What Mummies Tell Us about Food

Photo credit: Bill Rizzo
Photo credit: Bill Rizzo

As we all know, or suspect anyway, mummies provide an amazing treasure trove of information about life (and death) in the past. Talk about primary sources, so beloved of historians!

As A. A. Gill wrote in an article about the Palermo mummies in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine:

An enormous amount can be gleaned from dead bodies about the day-to-day lives of the past-diet, illnesses, and life expectancy. Knowing more about diseases like syphilis, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis centuries ago can help us get the better of them today. The scientists move methodically, checking the corpses’ heights and ages, examining skulls and teeth, looking for the ridges interrupting enamel that signify years of malnutrition. Two mummies are gouty. Five show signs of degenerative arthritis. Almost all these people suffered horribly from dental conditions-tartar buildup, receding gums, caries, and abscesses.

That makes sense.

But what’s even more interesting comes in another comment that Gill makes in his article:

Most Sicilian mummies were clergy or high-ranking, wealthy supporters of the Capuchins’:  nobles, professionals, and merchants. Tests reveal that many suffered from ailments linked to rich diets. [Emphasis added.]

A quick glance at art from the late Renaissance period reveals corpulent men of the cloth. Their bones tell us that the human body suffers from diets far removed from plants, making Michael Pollan’s and Alice Water’s messages applicable to more than just fast food and scurrying away from locally grown food.

And that, my friends, looks like fodder for another post, for another day …

For further reading for now, take a look at the brief “The Mummy’s Diet,” about Egypt, some discussion of Incan mummies, A History of Egyptian Mummies, and an account of the worship and embalming of the sacred animals by the Egyptians; with remarks on the funeral ceremonies of different nations, and observations on the mummies of the Canary islands, of the ancient Peruvians, Burman priests (1834), and “The Scientific Study of Mummies,” a .pdf file teaser for the book by that title. The following is not necessarily about mummies, but provides some interesting insights: Mariani-Costantini, A. “Natural and cultural influences on the evolution of the human diet: background of the multifactorial processes that shaped the eating habits of western societies.” Nutrition, Volume 16, Issue 7, Pages 483-486. 2000.

(Until May 11, my posts will be a bit abbreviated as I prepare for a presentation on African cuisine at the ASFS meetings at Penn State.  My apologies. However, I do hope to intrigue all of you with places to visit virtually, sites that will form the basis, perhaps, for later posts of a more elaborate nature.)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

5 thoughts on “What Mummies Tell Us about Food

  1. This is fascinating! I’ve always wondered about the health of all those “fat friars” I’ve seen in woodcuts and other illustrations from that time. I suppose the green vegetables and local mutton were not good enough for such elevated personalities.
    thanks again for a revealing and truly interesting post!

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