Stop Mummy Abuse


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It's bad enough that I'm dead

It's unfortunate that well-meaning health bloggers and personalities have joined grave robbers around the world in misusing mummies, particularly since there aren't a lot of them. It's clear they had some pretty tough lives and in death they are being paraded around to debunk various popular diets. If you think high-protein diets are bad, you have a tiny selection of Siberian, Aleut, and Eskimo mummies to defame. If you think grains are evil, you have a nice selection of Egyptian mummies with a few bog and ice mummies from various agrarian settlements thrown in. 

But if these diets are all so horrible, why do mummies from diverse places all seem to have atherosclerosis? And the other problems commonly represented in mummies, osteoporosis and cavities, don't seem to track with particular diets at all. For example, caries are present in Aleut mummies AND copper-age grain-eaters like Otzi. Osteoporosis is present in some Eskimo mummies, but also low-fat grain-eaters from South America. With sample sizes so low and the same problems present in all kinds of populations, I'd think nutrition geeks would be happy to leave mummies alone.

But tragically, mummy abuse is rampant in the nutritional community. I recently saw a anti-paleo vegan Youtube Series that used the poor Eskimo mummies to say "What we see here are effectively long-term studies of an animal-based Wise Traditions diet and the results are not pretty." (Credit to Cordain for first abusing these particular mummies). 

Yikes, that's one sad little study, but it's not just vegans who mistreat our poor mummy friends. Dr. Eades has written quite a bit on Egyptian mummies. While  I agree it's quite hilarious that their low-fat diet didn't do much for them, I'm not sure there are a reason to throw out the kamut just yet. 

You see, while mummies are great for understanding how people lived in the past, they aren't great tools for shooting down diets. There aren't very many of them and their health problems weren't all caused by their diets anyway. An excellent book if you are interested in mummies is Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures, which includes an excellent survey of various mummies and what modern science can tell us about their health problems. Like the original scientists who studied the Eskimo mummies, this text concludes that their methods of heating and cooking were extremely detrimental to their health: "The winter houses were semisubterranean with a tunnel entrance and heated by small seal oil lamps. The hot air in the house would not sink into the tunnel when the door, in the floor of the house, was opened. This effect also trapped smoke in the house. In addition it was the duty of the women to trim the lamp at night; sleeping next to the lamp increased the exposure to smoke, resulting in severe anthracosis* at an early age and lung damage, including bronchiectasis and emphysema."

So their cooking and heating practices were the equivalent of working in a coal mine and definitely worse than smoking modern cigarettes (which almost always have a  filter). Needless to say, this is not good for your lungs, heart, or bones. Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating fires remains a major health problem in developing countries. If anything, these mummies are an excellent reason to me to be thankful for my gas stove and radiator heating during this cold December. And a reminder that things like lung and heart problems are not diseases of civilization. 

For the other mummies, in the age of modern dentistry and antibiotics, it's easy to underestimate the contribution of dental disease and infection to atherosclerosis. It's also easy to overestimate the certainty of paleopathology, which can be quite controversial:

The development of vascular calcification is related not only to atherosclerosis.4​ Other conditions may lead to the formation of such lesions, including aging, diabetes, disorders of calcium-phosphorus metabolism, chronic microinflammation, hyperhomocysteinemia, and chronic renal insufficiency.3 Moreover, given the poor state of preservation of the organic tissues, a differential diagnosis for the findings should include parasitic calcifications in lymphatic vessels (particularly from filariasis).

Conclusion on Mummies:

Relevance to your health: low

Chance of being haunted by vengeful undead: high

*= AKA "black lung"