Ancient Egyptian Pharmacopia
14 Feb 2008
See article in 15 Dec 2007 p40 New Scientist “The Pharaohs’ Pharmacists”
Dr Jackie Campbell of the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester has painstakingly deciphered four papyri dated between 1850 BC and 1200 BC for medical effectiveness . These contain hundreds of recipes for complaints.
They seem to be on par with treatment you would have gotten from a medical practitioner in Britain circa up to 1850 AD (before general asepsis and theory of germs ) .
Some points of interest:
The papyri date after the interregnum caused by the collapse of the Old Kingdom . One suspects that these are memorized recipes written down on perishable papyrus by medical practitioners who could no longer rely on a steady flow of students to hand down hoarded knowledge . More permanent records (like copper tablets – melted down by the neo-barbarians for weapons , or stone – too expensive in man-power . Not clay , like Sumeria , since fuel to bake the tablets would have been too expensive in fuel-poor Egypt . )
The interesting point here is that Campbell compared these recipes with present Bedouin healers in the Sinai and found an nearly identical correspondence .
This strongly suggests that the Papyri recipes written down were already oral remnants . If they survived a few centuries , a few millennia more is no sweat . The more complicated bits got lost .
Dentistry seems to be one of these bits . From archeological evidence (cf “History Today” ) , the Old Kingdom seems to have had a fairly sophisticated dentistry , but this had vanished completely in the New Kingdom , and never recovered .
If this sounds strange , consider the step-child relationship of present-day dentists to doctors .
The answer is in the home-remedy nature of dentistry . Even a toothless human can get nourishment by using an external gut (ie a soup pot) . So a painful tooth is removed without too big a penalty . (Pull it out , home remedy . You do not need dentistry to survive . )
Gum disease is a different kettle of fish . It has been directly correlated with heart-disease on a cause-effect basis . There is also statistical correlations with metabolic diseases like diabetes .
So where are the gum-disease epidemics in history ? Were they documented ? Perhaps they were written as something else .
Gingivitis epidemics must have been ( and must still be ) rife . Kissing is an old hominid custom .
2. Sailing ships , scurvy and gingivitis epidemics .
One of the puzzling aspects of medical history is why it took so long for the importance of fresh vitC bearing fruits to be realized . The reason lies in the confusion between gingivitis (a germ caused disease) and scurvy (a deficiency of vitC) .
In the confined space of a sailing ship on a voyage of six months , the food is not cooked thoroughly . The +-200 passengers are in touching contact daily . If at the start , one passenger had (say) 10 forms of gingivitis of various degrees of virulence , then the most virulent will tend to colonise the other passengers the most . There they mutate (remember that the bacteria monitor the density of themselves and other bacteria , so-called quorum mechanisms ) . Over certain thresholds , they switch on deletrious mechanisms .
Now , gingivitis is an old , old fellow-traveller with hominids . They don’t kill outright , but spin out the decomposition process to maximize their chances .
The ship becomes a hotbed of gingivitis activity , breeding into ever more virulent forms . Death rates of 90% were not uncommon .
These little bubbles of virulence on ships had little effect on Western societies in Europe as a whole . There was a tendency for immigrant populations in sailing ship days to have very good genetics as far as teeth are concerned (cf South African boers vs Europeans)
The effect on native societies was disasterous . Native here includes the Europeans who had immigrated previously . The bubbles of virulence of diseases like measles , whooping cough , etc brought by the ships hit even the Europeans hard , but devastated the locals who had no traditions of quarantine .
Of course , it worked in reverse too . Waves of infection spread from the European ports as ships went back and forth .
Ho ! Ho! Ho!
3. The White Man’s Grave .
White men survived quite happily in areas where they had little or no contact with ships . It was the ports that brought in diseases from all over the world , bred to a new virulence on the long voyages on the sailing ships . It must be said that most of these diseases were also variants of well-known European diseases .
4. The Boer War Concentration Camps .
The Boers were relatively isolated from the pathogen gene-pool in Europe . Ever wondered why such a hardy lot succumbed in droves to diseases in circumstances which were not much different from what they were used to ? Most of them were bywoners , used to a hard-scrabble life . A few big landowners had swallowed up most of the land , due to the Boer habit of partitioning inheritances equally amongst very large families . ( Work it out yourself . They arrived around 1840 . By 1900 , 60 years had passed . Three generations . Each generation had about 7 surviving males .The families were large . This gives 7x7x7x14 =4802 people that had to wrest a living out of grazing land that was originally good for a comfortable living for 2+14 . This does not include the black servants who were also merrily multiplying .
As you can see , this was not tenable . Even in 1900 , most of the whites were poor whites , scrabbling a living as bywoners or in the towns as dependants (clients in the Roman sense) of the wealthy large landowners . (The same thing happened in South America) . These were the guys who were the bitter-enders . The well-off landowners made accommodations with the British (the Hendsoppers) . Some of the poor joined the British (the Joiners) . The rest kept on fighting . The life on commando was for most better than what they had before .
These were landless men with no prospects . Like Roman soldiers circa 80 BC until Augustus strictly limited the number of legions , condottieri up until Napoleon , German mercenaries like Von Stutterheim .
It is interesting to note that one of the reasons for the success of the US model is that they never paid their troops directly in land . This can be traced back directly to Washington , when he prevented the coup by the officers of the Continental Army to force Congress to pay their arrears . Even today , US mercenaries (called Contractors) like Black River get paid in money , not in promises of land . In a general collapse this will not hold , as the only real wealth will revert back to the food production of land .
To get back to the Boer War , when the relatively isolated population of Boer women and children came into contact with English disease carriers of things like measles and whooping cough , especially the children were vulnerable . The overcrowding and malnutrition did not help , but the Boer population would died in large numbers even if they well-fed and housed . The critical factors were the close contact on a daily basis with carriers of disease . Not only the English soldiers , for whom these were childhood diseases , but each other once they became infected . The Boers had no tradition of quarantine . The survivors clustered around , trying to aid and care for each other . They took pride in the fact and considered it a Christian Virtue . Exactly like the Amerindians did in North America . They can thank the elements of immunity in their systems that their mortality was only about 25% . Emily Hobhouse traipsing around , trailing infection in her wake probably killed more than she helped .
The situation was as bad in the Boer prisoner of war camps on Ceylon , St Helena ,etc . The equivalent of Guantanamo Bay today . The death statistics are still classified , or unavailable today . But about 25% seems likely .
Notice the importance of quarantine . As discussed before , even a new disease in a virgin population can be contained with about 30%-40% death rate (Black Death) , but without quarantine (like colonial territories in Americas or Africa , where the community tried to care for the sick) , the death rate is 95%-99% . The Black Death natural immunity was about 1 in 40 000 . As near as 100% death rate without quarantine .
5. To get back to ships:
So , even ships with vitC supplies usually ran into teeth disease problems . Hence the tardy recognition of the importance of vitC . Scurvy only stopped after the bacterial nature of most diseases became known . Hygiene improved . The length of voyages also decreased dramatically (steam) , with changeover of personnel .
Even so , lately super-tankers voyage for months on end with the same crew isolated from the general gene-pool of pathogens . NASA should examine them for the effects of prolonged isolation from rapidly evolving pathogen pools .
6. To get back to Ancient Egyptians :
The Old Kingdom of Egypt was brought to a catastrophic end by climate shift . There was a prolonged drought (about 80 years ) in the Nile catchment areas in Abyssinia . Humans had populated the Egyptian area of the Nile up to carrying capacity . 80 years of failure of the Nile floods reduced the whole area to a fraction of it’s population . Cannibalism has been hard-documented in the archeological remains of many towns in the delta . Significantly , these town-sites were shunned , which is why their remains are still there after about 4000 years . Of course , more strategic sites were simply built over . (“I can’t stand it . Pass me that brick.”) .
7. What must be understood is that Abyssinia (Ethiopia) is the Holiest Land on the planet as far as humans are concerned . This is where it all started .
After Toba , this is where the survivors created a new relationship between themselves and the gods . Whether the Matriarchy Mythos is valid or not , Egyptian aristocracy traced their claim to nobility to their descent from Abyssinia. Tibetans were also offspring , with maybe a soupcon of other Homo species , judging from the evidence of human body-lice .
Note the equivalent in Asia : Han-Tibetan and Mongolian-Tibetan are the majority population groups . Genghis Khan took pride in tracing his lineage to Tibet , even though his beard was red and his eyes grey .
Peking lap dogs have been genetically analyzed . They are not only directly descended from Tibetan lamasery dogs , but there has been continuous genetic interchange for the last 2000 years .
Han Chinese are Tibetans .
Abyssinia is not where old religions come to die .
It is where they return to their roots . It is the only place where all the major Western Religions ( Judaism , Christianity , Islam , Communism) have living temples . If one scratches around , I would not be surprised to find Mithraism , Roman and Greek , Celtic , Buddhist , Hindu remnants (maybe not Shintu) or older . It is a large , really rugged country that has seen more human history than all the rest put together . It has seen climate shifts come and go . It has seen the ice-ages in and it has seen them out in the long-ago memory of humans .
8. Myths .
It is why the Ark of the Covenant is rumoured to be there . Note that the rumour is more important than the fact . We are dealing in myths .
“We deal in hot lead , friend.” - Colt and Kalashnikov .
“We deal in misty myth , friend.”- Christ and Buddha .
Who’s winning ?
Why did the Italians attack Abyssinia in the 1930’s ?
It made no logical sense in terms of European politics .
It was on the instigation of Hitler ( actually the Ultima Thule group ) , who saw it as one of the key religious and esoteric points on the planet . They also had their eye on Tibet . The SS launched an exploratory mission (documented). They were rumoured to have imported several hundred initiates of the left-hand path who supposedly committed suicide before the fall of Berlin .
9. Sigh .
Anybody who knows Tibet can tell you that the only reason they do not rule the planet is that you cannot find any three that can agree to follow any path , right , left , center or any other direction . Their world-view allows not only that the end justifies the means in one single time-line , but in all possible time-lines . Calculus of any type only clumps various time-lines together . There remains a very large (which can be infinite , depending) number of time-lines .
Various lamaseries meddled ( and still meddles ) incessantly with surrounding cultures . But all are rife with factions . The Chinese are in the position of exasperated children trying to keep some check on their madcap parents .
Tibetans are tourists , in other words . Surfing the time-lines .
10 .To get back to Ancient Egyptians :
One of the major reasons (some would say THE reason) why Egyptian Civilization lasted millennia in balance with the environment was that funny religion of theirs with all the animal-headed gods . Their religion was in a one-to-one correspondence with their environment . Each animal had its sect of human protectors . Significant percentages of the human priests had a vested interest in protecting their tutelary deity .
Kill too many jackals , and you had the priests of Anubis on your neck .
Do you see how it went?
If we had had a god of birds , we might still have some passenger pigeons in the sky .
The point is , it worked .
11. Ho , Ho , Ho !
There is no reason why this cannot be reinvented . There is no reason to suppose that the priests of various Egyptian gods really believed in them . But they had a vested interest in them . Cf Gaia .
Note that the thin little strip of land next to the Nile is extremely vulnerable to human population growth and concomitant extermination of wildlife . Yet the ancient Egyptians kept it going for more than 5 000 years . The only major interruption from climate was at the end of the Old Kingdom . Yet the survivors managed to struggle on for a further 2 000 years until overwhelmed by the Romans , Christians , Muslims , Ottomans , English , etc .
It was not just hanging on either . They created writing , including the alphabet , the compound saw and bow , lathes , fine metallurgy , good medicine , ships , etc and exported these ideas throughout the their north via mercenaries (what we would today call contractors) . Some of the greatest art originated in this period .
12. The Top Kingdom .
We have to ask why such a vital , powerful civilization did not move deeper into Africa . The clue lies in their name for themselves . Egypt was divided into the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom . The Upper Kingdom was the part nearer to Abyssinia (past the cataracts) .
Note : not the Top Kingdom . The Top Kingdom was Abyssinia until the catastrophic drought that brought all the kingdoms to disaster .
( Cf Chinese Middle (ie Center) Kingdom . The hierarchies and worldviews were different . The Himalayas were at the center of the Chinese world , from which many rivers flowed , while Abyssinia was at the top of world , from which only the Nile flowed .)
The climate change and drought that brought the Egyptian Old Kingdom to a crash was seen as a massive betrayal by the gods . Ironically , the ones with the biggest sense of grievance were the upper classes , starting with the Pharaoh .
Hence the Anhknaton rebellion . A significant fraction of the priesthood must have participated in the new rejection of the old gods . Interestingly , the reason why the counter-reformation (cf Tutankhamun) succeeded was the environmental degradation that went with the suppression of the old temples . The Nile riparian areas are very fragile ecosystems , and deficiency diseases (notably lack of protein as birds and fish were over-hunted) would quickly have shown that the new ways were demonstratively worse than the old ways . Note that teeth from this period were excessively worn by grit , indicating turbidity of the Nile due to environmental disturbance . (Intervening just about anywhere in the Nile’s eco-cycle would screw things up , resulting in turbidity , low fish and crop yield and starvation . Very quickly too . )
A more vicious round of religious civil wars erupted .
All ties with Abyssinia were severed , and the tradition of erasing politically non-correct previous rulers started .
Abyssinia was in pretty poor shape as well . Huge influxes of refugees from Egypt and the Arabian peninsula swept over the land . The genetic evidence of this is now being traced . Some has been found as far as Zimbabwe (refugees from the collapse of the Saba dam in Yemen , in three stages .The ruins of the dam and the huge irrigation works are still there . Cf Queen of Sheba .)
In any case , Egypt had problems of its own . Their equivalent of the refugee influx was the Sea Peoples , which they survived by the skin of their teeth .
After that it was the relentless pressure from barbarians from the hills and desert who took over the productive land in the Middle East as rainfall recovered . They were militaristic and expansionist , being survivors of a process where only these characteristics were selected .
13 . Knowledge not essential to survival was lost .
The verbal equivalent of an emergency clinic was transmitted , and later written down by some despairing medical practitioners lamenting the past and making the best of a bad situation .
Remember , this was not overnight . It took decades to get worse and worse .
14. Dung .
A fascinating aside is feral ass dung , which is used by the Bedouin as a tea for stomach complaints . This is reminiscent of the Nguni use of fresh cow dung to slap on open wounds (like with circumcision) .
The keys here are
14.1 Free range animals
14.2 Animal self-medication .
14.3 Enlightened altruism (now called pre-adaptation)
Animals that can roam freely and are not overgrazed , self-medicate . This is a well-documented phenomenon . The dung not only has anti-bacterial properties , but has large populations of indifferent or even benign bacteria that out-compete harmful bacteria . The cow-food is deliberately not optimally utilized , so that at every process of digestion there is sufficient energy and nutrients for commensal bacteria not harmful to the host , as well enough left over for grass to grow on .
It can even be utilized as a building material .
But only if the animals are free-ranging and not over-populated . Hence the flight to the cities (or a major reason) . Traditional huts became unhealthy as the dung became unhealthy . Something similar happened in Europe with the Celtic tribes .
Elephants utilize only about a third of their food . This was seen as a handicap , but it is actually the key to their survival as the most successful large animal in
Africa . See below .
In other words , the ecology optimizes , not the species .
“The Selfish Gene “ and “Kin selection “ is out and “Pre-adaptation” is in . The human monkeys have undergone a “paradigm-shift” (ie some common-sense has seeped through the leafy boughs of academe) , and gone screaming after the new troop-direction .
See E.O. Wilson’s “Superorganism” . He was the father of sociobiology , but has now done a u-turn . Selfishness is not good anymore .
It would be funny if not so much damage has been done by business schools like Harvard and Yale using these half-baked ideas as templates and excuses for short-sighted greed .
We know the exact limits of greed as well .
15 . How much of available resources must we use and how much must we leave for others to exist ?
See http://andreswhy.blogspot.com “ Infinite Probes” .
The boundaries of instability are 27% - 37% of usage of resources .
Things get more unstable as you approach 27% . There is turbulence and singularities around 27% . Between 27% and 37% things appear more stable , but steadily grow tougher . At 37% , turbulence becomes extreme . Extinction looms .
It usually takes some fancy co-operative footwork around the 27% boundary to survive . Most competitive species go extinct here in a welter arms-races for diminishing and ever more specialized resources .
Please note that humans are now utilizing at least 25% of photosynthesizing biomass on the planet . They are already deep into the instability zone , and being very competitive , it is doubtful whether they will survive the boundary . Numbers mean nothing . It is actually the numbers that drive the extinction process .
Recent Chinese demand has probably pushed this into the real instability zone .
There was only a 2% margin to uplift them to start with .
16 .The Coal Instability .
Humans think of coal like the ancient Egyptians thought of the Nile .
Old Faithful .
When all else fails , coal will see us through .
Most of the energy generation on the planet is still coal-based .
Ho , ho , ho !
Rutledge of Caltech has analyzed coal reserves using Hubbert’s Linearization technique . Google it , or see “The Great Cole Hole” in New Scientist of 19 Jan 2008 p38 . I have checked the numbers for UK production , and the argument seems solid .
(This is the same technique used to successfully predict Hubbert’s oil peak .)
We are close to global peak in coal production , and rapidly nearing zero production in some of the older regions . By 2030 we will have used 70% of remaining exploitable coal reserves . (ie in 20 years time electricity will be a very expensive luxury if present population numbers are maintained .
The UK is an old region . By about 1015 it will produce no coal . Zero . Oh , there is a lot of coal left . Here and there .Thither and yon . Poor quality stuff . Nothing for a large power station .
South Africa is a semi-old region . The richer , easily accessible regions have been mined . The deposits are in seams (ie discontinuous) . In South Africa they are also “complex” . Geology-speak that they suddenly vanish due to folds and faults . The coal does not peter out . It suddenly vanishes . Then a new mine of poorer quality has to be dug (if you can find the coal ) . Can you see where this is going ?
The present Eskom coal crisis will never get better . Coal will only get scarcer and more expensive . South Africa is already past it’s coal-peak . Every new large power station will require a large coal mine to fuel it , and they do not exist . The coal does not exist in sufficient concentrations .
The politicians lie and do more of the same .
The only energy source that has sufficient capacity is nuclear power .
As you can see , the 27% instability has come to bite us from the one direction in which we thought we were secure : coal .
Water and sewerage are next , then food , then air (hopefully only storms , but oxygen dead-spots are possible as climatic instabilities concentrate oxygen-poor zones from the oceanic deserts .)
New you know how the old Egyptian medic felt .
Get your papyrus and scribble !
But best is verbal paring down . Oral knowledge seems to have survived as long as humans have . Lock in using meme-engineering .