Anemia prevalence among ancient Egyptian child mummies revealed in new research

The death range was from one year to roughly 14 years.
Nergis Firtina
Child mummy skull.
Child mummy skull.

Panzer et al.  

A new study conducted on child mummies revealed that ancient Egyptian children were suffering from iron deficiency and poorly oxygenated blood before turning ten. The new study suggests that anemia was also common among children, which increased the likelihood of bone deformities and may have caused some children to pass away before their time.

According to IFL Science, researchers used a method known as whole-body computed tomography to study 21 Egyptian child mummies in order to ascertain the incidence of the condition. This made it possible for them to spot skeletal anomalies frequently linked to anemia.

Deaths ranged from one to roughly 14 years

The mummies were between one and 14 years old when they passed away. 33 percent of the ancient Egyptian children had pathologically enlarged cranial vaults, which suggested that they most likely had anemia.

Observing an overabundance of bone marrow across skull and face bones of one specimen , the researchers concluded that he most likely had thalassemia, a congenital disorder. The condition, which is caused by an inability to manufacture hemoglobin, can now be successfully treated with blood transfusions and chelation therapy.

It’s therefore little surprise that the unfortunate sprog lasted no more than a year and a half before descending to the underworld, with thalassemia being “the most probable cause of death.”

It could be Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome

The same person was discovered to have an exceptionally huge tongue. The researchers believe this could be evidence of another hereditary disorder known today as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which causes the growth of specific body organs.

Concerning the children who only suffered from anemia, the study authors speculate that the condition's prevalence may have been linked to risk factors "such as decreased iron intake due to malnutrition; chronic gastrointestinal blood loss and decreased absorption, both caused by parasites; and inflammation caused by chronic infections." However, the authors say that the real reason for the death of the children is still a mystery.

The study is published in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Study abstract:

The aim of this study was to investigate the prevalence of anemias in ancient Egyptian child mummies. Whole-body computed tomography (CT) examinations of 21 ancient Egyptian child mummies from European museums were evaluated for estimation of sex and age at death. CT examinations were systematically assessed for skeletal effects of anemias using a clinical radiological approach as well as quantitative measurements of the thickness of the cranial vault and diploe. Additionally, the technical feasibility to assess porotic hyperostosis on the available CT data was examined. Twelve children were assessed as male and seven as female, and in two, the sex was indeterminate. The estimated age at death ranged from about 1 year to 12–14 years. One case showed radiological signs of thalassemia (β-thalassemia major) at the cranial vault and postcranial skeleton. Additionally, this case had a macroglossia that probably indicated Beckwith–Wiedemann syndrome. Quantitative measurements confirmed a high variability of cranial vault thickness and diploe thickness. Compared with clinical reference values, seven out of the 21 (33%) child mummies had a pathological enlargement of the frontal cranial vault that represents a typical finding of chronic hemolytic anemia and iron deficiency anemia. Assessment of porotic hyperostosis was not feasible on the available CT examinations as the image quality was not sufficient for this examination. In conclusion, pathological enlargement of the frontal cranial vault as an indicator for chronic hemolytic anemia and iron deficiency anemia had a high prevalence, especially in the younger children. The mummy with radiological signs of thalassemia seems to be the first case with radiological evidence of skeletal effects of this anemia to the cranial vault and postcranial skeleton from ancient Egypt.

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