Anemia was common in mummified ancient Egyptian children, according to a new study examining juvenile mummies in European museums. The researchers used computed tomography (CT) scans to noninvasively examine the mummies’ bandages and found that a third showed signs of anemia; they also found evidence of thalassemia in one case.
“Our study appears to be the first to show radiological findings not only of the cranial vault, but also of the facial bones and postcranial skeleton indicative of thalassemia in an ancient Egyptian juvenile mummy,” the team wrote in the published paper.
Paleopathologist Stephanie Panzer and her colleagues from Germany, the United States and Italy suggest that anemia was likely common in ancient Egypt, possibly due to factors such as malnutrition, parasitic infections and genetic disorders that still cause health problems today.
Researchers have even suggested that Tutankhamun died of sickle cell anemia, the cause of anemia. However, as the researchers of this new study explain, “direct evidence of anemia in human remains from ancient Egypt is rare.”
Anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the tissues. Because Panzer and his colleagues studied infant mummies, the remains are more likely to show signs of anemia than adult mummies because of their early death.
CT scans have not been able to determine whether anemia plays a role in every single child death, but the research team believes it most likely contributed. They also looked for signs of disease that could cause anemia.
When ancient people were mummified, their bodies were preserved to contain more information than those buried. Although modern science does not allow researchers to remove the packaging used in the mummification process, they often use scans to “peek” into the packaging and see what’s inside.
On computed tomography, you can see mummy bones, which can indicate anemia as the bone marrow produces red blood cells.
Chronic hemolytic anemia and iron deficiency anemia are often accompanied by enlargement of the cranial dome (the region of the skull that houses the brain). The researchers hoped to find this out along with other signs of anemia, such as bone porosity, thinning, and changes in shape.
Measurement of bone porosity and thinness requires a certain level of contrast, which is often reduced on CT due to the density of preserved tissue and surrounding mummification. As the review concluded, this assessment was “not possible in this study due to poor CT image quality,” as the authors explain in their paper.
Overall, the team found that 7 of the 21 juvenile mummies they examined in museums in Germany, Italy and Switzerland had visible signs of anemia, including an enlarged anterior skull belt.
Also, a child, called Case 2, had facial and other bone changes due to thalassemia, a genetic disease in which the body cannot produce enough hemoglobin. Case 2 also had a larger-than-normal tongue “possibly indicating Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome,” according to the authors.
This genetically unfortunate child likely died within 1.5 years of birth from most of the symptoms of thalassemia, including anemia.
The mummy of Case 2. (a) Upper and lower limbs and trunk still have pieces of fabric used to wrap the body. The embalming agents darkened the skin and dressing. The child’s head is longer than normal. (b) Close-up view of the same mummy and (c) 3D-render CT reconstruction of the child’s head showing its protruding tongue (SMB/Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung/Jens Klocke)
Estimated to be between 1 and 14 years old at the time of their death, mummified children lived several periods.
“Chronologically, the oldest mummy belongs to the period between the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BC) and the First Intermediate Period (2160-2055 BC). He says it’s stretched.
As sad as this discovery was, the ancient Egyptian mummified remains certainly revealed some interesting facts and information about their lives and deaths. While this improves our understanding, such a small study has limitations.
“The collection of juvenile mummies investigated is not representative of the population,” the authors write in their paper.
“The purpose of this study was to estimate the prevalence of anemia in ancient Egyptian infant mummies and to provide comparative data for future studies.” Study published International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
Source: Port Altele