Ancient Egyptians Were Vegetarians: New Mummies Study

Did the ancient Egyptians eat like we do? If you are a vegetarian, thousands of years ago on the banks of the Nile you would have felt right at home.

In fact, eating large amounts of meat is a recent phenomenon. In ancient cultures, vegetarianism was much more common, with the exception of nomadic peoples. Most settled peoples ate fruits and vegetables.

Although sources have previously reported that the ancient Egyptians were mostly vegetarian, it was not possible until recent research to tell what proportion these or other foods were. Did they eat bread? Have you leaned on eggplant and garlic? Why didn’t they fish?

A French research team found that by examining the carbon atoms in the mummies of people who lived in Egypt between 3500 B.C. e. and 600 AD e., you can find out what they ate.

All carbon atoms in plants are obtained from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Carbon enters our body when we eat plants or animals that have eaten these plants.

The sixth lightest element in the periodic table, carbon, is found in nature as two stable isotopes: carbon-12 and carbon-13. Isotopes of the same element react in the same way but have slightly different atomic masses, with carbon-13 being slightly heavier than carbon-12. Plants are divided into two groups. The first group, C3, is most popular among plants such as garlic, eggplant, pears, lentils and wheat. The second, smaller group, C4, includes products such as millet and sorghum.

Common C3 plants take up less of the heavy carbon-13 isotope, while C4 take up more. By measuring the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, the difference between the two groups can be determined. If you eat a lot of C3 plants, the concentration of carbon-13 isotope in your body will be less than if you eat mostly C4 plants.

The mummies examined by the French team were the remains of 45 people who were taken to two museums in Lyon, France, in the 19th century. “We took a slightly different approach,” explains Alexandra Tuzo, lead researcher at the University of Lyon. “We have worked a lot with bones and teeth, while many researchers are studying hair, collagen and proteins. We also worked on multiple periods, studying several people from each period to cover a larger time span.”

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Archaeology. They measured the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 (as well as several other isotopes) in the bones, enamel, and hair of the remains and compared it to measurements in pigs that received a control diet of different proportions of C3 and C4. Because the pig’s metabolism is similar to that of humans, the isotope ratio was comparable to that found in mummies.

Hair absorbs more animal proteins than bones and teeth, and the ratio of isotopes in mummies’ hair matches that of modern European vegetarians, proving that the ancient Egyptians were mostly vegetarians. As is the case with many modern humans, their diet was based on wheat and oats. The main conclusion of the study was that group C4 grains such as millet and sorghum made up a minor part of the diet, less than 10 percent.

But surprising facts were also discovered.

“We found that the diet was consistent throughout. We expected changes,” says Tuzo. This shows that the ancient Egyptians adapted well to their environment as the Nile region became increasingly arid from 3500 BC. e. to 600 AD e.

For Kate Spence, an archaeologist and ancient Egyptian specialist at the University of Cambridge, this came as no surprise: “Although this area is very dry, they grew crops with irrigation systems, which is very efficient,” she says. When the water level in the Nile dropped, farmers moved closer to the river and continued to cultivate the land in the same way.

The real mystery is the fish. Most people would assume that the ancient Egyptians, who lived near the Nile, ate a lot of fish. However, despite significant cultural evidence, there was not much fish in their diet.

“There is a lot of evidence of fishing on Egyptian wall reliefs (both with a harpoon and a net), fish is also present in the documents. There is a wealth of archaeological evidence of fish consumption from places like Gaza and Amama,” says Spence, adding that some types of fish were not consumed for religious reasons. “It’s all a little surprising, since the isotope analysis shows that the fish weren’t very popular.”  


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