ancient mummy Egypt
Mummies can reveal what diseases ancient Egyptians had and what they died from. Istock

Ancient Egyptians may have suffered from modern-day diseases such as inflammation and cancer. This is what Egyptologists have said after analysing body samples from 4200-year-old mummies.

Egyptian mummies have helped archaeologists decode the secrets of one of the world's greatest ancient civilisations to a greater extent than any archaeological artefact or writings. Analysis of mummified remains have allowed researchers to better understand how Egyptians lived in the past, but it has also increased their knowledge of how they died too.

The recent study, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, identified a number of proteins linked to inflammation, infections and even cancer may have been common health issues faced by ancient Egyptians – eventually killing them.

Ancient proteins

The team, from Macquarie University, worked with three mummies from an era of Egyptian history known as the first intermediate period, some 4,200 years ago. It is a time that Egyptologists do not know much about, because evidence is sparse and sometimes contradictory, but some have pointed out it could have been a "Dark Age" of political unrest, fragile economy, mega-drought and famine.

The researchers performed a proteomics analysis on four skin and one muscle tissue sample – a systematic identification and quantification of the proteins present in the samples – investigating whether some diseases could have been more prevalent in this context. A total of 230 unique proteins were identified, including some that indicated the mummies had suffered from a range of painful conditions.

"We identified numerous proteins that provide evidence of activation of the innate immunity system in two of the mummies, one of which also contained proteins indicating severe tissue inflammation, possibly indicative of an infection that we can speculate may have been related to the cause of death," says one of the authors, Professor Paul Haynes from the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences.

The scientists also explain that a subset of proteins they have identified were strongly associated with bacterial infection in the lungs, which suggests that a bacterial pulmonary infection, such as tuberculosis, may have been a possible cause of death. Furthermore, the muscle sample revealed the presence of the two proteins - DMBT-1 and transglutaminase - which together can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Egyptians from more than 4,000 years ago may thus have another thing in common with modern people, suffering and dying from some of the diseases that affect us today.