New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and reported in Live Science has shed light on the ancient Egyptian diet. By analysing the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD, the French research team were able to determine that ancient Egyptians were largely vegetarian.
The analysis was carried out on the remains of 45 ancient Egyptians that had been sent to two museums in Lyon, France during the 19 th century, and involved a cutting-edge technique involving the measurement of carbon ratios taken from bone, tooth enamel and hair.
We had an approach that was a little different,” explained Alexandra Touzeau, who led the research team at the University of Lyon. “We worked a lot with bones and teeth, while most researchers study hair, collagen and proteins. We also worked on many different periods, with not many individuals for each period, so we could cover a very long time span.
All carbon atoms are taken in by plants from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis. By eating plants, and the animals that had eaten plants, the carbon ends up in our bodies. Analysing this carbon can actually reveal what a person has eaten.
The results revealed that the ancient Egyptians were mainly vegetarian and their diet was primarily wheat- and barley-based. Cereals, such as millet and sorghum, formed a minor part of their diet (less than 10 per cent).
One of the most unusual discoveries was that there seems to have been little fish in their diet. Most people would probably expect the ancient Egyptians living along the Nile to have eaten a lot of fish, and archaeological excavations have found mummified fish in large quantities. However, at least in the 45 individuals studied, fish was not prominent in their diets.
“There is abundant evidence for fishing in Egyptian wall reliefs and models (both spear and net fishing), and fish shows up in offering lists. There is also a lot of archeological evidence for fish consumption from sites such as Gaza and Amama,” said Kate Spence, an archaeologist and specialist in ancient Egypt at the University of Cambridge in England. “All this makes it a bit surprising that the isotopes should suggest that fish was not widely consumed.”
In ancient cultures vegetarianism was much more common, except in nomadic populations, and eating meat was a development that occurred more recently.
Featured image: Ancient Egyptian wall painting depicting food and wine preparation. Image source .