After posting that researchers have been finding very little evidence of cancer in ancient Egyptians and others who lived several thousand years ago (e.g. in South America), I wondered what they ate. This new study says that ancient Egyptians, the middle classes, ate largely vegetarian diets, “animal proteins were rare.”
Diet Of Ancient Egyptians Inferred From Stable Isotope Systematics, Journal of Archaeological Science, June 2014
They start off by saying:
Ancient Egypt stands out as one of the first great civilizations that emerged at the end of the Neolithic period (6000 B.P.) and is particularly renowned for its exceptional longevity.
They don’t define longevity here, but I’d guess it’s something shorter than how we view it today. Maybe.
Based on ancient art, food remains, and what is known of the culture and environment at the time:
Large consumption of gritted bread is certain because of the notable common dental wear in human remains. As for other food sources such as vegetables, fish or meat, only indirect inferences can be made by considering the salaries paid in kind to pyramid workers and craftsmen from the King’s valley. These indicate that ancient Egyptians consumed large amounts of cereals through bread and beer, and also ate vegetables (e.g. onions, lettuce) and legumes (e.g. peas, fenugreek, lentils). Meat is not mentioned and probably represented a very small portion of the diet, except for the wealthiest people. For the working classes, animal proteins were rare and came from dairy foods, fowl, and fish.
These researchers expanded on this knowledge by performing isotope analysis of the remains of ancient humans and animals – their hair, teeth, and bones, “with the possibility of estimating the relative proportions of plants and animal proteins of terrestrial or aquatic origin.” Here were some of their findings:
- Wheat and barley were consumed more than sorghum and millet.
- Animal protein represented about 29% of the protein in the diet, “similar to that of 32% observed in present-day ovo-lacto-vegetarians, and lower than the average of 64% of present-day omnivores.”
- “Ancient Egyptians most likely consumed less protein of animal origin than do modern humans.”
- “Sulfur isotope ratios of mummy hairs further indicate that freshwater fish, such as the Nile perch, was not consumed in significant proportions.”
- Analysis of nitrogen isotopes indicated that chronic diseases were not apparent at death. High nitrogen isotope ratios point to a rapid death in an otherwise healthy individual.
- “The constancy of [these findings] over a duration of ∼3000 years [from 5500 to 2000 BP*] is striking considering the various political, technological, and cultural changes that impacted the Egyptian civilization during this time interval.
*According to Wikipedia, 5500 BP (Before Present) means 5500 years before 1950 CE (Common Era), which is 3550 BCE (Before Common Era). So, 2000 BP is 50 BCE. This work spans a period lasting about 3500 years, from 3550 BCE to 50 BCE.
So, the bulk of ancient Egyptians’ diets was grains, specifically wheat and barley. (No wonder they called gladiators “barley men.”) They also ate beans/peas/lentils and some vegetables. Interesting that fruit wasn’t mentioned. Animal foods were rare, even fish and dairy. Fats and oils did not make up a significant portion of the diet (e.g. olive oil was introduced during the Roman Period which occurred later in this study range).
The diet of ancient Egyptians described here is essentially the whole food, plant-based diet recommended by several contemporary physicians (McDougall, Campbell, Esselstyn, Barnard) and institutions (Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the country).
The tomb image is from an article by Alexander Hellemans, What Did Egyptians Really Eat?. The author includes a good discussion about how isotope analysis is done. He also includes a quote from an archeologist who said, “All this makes it a bit surprising that the isotopes should suggest that fish was not widely consumed,” since wall reliefs show spear and net fishing.