Atherosclerosis in ancient Egyptian mummies: the Horus study

JACC Cardiovasc Imaging. 2011 Apr;4(4):315-27. doi: 10.1016/j.jcmg.2011.02.002.


Objectives: The purpose of this study was to determine whether ancient Egyptians had atherosclerosis.

Background: The worldwide burden of atherosclerotic disease continues to rise and parallels the spread of diet, lifestyles, and environmental risk factors associated with the developed world. It is tempting to conclude that atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is exclusively a disease of modern society and did not affect our ancient ancestors.

Methods: We performed whole body, multislice computed tomography scanning on 52 ancient Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period to identify cardiovascular structures and arterial calcifications. We interpreted images by consensus reading of 7 imaging physicians, and collected demographic data from historical and museum records. We estimated age at the time of death from the computed tomography skeletal evaluation.

Results: Forty-four of 52 mummies had identifiable cardiovascular (CV) structures, and 20 of these had either definite atherosclerosis (defined as calcification within the wall of an identifiable artery, n = 12) or probable atherosclerosis (defined as calcifications along the expected course of an artery, n = 8). Calcifications were found in the aorta as well as the coronary, carotid, iliac, femoral, and peripheral leg arteries. The 20 mummies with definite or probable atherosclerosis were older at time of death (mean age 45.1 ± 9.2 years) than the mummies with CV tissue but no atherosclerosis (mean age 34.5 ± 11.8 years, p < 0.002). Two mummies had evidence of severe arterial atherosclerosis with calcifications in virtually every arterial bed. Definite coronary atherosclerosis was present in 2 mummies, including a princess who lived between 1550 and 1580 BCE. This finding represents the earliest documentation of coronary atherosclerosis in a human. Definite or probable atherosclerosis was present in mummies who lived during virtually every era of ancient Egypt represented in this study, a time span of >2,000 years.

Conclusions: Atherosclerosis is commonplace in mummified ancient Egyptians.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Determination by Skeleton
  • Atherosclerosis / diagnostic imaging
  • Atherosclerosis / history*
  • Calcinosis / diagnostic imaging
  • Calcinosis / history*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Egypt, Ancient
  • Female
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mummies / diagnostic imaging
  • Mummies / history*
  • Odds Ratio
  • Paleopathology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed