Mummies show anemia was common in ancient Egypt

A team of scientists has found that 33 percent of ancient Egyptian child mummies examined showed signs of anemia.
Georgina Jedikovska
A mummy in an opened casket.
Mummies of ancient Egyptian children showed a high incidence of anemia.


  • Anemia affects more than 1.8 billion people worldwide, and 39.8% of those affected are children.
  • Scientists have analyzed 21 mummies of ancient children, and seven of these were found to be anemic.
  • The findings could shed light on health, social and dietary issues in ancient Egypt - and today.

Anemia is a prevalent medical condition, affecting up to 30 percent of global population, according to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is commonly caused by malnutrition, chronic disease, and deficiencies in folate, iron, or vitamin B12.

Anemia results in the body lacking enough healthy red blood cells and healthy amounts of hemoglobin – the protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood.

Affected individuals often suffer fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and a rapid heartbeat.

Statistics reveal that nearly 30 percent of women aged between 15 and 29 suffered from anemia in 2019. Moreover, about 40 percent of children under the age of five were anemic the same year.

However, a study published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology has found that today’s youth are historically not the only ones to have struggled with the condition. It appears anemia was also quite widespread among ancient Egyptian children as well.

But how prevalent was anemia in ancient Egypt? To discover the answer, the scientists, led by Stephanie Panzer, PhD, a clinical radiologist and associate professor at Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria, analyzed 21 mummified remains of children held in German, Italian, and Swiss museums.

The mummies dated from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (third millennium B.C.) to the Roman period (fourth century A.D.). They had all died between the ages of one and 14 years old.

Mummies show anemia was common in ancient Egypt
One of the child mummies used in the study.

Looking for abnormalities

Using a method called whole-body computed tomography (CT) – a scanning technique which does not damage objects – the team thoroughly assessed the mummies’ skulls, as well as their arm and leg bones, for medical abnormalities.

They found that seven of the specimens (33 percent) showed signs of anemia, seen in their enlarged cranial vaults, the part of the skull that surrounds and protects the brain.

Mummies show anemia was common in ancient Egypt
CT scan of the head of one of the mummies, showing an enlarged cranial vault thickness.

However, in the case of one of the mummies, a one-year-old boy, the researchers were surprised to also detect excessive bone marrow tissue throughout the skull and bone structure. The boy was also found to have an elongated tongue.

His condition, today known as thalassemia, is an inherited disease that causes the body to produce less hemoglobin than normal. It can sometimes even lead to an appearance referred to as “chipmunk face” due to the abnormal growth of the cheekbones and tongue.

Although the condition can today be successfully treated with blood transfusions and chelation therapy, the disorder was most probably fatal for the child. According to the scientists, the one-year-old had probably endured severe anemia and skeletal deformities as a result of the bone marrow expansion.

The research team could not provide a clear reason for the apparently high occurrence of anemia at the time, but listed a number of possible causes that could have triggered its prevalence. Some of those include dietary deficiencies, inherited disorders and infections, all of which can lead to intestinal blood loss and poor absorption of nutrients.

They also suggested malaria as another potential risk factor for anemia, as it was relatively common in Ancient Egypt. This was confirmed when one of the species of parasite that causes malaria in humans, Plasmodium falciparum, was found in two 3,500-year-old mummies in a 2008 study.

Despite not being able to confirm if all of the children involved in the study died of anemia, or whether another condition contributed or led to the deaths of those with anemia, Dr. Panzer’s team is certain that the study will shed light on health issues, dietary conditions, and even societal standards in the ancient world.

Insights from the study 

Interesting Engineering (IE) made contact with Dr. Stephanie Panzer, the study’s corresponding author, for more insight into the research.

The following conversation has been slightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: When did you first start researching mummies?

Dr. Panzer: I started about 20 years ago after finishing my specialisation in clinical radiology. I was always interested in archaeology and I thought that it would be a challenge to transfer my clinical radiological experience to the field of paleoradiology.

IE: What was the current research focused on?

During the last years I was evaluating whole-body CT examinations of ancient Egyptian child mummies from European museums in collaboration with the co-authors of the current publication.

 IE: How did you determine the children had suffered anemia?

The team and I determined anemia by measuring the cranial vault thickness of the frontal bone using CT examinations. We found that seven out of the 21 children had an enlarged frontal cranial vault indicating anemia.

 IE: What would it have been like having anemia in ancient Egyptian society? How might the children have been treated?

Our study showed that there was a high prevalence of anemia in children (at the time of death of the children) in ancient Egypt. However, we only have a collection of 21 child mummies. At the moment we don’t know how or whether these children were treated.

IE: In your opinion, how different was having anemia at that time in comparison to now? 

Nowadays, anemia can be diagnosed and treated in most cases. In ancient Egypt this was not possible. Therefore, many children are assumed to have died due to anemia and its complications.

The findings were 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.