Ancient Egyptian Diseases: Oldest Case of Scurvy?

Infant skeleton sheds light on ancient Egyptian diseases


ANCIENT EGYPTIAN DISEASES: A nearly 6,000-year-old infant skeleton uncovered at the ancient settlement of Nag el-Qarmila in Egypt may provide the earliest attested evidence of scurvy. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities/Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project.

Despite its notoriety as a historical disease commonly associated with sailors, scurvy—a nutritional deficiency disease caused by a severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid)—is still present in developed countries. For example, it was recently reported that a baby in Spain developed scurvy, possibly due to an almond milk-only diet.

How long has scurvy been around? According to a new study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, the skeleton of an infant from the ancient Egyptian settlement of Nag el-Qarmila (c. 3800–3600 B.C.E.) may provide the earliest attested evidence of scurvy, thus helping researchers better understand ancient Egyptian diseases.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

Bioarchaeologists Mindy Pitre and Robert Stark examined the skeleton of an infant who was about one year old. The researchers observed that the infant suffered from a deficiency in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), as demonstrated by tell-tale changes to different parts of the skeleton.

“While the cause of this infant’s probable scorbutic [i.e., related to scurvy] state is unknown, various circumstances such as diet and cultural behaviors may have contributed to the condition,” the researchers said in their study. “Given the current lack of evidence of scurvy from ancient Egyptian contexts, this case study informs on the antiquity of ascorbic acid deficiency in the Old World.”

The infant had been discovered during excavations at the Predynastic settlement of Nag el-Qarmila by the Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project, directed by Maria Carmela Gatto and Antonio Curci.


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