The ills of ancient humans, traced in their bones and art, tells us how they lived and died and provides a link from their world to ours. …
Disease never seems to arise haphazardly. It usually reflects the circumstances of our lives. Tooth decay, tennis elbow, high blood pressure, cholesterol, are usually precise indicators of the things we do, use, eat or lack thereof. Even the dinosaurs developed arthritis from chronic stress and strain. The study of ancient disease and injury is called palaeopathology, and it has much to say about life in antiquity and in more recent times as well.
A disease that has always been rare, yet was occasionally portrayed in the ancient world, is acromegaly. It is a pituary abnormality that produces a thickened bulbous nose,coarse lips, prominent brow ridges, and great elongation of the jaw. The pharaoh Akhenaten is said to have had such a pituitary malfunction.
Later rulers of Egypt were also afflicted with acromegaly. From their portrait coins, as well as from the historical record, it is seen that for three hundred years this intensely inbred family repeatedly produced persons with this disorder. Ptolemy I Soter, the first of the line, had prominent low ridges, an enlarged nose and lips, and a heavy, jutting jaw, which were realistically produced on coins.
The queen of the land of Punt ( below) is surely suffering from something, but the diagnosis is not clear. This relief, found in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari depicts the reigning queen of a country that Hatshepsut visited around 1500 B.C. A reasonable guess is a congenital dislocation of the hips, a condition that causes protruding buttocks.
The disease depicted below is fairly straightforward. The Egyptian stela of the New Kingdom portrays a temple official named Ruma. The shriveling of his right leg was probably caused by polio. His disability did not prevent him from rising to high estate, and he performs his priestly duties with serenity.
Disease is humankind’s unwelcome companion. Surprisingly enough, in our great age of science and medical innovation, we are still heir to all the fleshly ills portrayed in ancient works of art, and to many of the diseases of our ancestors.