The governors of Ancient Egypt suffered from malnutrition and infectious diseases, dying before they were 30 years old

Researchers from the universities of Granada and Jaen take part in the excavation of the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis, in the Egyptian region of Aswan. After analysing more than 200 mummies and skeletons found in tomb no. 33, they have come to the conclusion that not even the chief governors lived in such good conditions as was thought up to now.

The governors of Ancient Egypt suffered from malnutrition and infectious diseases, dying before they were 30 years oldThe ancient Egyptians were not surrounded by such opulence as was thought up to now, but, rather, suffered from hunger and malnutrition, a whole range of infectious diseases and an extremely high infant mortality rate.

The tomb was constructed during the 12th Dynasty (1939-1760 BC), to house the corpse of one of the region of Aswan’s leading dignitaries, whose identity is still unknown. The site was later re-used at least three times (18th, 22nd and 27th Dynasties), i and is one of the largest in the necropolis and has huge archaeological potential, since it houses at least one chamber that remains intact, containing three decorated wooden sarcophagi.

Scientists from the UGR’s Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, the director of which is Professor Miguel Botella Lopez, have just returned from Egypt. They have been taking part in the field work to carry out the anthropological analysis of the bones of the mummies unearthed in the excavation, as well as calculating the number of individuals belonging to the more recent occupations of the tomb (New Kingdom, 3rd Intermediate Period and Late Dynastic Period). The initial results of their work have led to some very interesting conclusions and have revealed new data not only about the ancient Egyptians physical characteristics, but also about the living conditions at that time. As Professor Botella explains, “although the cultural level of the age was extraordinary, the anthropological analysis of the human  remains reveals the population in general and the governors – the highest social class – lived in conditions in which their health was very precarious and on the edge of survival”.

According to the UGR anthropologists, life expectancy barely reached 30, “since they suffered from many problems of mal- nutrition and severe gastrointestinal disorders, due to drinking the polluted waters of the Nile”. This is revealed by the fact that the bones of the children had no marks on them, “which demonstrates that they died from some serious infectious disease”. Furthermore, the researchers have unearthed in the tomb a large number of mummies belonging to young adults of between 17 and 25 years old.

First mention of the pygmies
Miguel Botella points out that the tombs of the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis contain inscriptions that are “of great historical importance, not only for Egypt, but for the whole of Humanity”. Thus, in the tomb of Governor Herjuf (2200 BC), the inscriptions describe the three journeys he made to central Africa, during one of which he brought back a pygmy; this is supposedly the oldest mention made of this ethnic group. Other inscriptions tell of Egypt’s relations with the neighbouring region of Nubia (present-day Sudan) over a period of almost 1000 years. For this reason, Qubbet el-Hawa is one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, not only due to the discoveries already made, but also for the amount of information it contains about health and illness, and intercultural relations in ancient times.

For more information on the Qubbet el-Hawa project, go to:

Image Credit:
Different human types found in the excavation. The left hand cranium belongs to an individual of average characteristics, almost Mediterranean (white). The cranium on the right is from a robust negroid individual, a Nubian of the time (approx. 1750 BC).