Hardened Arteries Found in Ancient Mummies. Did Diet Do It?


Studies of mummies show that the ancients got heart disease too.



There’s a team of cardiologists called The Horus Project who, largely as a hobby, have been taking CAT scans of the hearts of the mummified remains of ancient people, using borrowed machines from hospitals and, in one case, a mobile imaging unit run on gasoline. They started with Egyptian mummies published the first results four years ago. They’ve since expanded their effort to include mummies from other ancient cultures. Unlike the ancient Egyptian mummies, which went through a complicated preservation process to dry out their flesh, most of these corpses were preserved simply by putting them somewhere where moisture was scant.


The team found probable or definite atherosclerosis, the artery disease that leads to heart attacks and strokes, in 47 of 137 (34%) mummies. Of the 47 mummies, 38% were from ancient Egypt, 25% from ancient Peru, and 40% were ancient Puebloans.


Perhaps most important, though were five mummified Unangan hunter-gatherers from the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific ocean. Sixty percent of them – that’s three mummies – had atherosclerosis. One woman had calcified deposits in her coronary arteries that looked strikingly like someone with serious heart disease showing up in the hospital today. That means data from 4,000 years of preserved corpses shows that serious cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of people in the Western world, has been with us since before we started planting crops.


“It tells us that we don’t know as much as we thought we knew,“ says Samuel Wann, one of the lead investigators and a cardiologist at Columbia St. Mary’s Community Physicians in Milwaukee. “We thought we understood the risk factors for heart disease. I’m still surprised that our predecessors 4,000 years ago still had atherosclerosis.“


The research was published about a year ago, in The Lancet, a medical journal, and was presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology last year, in San Francisco.


The Paleolithic diet, the researchers say, was probably better than what we eat today, but it was still not 100% protective. Probably nothing is. “We’re not destined to die of heart disease. But we’re all at risk – vegetarians, vegans, hunter-gatherers,“ says Gregory S. Thomas MD, the lead author of the study. “It behooves us to do what’s known to be helpful: exercise, reducing blood pressure. But we’re all at risk. We shouldn’t think we’re protected by any one of these approaches. When someone has a heart attack they’ll often blame themselves. But I can reassure them that it’s a disease that the American Indians had living on the Colorado plains before the invention of the bow and arrow.“


There’s only so much that mummies can tell us, and modern hunter gatherers certainly have relatively low rates of heart attack and stroke. But it’s probably a mistake to construct our thinking about how we should eat and exercise through arguments about what people did before the agricultural revolution. Better to use hard data – like the recent study that showed a Mediterranean diet did better at preventing heart disease than what would otherwise be considered a relatively healthy one. And no matter what we eat, having arteries that clog up as we age is part of being human. We just need to slow the process as much as possible.



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