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Earliest case of scurvy found in ancient Egypt

It is a disease more commonly associated with sailors who spent months at sea during the golden age of exploration, but new research shows scurvy has afflicted humans for thousands of years.

Earliest case of scurvy found in ancient Egypt
The remains of a one-year-old child found in southern Egypt has been revealed to have been suffering from scurvy. Researchers believe it may be the earliest case of the disease to have been discovered. The child is thought 
to have lived around 5,800-5,600 years ago just as large scale agriculture was taking off in the area
[Credit: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities]
Archaeologists have found what may be the earliest case of the disease, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, in the remains of a one-year-old child discovered in Egypt.

The youngster is thought to have lived in a small village on the very edge of the first ancient Egyptian civilisation as it began to emerge between 5,800 and 5,600 years ago.

The discovery suggests the diet of people living at the time was poor, despite living in an area that was at the centre of the agricultural revolution.

At the time, the area was rich with fertile farmland and the ancient Egyptians are thought to be among the first people to practice agriculture on a large scale, playing a key role in the rise of the civilisation.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, Dr Maria Carmella Gatto, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, said the youngsters social status may also have played a role.

'While the cause of this infant's probable scorbutic state is unknown, various circumstances such as diet and cultural behaviours may have contributed to the condition, the researchers said.

'Given the current lack of evidence of scurvy from ancient Egyptian contexts, this case study informs on the antiquity of ascorbic acid deficiency in the Old World.'

The youngster's remains were found on the site of an ancient village known as Nag el-Qarmila in Aswan, Egypt. It is not know what gender the child was.

The child appears to have been buried with its knees drawn up towards its chest.

Analysis of the bones, however, revealed they were unusually porous, something often seen in victims of scurvy.

The researchers said that as the child would likely to have still been breastfeeding at this age, it is possible its mother was also malnourished and so unable to provide enough vitamin C for her child.

There was also some evidence the child had suffered bleeding as a result of the disease.

The researchers said: 'This is perhaps the first differentially diagnosed bioarchaeological example of scurvy in Egypt.'

In around 3800BC-3600BC, the region where the body was found would have been sat on the southern periphery of what would later become the Egyptian state.

Although the area is now largely desert, it is thought to have been covered in rich farmland at the time.

The researchers, which included anthropologists from St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, said other discoveries in the area have provided evidence that the inhabitants had a varied diet.

They would have lived on cereals grown in fields, livestock and by gathering wild fruits and tubers.

However, there is some evidence that they may have struggled to get enough vitamin C from their diet, particularly as the emerging hierarchy in ancient Egypt saw much of the produce from farming being taken by the elite.

Archaeologists in the past have found evidence in the area that suggests a flowing plant called Colocasia, or Tarul, was added to bread, wheat and barley to increase the vitamin C intake.

Nasr Salama, the general manager of Aswan's Archaeological Area at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, added that the discovery sheds light on a poorly understood period of the country's history.

Author: Richard Gray | Source: Daily Mail [January 22, 2016]

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