Add Clogged Arteries to the list of just some of the chronic diseases found in Ancient mummies. The HORUS study just published in the Lancet and presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Cardiology theorizes that humans are sensitive to the development of atherosclerotic plaque regardless of diet and contemporary lifestyles. Although I find this study fascinating, I do not see a basis for the comments regarding diet.
This study attempted to look at mummies from four diverse ancient populations to see if diet and other factors contributed to the development of calcium deposits in blood vessels.
137 mummies – 76 ancient Egyptians, 51 Peruvians, 5 Ancestral Puebloans and 5 Unangan/Aleuts were specifically scanned looking for calcium deposits in major blood vessels. 34% of the mummies were found to contain calcium build up in locations where plaque is typically seen.
Table 2 (below) lists the diet characterization and food examples among other distinguishing features. The more advanced civilizations, including the Egyptians and Peruvians (mummies dating 3100 BCE-1500 CE) were considered farmers with domesticated animals. Ancestral Puebloan (mummies dating 1500 BCE-1500 CE) were considered foragers and farmers. The final civilization was Unangan/Aleuts (young mummies dating 1756–1930 CE, not more than a few hundred years old) were considered more primitive hunter gatherers.
What I see in table 2 are the first three ancient civilizations that probably discovered farming out of necessity. Farming produced starchy and carbohydrate heavy foods from man-made grains, such as wheat and corn, and also starchy vegetables such as potato. These starchy foods most likely provided sustenance and enabled these early civilizations to survive, prosper and multiply in both times of plenty and famine.
However, these starchy foods, that were mostly non-existent prior to the development of farming and agriculture, became staples. One might consider these foods to be essentially the early components of unhealthy modern day JUNK FOOD! Certainly these ancient civilizations cherished these foods for those obvious reasons just stated above, but I cannot imagine that they considered how these new foods might affect health long-term.
The investigators, injecting their own bias, suggest that it was the elite once living mummified Egyptians consuming more fatty meats that explains blood vessel calcifications. I wish to inject my own bias and suggest that it was the consumption of these starchy foods that caused these observed calcifications. Therein lies the challenge always facing Anthropologists, as it remains difficult to prove anything with certainty!
Lastly, to comment on the 5 Unangan/Aleuts mummies, who appear as anomalies to the researchers. The Unangan civilzation was very old and spanned some 9000 years. They lived in the rugged Aleutian islands surrounded by the frigid Bering Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The islands had no trees and very little grew, so there was no farming or agriculture. These hunter gatherers lived off the bounty of the surrounding oceans.
However, at the time the 5 discovered mummies were actually living people (1756–1930 CE), not more than a few short hundred years ago, they were hardly an isolated group. The Fur Seal industry exploded in the 18th century bringing outside influence, often violent, from countries including Russia and Europe. These once living people, now mummies, may have been exposed to foods other than their traditional diet during this time.
Only 5 not very old Unangan/Aleuts mummies to work with and yet they represented the supposed hunter gatherers arm of this study is rather unimpressive. The investigators took a bold leap of faith to suggest that since all the mummy groups had calcifications, diet does not seem to matter and that all humans are predisposed to develop plaque.
True hunter gatherers mummies are not well represented in this study and it might be very hard to find collections from such ancient civilizations who probably knew nothing about the mummification process. This study provides a nice discussion of how available foods changed with the introduction of farming and agriculture, but otherwise does not add much to the ongoing debate regarding nutrition and health throughout the ages.