August 3, 2021

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

While diet, lifestyle, and genetics all contribute to the risk of heart disease. . .

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q:Does archaeology contribute anything to health?

A:Archaeology indeed contributes to our health science knowledge and has recently stimulated a fundamental shift in our understanding of the leading causes of death worldwide.

Let’s consider atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the underlying problem for the number-one killer of humans, heart disease. It’s common knowledge that atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ACVD) has grown globally because of the worldwide adoption of lifestyles, diet, sleep patterns, and environmental risk factors previously associated exclusively with Western countries. Scientists surmise that this modern condition accompanied affluent lifestyle patterns and was absent from ancestral societies, especially the poorer classes. Infectious diseases were thought to be the assassins of old, as noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attacks are thought to be their contemporary counterpart.

While archaeology studies the human past using material remains, its subdiscipline, paleopathology, investigates disease in ancient cultures. The latter has recently given cause for rethinking what we postulated as medical “fact” just a few years ago.

While diet, lifestyle, and genetics all contribute to the risk of heart disease, other risk factors have transcended human history.

The curiosity of two cardiologists in 2008 led them to investigate why Egyptian mummies of poor people in their 40s and without modern risk factors (unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking, sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep, and obesity) have atherosclerosis. After examining more than 130 mummies from Egypt, Peru, Utah, and the Aleutian Islands, covering a 4,000-year period, they had strong evidence that ACVD was common among ancestral peoples and not an exclusively modern disease. So, while diet, lifestyle, and genetics all contribute to the risk, other risk factors have transcended human history.

Of interest to the paleopathologists was the finding that most of the specimens had one or more chronic infections, such as tuberculosis, malaria, worms and other parasites, as well as other microbes. This has subsequently led to a unifying hypothesis about the underlying “cause” of atherosclerosis across the ages: chronic inflammation.

Modern researchers have increasingly recognized that inflammation is an ever-present accompaniment of noncommunicable diseases. Inflammation is also associated with mental and emotional disorders and is part of the emotional and oxidative stress responses to unhealthy habits. Inhaled smoke from tobacco or from wood fires used for cooking, heating, and lighting also provokes chronic inflammation. So, regardless of historic age, it’s possible that ancient peoples had the same underlying condition as modern people—inflammation—which affects the heart, blood vessels, brain, and all organs.

“Poor lifestyle” in any age appears to contribute to chronic inflammation, and therefore multiple diseases. The mummies are telling us their secrets about heart disease and other diseases today. We don’t have all the answers, but we can say until proven otherwise that a person who’s peaceful (low stress), physically and mentally active, appropriately restful, and adequately nourished—that is, a lifestyle based on trusting God and His prescription—will have low risk of contracting the diseases that so devastated the ancient Egyptians.

“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you” (Ex. 15:26, NIV).

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.