A recent study examined child mummies in European museums and found that anemia was prevalent among them. Through non-invasive computed tomography (CT) scans, researchers were able to detect signs of anemia in one-third of the mummies and evidence of thalassemia in one case. This suggests that anemia was a common health problem in ancient Egypt, likely caused by malnutrition, parasitic infections, and genetic disorders that still exist today.
Although researchers have previously speculated that Tutankhamun died of sickle cell disease, direct evidence of anemia in ancient human remains is rare. As child mummies were more likely to show signs of anemia than adult mummies due to their early death, the study focused on them. However, it was unclear whether anemia played a role in each child’s death, but it was likely a contributing factor. By analyzing ancient human remains, scientists can gather more information about the health problems that existed in the past. While it’s not possible to remove the wrappings used in mummification, modern technology allows researchers to see inside them using CT scans.
CT scans can detect anemia in mummies by examining the bones, which produce red blood cells in the bone marrow. However, the quality of CT scans can be reduced by the density of preserved tissue and embalming, making it difficult to assess bone porosity and thinness. In their study of 21 child mummies from German, Italian, and Swiss museums, the researchers found evidence of anemia in seven of them, characterized by an enlarged frontal cranial vault. One child, known as case 2, showed bone changes indicative of thalassemia, a genetic disease that causes the body to produce insufficient hemoglobin. This child likely died from anemia within a year and a half of birth, and also had a larger-than-normal tongue, indicating Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome. The mummies ranged in age from 1 to 14 years old and lived during various periods, including the Old Kingdom and the Roman Periods. While this study contributes to our understanding of the health problems in ancient Egypt, it is limited in scope.