Image: Mummy
Dakhleh Oasis Project
This mummy was discovered in Dakhleh Oasis, a remote outpost in southwest Egypt. He lived around 1,800 years ago, at a time when the Romans occupied Egypt; he died when he was 20-25 years old. Although much of the mummy remains are lost, the area around the lungs, where particulates were found, is well preserved.
By
updated 6/5/2011 2:04:36 PM ET 2011-06-05T18:04:36

Ancient Egyptians may have been exposed to air pollution way back when, according to new evidence of particulates in the lungs of 15 mummies, including noblemen and priests.

Particulates, tiny microscopic particles that irritate the lungs, have been linked to a wide array of modern-day illnesses, including heart disease, lung ailments and cancer. The particulates are typically linked to post-industrial activities, such as fossil-fuel burning.

But after hearing of reports of such particulates being found in mummy tissue, Roger Montgomerie, a doctoral student at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, decided to take a closer look at mummified lung tissue. His work represents the first attempt to identify and study particulates in multiple Egyptian mummies. [ Gallery: Scanning Mummies for Heart Disease ]

The 15 mummified lungs he's examined so far all showed particulates and the levels of them are not much below what he'd expect in modern-day lungs.

"I would say it would be less than modern day, but not much less," Montgomerie told LiveScience. This is "quite bizarre if you think about it, considering we have the mass burning of fossil fuels and an awful lot of pollution that has been going on since the industrial revolution."

In the world of Egyptology, where well-preserved lung tissue is rare, and permission to examine it is rarer still, 15 is a significant sample, Montgomerie said.

All walks of life
These mummies come from a broad cross section of Egyptian life. Some were ordinary workers who lived in a remote outpost called the Dakhleh Oasis, while others were of the upper class — nobles and priests or priestesses.

"Everyone seems to have a degree of it," Montgomerie said of the particulates, "it doesn't seem to be confined to one social group."

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

The finding suggests the ancient Egyptians may have suffered from a wide range of negative health effects. [Egyptian Mummy Shows Earliest Case of Heart Disease]

"It would definitely increase your chances of getting a lung infection and also probably increase your chances of something like pneumonia as well," Montgomerie said.

Lung disease has been detected before in Egyptian mummies. One notable case was documented in the 1970s by Eddie Tapp, also from the University of Manchester.

Tapp examined the lungs of a 3,800-year old-mummy named Nekht-ankh. Although this person lived to be nearly 60, his lungs were in bad shape and he may have had trouble breathing, Tapp found.

"The lung tissue appeared to be damaged and to contain a good deal of scarring," Tapp wrote in the book "The Manchester Mummy Project" (Manchester University Press, 1979). "Amongst the fibrous tissue were several aggregations of fine particles."

Ancient air pollution
The question now facing researchers is why were particulates so prevalent in Egyptian society?

While ancient Egypt was a preindustrial society, its people did engage in cooking, metal working and mining, all activities that can generate air pollution. In addition, the Egyptian climate, with its deserts and sandstorms, would have whipped up any grounded particulates into the air where they could easily be inhaled.

Now, Montgomerie has devised an experiment that he hopes will shed light on the origin of these tiny particles.

He is burning different sources of fuel used by the Egyptians and capturing the particulates they create. "What I can do is go back to the ancient soot, from the ancient lung tissue, and compare the two."

In addition, he is gathering sand from archaeological sites in Egypt and comparing them to sandy particulates found in the lungs. He said that sand from the desert is eroded and should be "nice and rounded" whereas sand from manufacturing or quarrying "should be fresh sand and should be sharp and angular."

He told LiveScience that it will be at least three months until he has results back from his experiment.

This research was presented at the 12th annual Current Research in Egyptology conference, held in March at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and onFacebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Chilling tales of real-life mummies

  • Universal

    In "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," Han, the Dragon Emperor, wakes from a 2,000-year-old curse and threatens to plunge the world into his unending, merciless service. Explorer Rick O'Connell and his family battle the resurrected mummy from the catacombs of ancient China into the frigid Himalayas. The movie is pure fiction, inspired by the famous terracotta army that guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Real-life mummies have fascinated the public for decades — often with their own horrific tales. Click on the "Next" label to learn about eight of their stories.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • King Tut exposed for the world to see

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    The mummy of King Tutankhamun, the 19-year-old pharaoh whose life and death have captivated audiences ever since his gilded tomb was discovered in 1922, went on public display for the first time in November 2007. He was placed in a climate-controlled box in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Tut's blackened, leathery face and feet, shown here, poke out from a linen covering. CT scans of his body in 2005 ruled out murder as the cause of his death in 1323 B.C. More likely, archaeologists said, was a broken left thigh bone that may have caused a fatal infection.

  • Ramses II's hair found for sale on the Internet

    Ben Curtis  /  AP

    How much is the lock of hair in this photo from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II worth? According to Frenchman Jean-Michel Diebolt, the answer is about $2,600. He put the locks, along with some linen bandages and resins used in the mummification of Ramses II, up for sale on the Internet. Diebolt's late father, a French researcher, had examined the mummy in 1976 and apparently kept the mementos. Egyptian antiquities officials retrieved the lost artifacts in April 2007. Ramses II ruled from 1270 to 1213 B.C. and is celebrated as one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. His legacy includes some of Egypt's grandest monuments, including the Ramesseum temple complex.

  • Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut found?

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    Queen Hatshepsut ruled ancient Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh after she stole the throne from her young stepson, Thutmose III. But after her death, in 1458 B.C., all trace of her name was obliterated from the records in what archaeologists believe was an act of revenge by her stepson. In June 2007, Egyptian authorities announced the mummy in this picture, unearthed a century ago, is the long-lost queen. The claim was based primarily on CT scans that showed, for example, a gap in her mouth matches a tooth in a jar with her insignia on it.

  • Chinchorro were the first to mummify their dead

    Image: mummified Chinchorro baby
    Ivan Alvarado  /  Corbis

    In the arid coastal stretches of modern-day Chile and Peru, an ancient fisherfolk known as the Chinchorro took the mummification of their dead seriously and spared no one from the practice. They were the first culture known to purposely preserve their dead — the earliest examples date to around 5000 B.C. All members of society, from the elite to children and miscarried fetuses, were mummified. The technique changed over the years, but internal organs were commonly removed and replaced with vegetable fiber and hair.

  • Were Incan children fattened up and sacrificed?

    Natacha Pisarenko  /  AP

    The 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella," shown here in a photo from a museum in Salta, Argentina, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were apparently "fattened up" before being sacrificed at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile, according a recent analysis of hair samples found with their mummified remains. In the months before their deaths, more than 500 years ago, their diet shifted from potato to corn and perhaps llama meat — an indication of elevated status. The mummies, called the Children of Llullaillaco, were dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol before they were left to die on the 22,080-foot volcano.

  • Ice Maiden found inside Peruvian volcano

    Joyce Naltchayan  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Hailed by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries in 1995, Juanita, the Ice Maiden, remains one of the most spectacular mummies ever found. Anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zarate uncovered the 12- to 14-year-old girl from the crater of Mt. Ampato, a Peruvian volcano. She was apparently sacrificed by Inca priests to appease the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450. There she froze, her body preserved for 500 years.

  • Oetzi the Iceman murder mystery solved?

    South Tyrol Museum Of Archaeology  /  AP

    How did Oetzi the Iceman, seen in this photo from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, die? According a story patched together from a pair of detailed examinations published in 2007, the 5,000-year-old mummy most likely took a fatal blow to the head after an arrow lacerated an artery below his left collarbone. Hikers in 1991 discovered Oetzi in the Italian Alps, face down with his left arm across his chest. Scientists believe he fell backwards, but was rolled over by his attacker who pulled out the arrow, leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

  • Lindow Man, Britain's best bog body

    Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

    In August 1984, workers cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in northwest England hit upon the well-preserved body of a man, about the age of 25, who died sometime between A.D. 20 and 90. Lindow Man, as he became known, is Britain's best known bog body, one of several dead people kept remarkably intact due to the acidity, cold temperature and lack of oxygen in the bogs. Detailed studies of Lindow Man conducted at the British Museum suggest he died a horrific death. He shows evidence of two blows to the head and a third to the back. He was then strangled with a thin cord that snapped his neck, had his throat cut and was placed face down in the bog. Some scientists suspect this was a ritualistic killing.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments