Question
Asked 9th Jul, 2016

Was Obesity Prevalent in Ancient Egypt?

Dear Scientists,
We doing research  ''Was Obesity Prevalent in Ancient Egypt''? In a time with no machinery, no sedentary life ( pyramids took about 30 years to be  built,  and no famous fast food resturants). Also plenty of fruits and vegetables, and bread high in fiber.  We have got little evidence of the presence of obesity in ancient Egypt even the mummy of Hatshepsut that claimed to have  obesity and diabetes was not the queen's but  it was KV20 ( a foster mother that hired  for breast feeding to babies). I would like to share your knowledge and experience with references.
Thank you for sharing
Aly R Abdel-Moemin

Most recent answer

29th Sep, 2019
Nirmala S.V.S.G
Narayana Dental College and Hospital
I agree with Daniela Assimiti
1 Recommendation

Popular answers (1)

14th Jul, 2016
Teresa Moore
University of California, Berkeley
Senior officials were sometimes portrayed with extra rolls of fat, showing that they were successful, had access to plenty of food, and did not have to engage in physical labor.  See the statue of Hemiunu, for example, from the time of Khufu; the sculptor was very accurate in showing his double chin, heavy shoulders, and the fat around his middle--a back view of the statue is particularly impressive, as pointed out by Edna Russmann!  Similarly, in the Old Kingdom tomb of Qar and Idu, one of these men is shown in his slender, youthful phase and also--a different aspect of the same person--as an overweight middle-aged man.  In fact, some officials may have been portrayed with a bit of extra weight simply as a marker of their eminence, not necessarily reflecting their real appearance.
Also, a number of mummies of upper-class New Kingdom individuals, both male and female, indicate that these people were well-nourished and probably not very physically active.  One of the early 18th Dynasty princesses was described as having been quite heavy (although that description was from Eliot Smith's catalogue and relied on visual examination only--it's not always straightforward to draw conclusions about a person's weight from the appearance of his or her mummy).  Some mummies show evidence of physical conditions, such as arterial disease, often related to overweight and a rich diet.  If they were members of high-ranking priestly families, they would have been able to feast on large amounts of meat, pastries, and so forth.  (The temple of Karnak had a pastry chef on the staff.)
On the other hand, the Spanish team working at Aswan has found that even members of elite families sometimes show evidence that they had survived periods of inadequate nutrition.
3 Recommendations

All Answers (30)

9th Jul, 2016
Anthony G Gordon
Independent Researcher
There must be thousands of pictures of Egyptians in tombs, and I don't remember any showing obesity.   I suspect the same applies to other ancient civilizations.
1 Recommendation
9th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Anthony G Gordon,
It was claimed that these pictures are not represent the reality and artists try to make the best figure at that time ? do you think is that true?
Kind regards
Aly
10th Jul, 2016
Anthony G Gordon
Independent Researcher
"It was claimed that these pictures are not represent the reality and artists try to make the best figure at that time ? do you think is that true?"
I am no expert on Ancient Egypt, but this objection seems nonsense to me.  It might be relevant on occasion to portraits of royalty or important persons, but surely totally irrelevant to pictures of farmers, soldiers, etc.   Those who offended Henry VIII of England were prone to lose their heads, yet his portraits accurately showed increasing obesity, confirmed by his armour on display in the Tower of London.  
1 Recommendation
11th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Anthony G Gordon,
Thank you for supporting my question.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
13th Jul, 2016
Tadesse Fikre Teferra
Hawassa University
Given that there were no excess caloric intakes and there were no simple machines used by many people, making them physically active, It does not seem likely that obesity existed in the ancient civilizations. The other point that makes it unlikely is that the kinds of foods people ate those days were more of wholesome and not refined calorie rich nutrients carbs, proteins and fats as well as sugars have dominated in the diet.   
14th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Dr Tadesse Fikre Teferra,
Thank you for sharing the question.
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
14th Jul, 2016
John G Beavis
University of Auckland
Dear Aly R Abdel-Moemin,
You are quite right that artists in Ancient Egypt by and large portrayed people in a good light.  The portrayals were stylistic but nevertheless, based on the artistic evidence, I suggest that obesity was not prevalent in Ancient Egypt. You mention Hatshepsut and if one considers the way in which the Queen of Punt is depicted on Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri, it would seem that if there were obese people in Egypt at that time then somewhere there would be similar portrayals of obese Egyptians. There are not any such portrayals (at least as far as I am aware), and thus - based on the artistic record - it is not likely that obesity was prevalent.
Kind regards,
John G Beavis
2 Recommendations
14th Jul, 2016
Anthony G Gordon
Independent Researcher
Some very old obese stone figures have been found in Europe.   I am not aware of any satisfactory explanation for these.
1 Recommendation
14th Jul, 2016
Teresa Moore
University of California, Berkeley
Senior officials were sometimes portrayed with extra rolls of fat, showing that they were successful, had access to plenty of food, and did not have to engage in physical labor.  See the statue of Hemiunu, for example, from the time of Khufu; the sculptor was very accurate in showing his double chin, heavy shoulders, and the fat around his middle--a back view of the statue is particularly impressive, as pointed out by Edna Russmann!  Similarly, in the Old Kingdom tomb of Qar and Idu, one of these men is shown in his slender, youthful phase and also--a different aspect of the same person--as an overweight middle-aged man.  In fact, some officials may have been portrayed with a bit of extra weight simply as a marker of their eminence, not necessarily reflecting their real appearance.
Also, a number of mummies of upper-class New Kingdom individuals, both male and female, indicate that these people were well-nourished and probably not very physically active.  One of the early 18th Dynasty princesses was described as having been quite heavy (although that description was from Eliot Smith's catalogue and relied on visual examination only--it's not always straightforward to draw conclusions about a person's weight from the appearance of his or her mummy).  Some mummies show evidence of physical conditions, such as arterial disease, often related to overweight and a rich diet.  If they were members of high-ranking priestly families, they would have been able to feast on large amounts of meat, pastries, and so forth.  (The temple of Karnak had a pastry chef on the staff.)
On the other hand, the Spanish team working at Aswan has found that even members of elite families sometimes show evidence that they had survived periods of inadequate nutrition.
3 Recommendations
14th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Teresa Moore,
Interesting, so we can not depend on how Egyptian portrayed because that may have  an economical and political dimension.  So how your feelings tells about the presence of obesity in ancient Egypt.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
14th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear John G Beavis,
Thank you for your conclusion.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
15th Jul, 2016
Teresa Moore
University of California, Berkeley
Dear Dr. Abdel-Moemin,
I've checked Smith's catalogue and have found that it was "Anhapou" (CGC 61053) or Inhapy (or Tenthapy) whom the anatomist described as a "very stout young woman at the time of her death."  The comment about the difficult of judging a person's physique from his or her mummy was from Dunand and Lichtenberg, Mummies and Death in Egypt (English translation, Cornell University Press, 2006): unfortunately, I can't find the exact page reference.
In Tomb G7102, a rotund Idu appears in a niche, awaiting offerings; and on the jambs of the offering room, he is shown on one side as a slender young man, and on the other as a corpulent middle-aged official. 
I believe that it was Queen Ahmose-Meritamun who was found to have had arterial disease; this was reported several years ago but I'm not sure that the research has been published in a scientific journal.  Of course, one can have arterial disease without being obese!
Your comment about the identification of the mummies from KV60 is interesting.  Has there been further scientific work carried out on them?
Regards,
Teresa Moore
2 Recommendations
15th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
 Dear Teresa Moore,
Interesting and very nice thread.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
15th Jul, 2016
Lizz Robinson
Everhart Museum
In my studies thus far, the most likely candidates for obesity would be those associated with the royals and the royals themselves. Sweet treats, fatty foods/meats were included as part of their diet while the working man's diet contained mostly grains and vegetables. Because of the availability of sweets, it is also the royals who suffered from cavities rather than non-royals.
The portrayals of ancient Egyptians in art are all aimed at presenting themselves in top physical condition no matter their age so Egyptian art is not representative of the fitness of the people as a whole. However, important officials were sometimes portrayed as being large but this was meant to symbolize their prestige and wealth.
2 Recommendations
17th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Lizz Robinson,
Thank you for sharing. It is nice that people from different background to share.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
17th Jul, 2016
Manal K Abdel-Rahman
Helwan University-Faculty of Home Economics
Dear Aly,
Obesity was rare in the ancient Egypt, however  the report of Zahi Hawass on The mummy of Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut that was  displayed at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 27, 2007. He announced that the mummy of an elderly female from tomb KV60 in the Valley of the Kings was surely Hatshepsut, female pharaoh of Egypt in the 15th century B.C.
 It is true that obesity and metabolic syndrome is increasing in prevalence due to the increasing sedentry lifestyle, more fat consumed in diet, busy lifestyles (so dependece on junk food), easier transportation etc
Back in the ancient times, all those things were relatively less so it makes sense that obesity was much less.
But we need to think in a more detailed manner. The kings and rich people in ancient Egypt were very pampered, often over-ate, and enjoyed a rich diet...so I think that perhaps among the richer people obesity was prevalent.  
Best regards
Manal K Abdel-Rahman
1 Recommendation
17th Jul, 2016
Teresa Moore
University of California, Berkeley
I've checked for the statue of Hemiunu, mentioned above.  It's now in the Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, and is featured on the museum's website, here:
Edna Russman pointed out that the back view of the statue shows that the sculptor had a thorough understanding of the anatomy of a heavy, middle-aged man.  I don't have a citation for this remark; I think I may be remembering a lecture given by Dr. Russmann some years ago.
Hemiunu's brother, Prince Kawab, is likewise represented as a overweight dignitary in the chapel of his daugher, Queen Meresankh III, at Giza.
As far as evidence from mummies is concerned, I've remembered another reference that might interest you.  This is from Ambrose Lansing and William C. Hayes, "The Museum's Excavations at Thebes," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 32:1 (January 1937):  4-39.  In a description of the mummy of Hatnofer, the mother of Senenmut, the authors claim that she was "distinctly fat," although delicately built.  She died at a relatively advanced age (around sixty, having outlived her husband, Ramose, by more than two decades). 
2 Recommendations
18th Jul, 2016
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Dear Teresa Moore,
Thank you for your answer; the link and suggested reference.  I have looked at the statue of  Hemiunu through the website you suggested. I tell you my thoughts, his breasts are unusual round and similar to a woman, if you covered his eyes probably people  think she not he. However, with experience in living in Egypt we have similar people with this type of shape. This  extra or unusual top fat  may indicate to economic and political dimension.
Best regards
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Deleted profile
One factor not mentioned here is the climate; Egypt is hot, and they had no ACs. I suspect the heat makes one use more energy, especially while working but even at rest.
20th Jul, 2016
Manal K Abdel-Rahman
Helwan University-Faculty of Home Economics
Dear Aly and participants,
Herodotus once wrote, "the Colchians are Egyptians ... on the fact that they are black-skinned and have wooly hair" (Histories Book 2:104). The language her is giving you the figure of Egyptian in the daily life in that era and clear mention to the slimness of Egyptian. 
 Most ancient Egyptians were farmers tied to the land. So we need to think how much energy expenditure for farmers.  See along the Nile in the tenth millennium B.C.E., a grain-grinding culture using the earliest type of sickle blades, cultivation, and grinding grain take lots of calories for ancient males and females. That usually men for agriculture and ladies for grinding think about the energy expenditure.
If this a case for layman in ancient Egypt, what about royal families?
If we claim that Royal families may be obese, this is ridiculous deduction why I have 2 evidences that prove kings are the fittest. Kings usually participate in the wars against Egyptian enemies that found drawn on walls, in the case if we claim that Egyptian artists do ideal drawing for royal family OK  I have another strong evidence for the kings were the fittest and kings participate in the wars Quran said "We brought the Children of Israel across the sea and Pharaoh and his troops pursued them out of tyranny and enmity. How the pharaoh went to the war with obesity.
Best regards
Manal K Abdel-Rahman
1 Recommendation
22nd Aug, 2016
Daniela Assimiti
California Prep International School
I just  noticed  this  question  posted  and    became  suddenly  interested -  as , for  long  time ,  we (  as  kids  and  youth ) ,  were  somehow  always passionate  about  history  and  especially  the  Ancient  Egypt's  one !                                                                  That   topic  about  obesity  now , seems  to  be  indeed  a  very  interesting   research  project you  are  working  on  ,  Aly  and  team !   Congratulations  for  the  idea  !  Indeed ,  there's  so  much  to  find  out  ,  and  so  much  to apply  from  the  ancient  times  model  to  the  contemporary  times ! 
Keep  it  up ! 
Best  regards , 
Daniela 
P.S.   In my  humble  opinion  yes  ,  maybe  "prevalent"  is  indeed  the  right  word but not  correctly  applicable if  referring  to  the Ancient  Egypt  society  in  general only , because for  sure  with  the  kind  of  diet  and  lifestyle  they  couldn't  have  obesity .  I  believe  however  that -  as  some others  referred to  in  the  previous  notes -  if  we  consider  instead only  the  lifestyle  of  the  upper  classes , most  probably  obesity  for  sure was as prevalent   in  those  times as in  the  present  times   ...  
1 Recommendation
2nd Aug, 2017
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
 Probably among kings and royals not laymen
2nd Aug, 2017
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Yes heat/climate  may affect on both energy expenditure and appetite. It is interesting to say that Ancient Egyptian have their way to to condition the place.  I was amazed when visited a great pyramid and found the temperature outside the pyramid was 38 Celsius or more while inside the pyramid is 28 Celsius.  Also the architecture in Ancient Egypt is different than now that facilitate good ventilation for example houses are built form certain stones and mud not cement, rounds also are in somewhere of building and road design  make things different to deal with heat. Interestingly the climate was also different in Ancient Egypt than now and raining was much more as well. It is  thought that palm oil trees were cultivated in ancient Egypt that need much raining that could not be cultivated in Egypt nowadays.  
1 Recommendation
25th Oct, 2017
Ibtisam Sahib Al-Zuwaini
University of Babylon
A wonderful question and so forth
1 Recommendation
18th May, 2019
Arvind Singh
Banaras Hindu University
2 Recommendations
18th May, 2019
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Thank you Dr ibtisam for considering our question
18th May, 2019
Aly R Abdel-Moemin
Helwan University
Thank you Dr @Arvind for participation and provide us with the link. I had a quick look at the paper provided but did not find the answer. Also there is no statistics about predominant obesity from different ages mentioned in the paper.
Best regards
Aly
18th May, 2019
Suparna Roy
Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science
Interesting discussion. Following
3 Recommendations
29th Sep, 2019
Nirmala S.V.S.G
Narayana Dental College and Hospital
I agree with Daniela Assimiti
1 Recommendation

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