H/T Harley for this article about Mummies’ clogged arteries take smoking, fatty foods, lethargy out of the mix.
CT scans of 137 ancient mummies from three continents show that our ancestors had plaque in their arteries, too, even though they never smoked, never tasted ice cream or pork rinds, and had no choice but to exercise vigorously every day of their lives.
According to the study, which appeared recently in the Lancet, at least one-third of the mummies, who lived as long as 5,000 years ago, had arteries that had narrowed as a result of atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty deposits in the arterial wall. Apparently the cardiovascular system has a tendency to clog up over time…
The diet of the mummies varied widely, but contained ample protein and vegetables (and presumably no cupcakes or pork rinds). Aside from the few Egyptian mummies who lived their lives as pampered royalty, these ancient people used their muscles constantly.
Yet, the atherosclerosis was found in mummies who died in what we today would consider middle age (almost none made it to 60). And just as today, their arteries became more narrow as they got older. CT scans of modern people have demonstrated that after the age of 60 for men and 70 for women, some degree of atherosclerosis is all but universal.
Well, unlike most of these mummies, I’ve made it to 65 years of age without anything much going wrong with me. I must have done something right.
What’s the difference between my life and that of an ancient Egyptian? They probably did indeed get lots of exercise, building pyramids and stuff – while I never get any. Not deliberate ‘exercise’ anyway. They lived in the freshest of fresh air, not a factory for a thousand miles, while I lived in one big industrial town or other for 30 years. They never smoked any tobacco at all, while I’ve been smoking for 45 years. They drank beer and wine, but most likely not the neat whisky that I knock back to send myself to sleep at night. And they probably ate a lot of fruit and vegetables, and fish (from the Nile), and eggs, and not very much meat. But my diet is relatively meat-intensive, usually accompanied with fairly token amounts of vegetables. It’s a meat-rich, fat-rich, sugar-rich, salt-rich, and chocolate-chip-cookie-rich. I usually prepare and cook my own food, but I’m not averse to fish ‘n’ chips from a chippie, or a Chinese or Indian takeaway. All I might add about my diet is that I don’t eat very much.
So those Egyptians ate more or less the perfect diet, and got plenty of exercise, and enjoyed lots of fresh air, and they were pretty well all dead by the age of 60. I do more or less the opposite, and I’m still going strong at 65.
The simple answer is that I’ve lived a largely idle, easy life – and that’s the sort of life that’s conducive to relative longevity. I’ve used public and private transport to travel around. I’ve used power tools to drill holes and saw things up. I live a Least Action life. I live a life that is in accord with Idle Theory‘s Survival of the Idlest. And this theory is very simple: living things that have to work hard to stay alive are likely to be outlived by ones that don’t. It applies to plants and animals, but also in human life. And in human life, economic growth entails reducing human work, and increasing human idleness. All our important innovations are ones which reduce human work. Like the cars and buses and planes that I use to travel around, instead of walking. Or the power tools that take the hard work out of cutting stuff up, or drilling holes in it. Or the piped water and gas and electricity that mean that I no longer need to head down to the village well with a bucket to get water, or chop wood every day for my fire. Even computers make doing mathematical calculations easier. Look at any piece of good design, and it tends to make life effortless.
And that’s why we’re all living longer. It probably doesn’t matter a damn what anyone eats or drinks or smokes.
As it happens, I have a library book that I’m reading right now about Ancient Egypt. It’s about the pharaoh who was probably the most illustrious pharaoh of them all. It’s called Ramesses II, by Joyce Tyldesley, and it’s a delightful book.
Ramesses II lived for over 90 years, and in the process outlived not only many of his children (he had about a hundred children from an almost equal number of wives), but also some of his grandchildren as well. But his mummified body reveals that he did not escape ill-health:
The old king’s face and neck were heavily lined – hardly surprising, given that he had lived for almost a century – and the undertakers had helpfully attempted to smooth out his wrinkles before bandaging his head. Ramesses had suffered badly from the indignities of prolonged Egyptian old age. The severe arthritis that affected his hip, and the arteriosclerosis in his lower limbs, would have caused circulatory problems, and would have prevented him from walking comfortably. Elliot Smith, without the benefit of X-ray analysis, described Ramesses teeth as ‘clean and in an excellent state of preservation: they were only slightly worn’. In fact, though well-spaced and properly aligned, the king’s teeth and gums were badly decayed, and, in his final years, must have caused him constant pain.
We may deduce from Ramesses’ very slightly worn teeth that he ate only the most well-refined foods of a kind that a modern health zealot would blanch at the sight of. And he probably didn’t cook for himself either. He almost certainly had a kitchen full of top Egyptian chefs that could knock up a quail-and-date consomme in next to no time.
And if the king couldn’t walk comfortably, it probably didn’t matter. He probably didn’t actually need to walk anywhere at all anyway, and would have been carried around in a litter. After all, he was pharaoh of Egypt at its illustrious height, so he probably didn’t have to lift a finger to do anything.
And he sired about 100 children. Which suggests that he wasn’t in the least bit a killjoy puritan. And what goes better with sex than alcohol (or various other drugs). And copious clouds of heady incense. And naked dancing girls. And music.
Piece it all together, and it certainly looks as if Ramesses II lived off the Egyptian equivalent of high quality gourmet food and drink, did next to no exercise, and had any number of slaves who did absolutely everything for him (most probably including spooning the quail-and-date consomme into his mouth). That is, after all, what slaves were for.
In short he was a precursor of the modern lard-arse who sits on his sofa eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and drinking lager and watching porn.
And he lived to be over 90. And he lived to over 90 because his was the easiest life of anybody’s in Egypt. And if his sons and grandsons pre-deceased him it was because they were being sent off to fight wars, or build temples, and generally wear themselves out before their time. Ramesses got everyone else to do everything, and then took all the credit for it himself, by engraving his achievements on every piece of stone he could lay his hands on (or rather that his servants could lay their hands on).
The book includes glimpses of life at the other end of Egyptian society. From the Anastasi Papyrus:
“Come let me tell you the woes of the soldier… He is called up to go to Syria. He is not permitted to rest. There are no clothes and no sandals. The weapons of war are assembled at the fortress of Sile. He has to march uphill through the mountains. He drinks water only every third day, and then it is tainted and smells of salt. His body is racked with sickness. The enemy comes and surrounds him with weapons, and life ebbs away from him… When the army is victorious, the captives are handed over to pharaoh, and must be escorted to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; the soldier is forced to support her. While he is supporting the woman he drops his pack and it is stolen. His own wife and children are back home in the village; he dies and does not reach it. If he survives he is worn out through marching….”
Not an easy life at all. In fact, it’s a life of unremitting hard work. Lots of exercise. Not much food. Probably no alcohol at all. Just the ticket for a modern health zealot.
Anyway, faced with the evidence that people who didn’t smoke, and got plenty of exercise and fresh air, nevertheless suffered from atherosclerosis, and were mostly dead by the age of 60, what does Dr. Donald LaVan, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, have to say?
Above all, don’t smoke, says LaVan, and engage in regular physical activity.