Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
There’s something mystical and wonderful about Ancient Egypt. It is one of the first historical eras that really captured my imagination as a child. In many ways, I think this mystique surrounding the era is due more to the fact that there is so many gaps in our understanding and knowledge of this great civilization. What we primarily associate with Egypt is the remains of a long-dead civilization, which for the most part are associated with the dead. When facing the question of what they ate and how they lived on a day to day basis- I find myself turning towards inscriptions and paintings in tombs, thinking about the different types of grave offerings of food that they received after death. I can remember distinctly paintings within pharaoh’s tombs of cereals and fruits being gathered by the lower classes, hunting of exotic animals, large jugs of beer and wine. This is a biased depiction however, as these were paintings done for the elite to represent an idealized life- not true to life depictions of how the majority subsisted- for that, we need to examine the remains of the people themselves.
A new study by Touzeau et al. 2014 uses stable isotope analysis of various human tissue in order to better understand diet among the Egyptians (For a quick overview of stable isotope analysis, check out my post on what the Mongolians ate). By combining these scientific studies with evidence from paintings and inscriptions, as well as analyses of food remains themselves, they believe they will be able to more accurately understand the Egyptian diet. Their study included samples of human hair, enamel, and bone collected from Egyptian mummiﬁed heads and Predynastic individuals found in the collection at the Musée des Conﬂuences, Lyon, France. Many of the heads found within this collection have the location they were found in as well as era they date to attached to them. Only individuals with this data were included in the study. Previous study of the collection found that all individuals were under 40 years, and were of the middle class- providing a different perspective from what paintings and inscriptions usually offer. There was variable preservation among the individuals, the majority consisted of only bone, but a number also had teeth and hair available for sampling.
Domesticated animals from Egyptian painting, via Flickr user believe creative
The total sample consisted of 43 human heads, as well as a sample from various animals as a comparative, including scales from the Nile perch, hairs from cats, dogs, rodents, and gazelles, and bird feathers. Using the combined evidence from the stable isotope analysis and broader archaeological and archival research, they were able to better understand diet. Archaeological evidence points to the Egyptians primarily eating local crops and meat, as the land around the Nile was fertile enough to allow them to create surplus as well as trade food products. Strontium analysis of human remains from this period further supports that most individuals that lived in Egypt ate primarily what grew in Egypt. Based on the ratios of isotopes, Touzeau et al. 2014 argue that the middle class Egyptians subsisted primarily on a ovo-lacto vegetarian diet: this means that they ate primarily plants, fruits, vegetables, as well as animal byproduct such as milk and cheese. Meat consumption made around 20% of their diet, although in some it was as high as 50%. However, in contrast with modern omnivores (i.e. us!) where are diet is 64% meat, they are more heavily vegetarian even at their highest percentage.
What I found really interesting about this study was not the diet of the Egyptians, but rather what the ratios of the stable isotopes told them when they questioned the results. Usually in these types of studies, the stable isotope ratio will be determined and based on that they will tell you the diet of the person. Here however, they do a magnificent job of questioning the outcomes of the ratios and how they may be related to other factors. For example, usually a difference in C13 between early forming teeth, and bone and later forming teeth, is attributed to the change in diet associated with weaning. However, here they are questioning whether this difference is also related to formation processes of the different structures of teeth and bone in addition to the changes between childhood and adulthood. Another example is that they attribute the Nitrogen levels to aridity rather than differences in seafood consumption.
There’s a world of interpretations out there that stable isotope analysis can reveal to us, and personally I like that there are more nuances to this type of evidence than we’ve previously seen. By carefully assessing stable isotope analysis in hair, teeth and bone we can learn about diet from infancy to adulthood, about life course changes, and the climate which their food was processed in. Pretty cool stuff!
Touzeau, A., Amiot, R., Blichert-Toft, J., Flandrois, J., Fourel, F., Grossi, V., Martineau, F., Richardin, P., & Lécuyer, C. (2014). Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics Journal of Archaeological Science, 46, 114-124 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.03.005