black teeth, but researchers have since proven that the lacquer used to blacken the teeth was a treatment to help stop tooth decay.
Stomach ulcers aren't just a problem of our stressful modern world. In 2008, researchers found the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori for the first time in a 700 year old Mexican mummy. Although previous research had suggested that H. pylori was present in these communities, this was the first evidence that it caused gastric infections that led to ulcer formation.
The modern diet has rendered famine rare in the developed world, but the body continues to respond to times of plenty as if starvation is still just around the corner. We know that this can result in diabetes and obesity. But we’ve found that our ancestors were not immune. Historically, obesity and diabetes were linked only to the wealthy who could afford to binge on food and wine.
Hesy-Ra, one the world’s first documented physicians, wrote about an illness resulting in frequent urination during the 3rd Egyptian Dynasty. The Greek physician Areataeus was the first to coin the term “diabetes”, derived from the Greek word siphon. Sources show that Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean doctors were aware of the condition, although not sure why it happened or how to treat it. The 6th century Indian surgeon Sushruta was one of the earliest to relate obesity to diabetes and heart disorders.
Henry VIII was renowned for his large appetite and waist size (oh and beheading his wives.) Many historians believe his massive increase in weight was the result of overindulgence and possibly diabetes. Henry enjoyed 13 dishes each day consisting of lots of meat and pastries. He also drink around 70 pints of ale a week! By the end of his reign, the 6ft 1 in king weighed approximately 300 to 320 pounds.
Using a 10th Century Potion to Kill MRSA
Scientists from the University of Nottingham’s Center for Biomolecular Sciences and Anglo-Saxon Expert Dr. Christina Lee worked together to create a remedy found in Bald’s Leechbook. Written in Old English, it is believed to be one of the earliest known books of medical advice. The medieval salve was used to treat eye infections and included: 2 species of Allium (garlic, onion or leek), wine and cow bile. The recipe gave very specific instructions of how to make the salve including using a brass vessel to brew in, straining for purity and leaving the mixture for nine days before use. To the surprise of researchers, the ingredients had little effect on their own but when combined killed 90% of MRSA cultures in a laboratory setting.
I've been a Licensed Massage Therapist since 2006. In my free time I enjoy hiking with my husband and dog. I also have a passion for cooking, baking and gardening.