#22: Past to Present- Archaeology & Today’s Diet


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

Today I’m travelling back in time with UCLA’s Dr. Amr Shahat to discover what Ancient Egyptians ate, and learn about how the scientific analysis of food remnants can tell us the stories of how Ancient Egyptians lived. Join me as Dr. Shahat explains how racism and gender inequality intersect with archeology, and how studying what is left in the stomach of mummies over the centuries can tell us how much fiber we should eat. So great to have you join us today. I met you last winter quarter in the food studies colloquium at UCLA that I was teaching, and you brought such a unique perspective to the class with your research in Egyptian archaeology. The first week or two of class, you were actually still in Egypt on a dig. Can you share with our listeners what you were doing there?

Dr. Amr Shahat  00:56

Yes, I was excavating an ancient Egyptian site with colleagues of mine. We were in a central part of Egypt, in the Qena region, north of the famous Luxor area. This is a place where the Nile bends and gives quick access to the land route to the Red Sea and interactions for long distance trade. Whether going down into Africa, like Eritrea or Ethiopia, or crossing the other side for Indian Ocean trade. That region is actually very important for me because my father comes from that region, in Qena.  The second significance of this site is that I am interested in social history. Most of the time, when we write about the ancient history of people, especially from a feminist perspective, we think of famous queens like Cleopatra and Hatshepsut, and will give little attention to the history of other women and their contribution to history in other ways. So I wrote a proposal to the UCLA Center for the Study of Women that we still can learn the history of women from non elite classes or not famous tombs, even if they don’t have text, or big decorations in their tomb, by studying the food remains that were buried as offerings with them, and by actually analyzing the body through scientific method, like stable isotopes on their teeth and hair, to know what water they grew up drinking, where they are from, what food they were eating, and estimate their health. And then, after taking two classes in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, one with Professor William McCarthy, and the second was your class, there was a beautiful synergy that changed the way I think about and approach this very same data.  It was my first time learning about the gut microbiota, and how they are important for our immune system. It was my first lesson about the traditional diet, rich in fiber which was helpful to reduce gut inflammation, which is a precursor for multiple diseases: obesity, diabetes, and cancer. So I started to redirect my research to also ask health related questions that serve modern food sciences. My bridge here was a critical article published by Zang et al in 2019, where he spoke about the direct relationship between fiber intake and the gut microbiota. The conclusion of his research was that he recommended 40 grams of fiber as a daily intake to improve the health of gut microbiota. And then I found other research, actually published from the public health side, finding the big difference between the traditional diet and the modern diet on the gut microbiota, and hence the correlation between our modern diet rich in fat and processed sugar and processed food and the increase in diabetes, obesity and intestinal tumors.  I said okay, let’s see what the traditional diet looked like in the past. I had the mummies preserved, I have the food preserved. The first thing I noticed is that most archaeologists from my side ignore the importance of wild plants. In an archaeological context, we overlook them, and if we find them, we don’t give them much attention or analysis. We usually focus on domesticated plants that are important for the modern economy like wheat and barley, and how they were domesticated, and how they were important for making bread and beer. But then I found that the wild fruits and wild nuts, indigenous to a region in Egypt or out of Egypt, they were never ignored. They were never dropped out of the diet. It is only in modern times, when we’re faced with this big advertisement of the Western diet as the diet of the elite. Having Western restaurants increasing, in Cairo, for example, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even Subway came over to Egypt. Right in front of the pyramids and the Sphinx, you have Pizza Hut and KFC. So only after this increase, it is more denigrating for people to consume these wild plants and wild fruits.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:14

People aren’t eating as many wild nuts?

Dr. Amr Shahat  06:16

Yes. And the connotation of eating them now is actually bad, socially speaking.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:22

What are the wild nuts and wild fruits?

Dr. Amr Shahat  06:25

Sycamore fig is one of the native fruits and is also depicted on the wall of the tombs in ancient Egyptian, associated with the goddess of love, goddess Hathor. I also discovered a lot of Christ’s Thorn fruit, which is a wild fruit native to Upper Egypt, or the south part of Egypt. We call it Nabaq in the local language. I also discovered many Persea nuts, and they look amazing. They looked fresh when I discovered them. They are pretty much extinct today or alarmingly decreasing. So every time I discovered them, I really wanted to eat one to test how this fruit tastes. I also discovered two types of dates, two species of palm trees, the one famous for us is the date palm, and another species of palm tree that has two heads, called dome palm. And this is native to the Nile region. It grows along the Nile in Kenya, in Sudan, in Ethiopia, and in Egypt. And it is part of the shared diet, or wild fruit that grows along the Nile. And it stops in the south regions of Egypt, it does not exist in the north. And this plant when I tried to test it in the lab, it pretty much soaked all the tests in water and fluids because it is really, really rich in fiber.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:59

What you’re describing is so rich in information, how does this contribute to your knowledge building for social history, learning about all these different foods?

Dr. Amr Shahat  08:10

That is a great question. Because archaeology started in a colonial tradition, and British and French colonialism before it. Basically the consequences of this is still on going in terms of focusing on large tombs of famous kings and individuals, or high officials. The history of other people who contributed to, for example, the history of the pyramids- there was a discovery of the whole village of workers and the social system dynamics of these workers who built the pyramids. But we don’t see this celebrated either in public literature or movies like in Hollywood, we only see famous figures. Besides the post-colonial stance in this research, as a native Egyptian, I want to highlight the original diversity in Egyptian cultures, even in ancient Egypt, and the diversity of the regions of the world that Egypt interacted with. For example, I discovered the first evidence of watermelon in the same site, which is of origin in tropical Africa- with debate Some people say West Africa. I also discovered juniper berry that comes from the Eastern Mediterranean. So it shows you that Egypt’s cultural interactions were multifaceted.  So after that, I took the feminist stance I said okay, I TA here for a class of Women in Power with Professor Kara Cooney. And here is where we open the eyes of students to feminism, with a look into the past of how different women in different societies transcended social justice and leveled up. And even some of them came into power. And this site is critical. This very same site where I show you this plant is critical, because the cemetery where I found this tomb is associated with the Palace of the Queen called Ahhotep. And this Queen had led a war after her husband died. We found in her tomb, a symbol of flies, made out of gold. House flies are annoying, but in ancient Egypt, when you find them in ancient tomb, it’s actually a symbol of valeur, that this woman was known for her bravery and her valeur.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:50

Why do flies have that symbolism?

Dr. Amr Shahat  10:52

Because they are very persistent. If you can’t hit it, and you tell the fly to go away, it tells you back “go away.” It’s a metaphor, but they are really persistent, they keep coming back to you. So they are insistent on achieving their goal.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:12

That’s great symbolism. So this particular person that was in this site you found was a person, a woman, who was empowered after her husband died, and therefore, in history would be considered a strong person.

Dr. Amr Shahat  11:34

I’m giving you the context of the site. So I know that this woman had owned the palace, but the tombs I excavated are the women that we don’t know anything about their history. These were women associated with the palace, working for her, and they had  graves, or a cemetery, nearby associated with the palace. But they were small graves, we don’t have any texts buried with them to tell us who they are. We don’t have any clues from tomb decorations, for example. We don’t have coffins that depict how they look like or their names. My argument is that by analyzing the food offerings like this- but we will not find them randomly, we have to look for them using scientific tools, and being empowered with different research questions that combine social science and life sciences together. In this way we can serve understanding the social history of these women, and we can also serve modern food sciences and concerns about food to the society today. So to land with that, I found here that this big diversity of wild fruits and plants that we used to eat and have given up in modern time have correlation with the increase in diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity in Egypt. And it was observed by other public health specialists in Mexico and here in Loma Linda, in California, that traditional diet, which was more rich in fiber, was associated with less cases of obesity and intestinal tumors.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:21

Yes, that’s a very long term observation of change in the food system. And how do you relate your work to feminism? What creates your your hypothesis that there was feminism during those ancient times?

Dr. Amr Shahat  13:37

Oh, what I’m speaking of is that we are making a feminist class today. We started at the same time as the Me Too movement, Professor Cooney launched it at UCLA. And this research was just from my side to contribute to this class to say, “Okay, we have some ancient data that contributes to our modern thought of feminism.” And one of the big honors I received is the UCLA Center for the Study of Women Award. It was last May in 2019, and it actually supported this research.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:16

Why was your research contributing to the feminist movement of our time?

Dr. Amr Shahat  14:24

That is a great question. So, in modern times, the feminist movement, not only argues for the lack of recognition, but also the current feminist movements argue for the diversity of voices that need to be heard. And some of these voices coming from a diversity of people who come from everywhere, have different cultural affiliations, and we homogenized sometimes who they are. We homogenized them, we give them their names, for example. That is part of, actually, the intersection of racism and gender inequality. Instead of knowing you from you, I know you by hearing about you, not knowing you by hearing you. So here I say, okay, in modern society, I would go to one of these women, and I make oral history. But how about this ancient women who are buried here next to the palace, and evidently contributed to Egyptian civilization in different ways. And we don’t have anything about their history. For elite women, we have texts, buried with them in their coffins, we have their coffins decorated with their names and their titles, we have them depicted on the tomb walls, saying who they are, what they were doing. But how about these women buried in small graves?  My suggestion here was to use life science methods, like stable isotope analysis, and botany, by analyzing the food species buried with them, to learn at least their identity, how they grew up, and where they grew up. So striking data came out here. First, the food offerings buried with them showed that they ate the wild taxa of the region, so it gives me where they come from, and it also shows that they were involved in long distance trade, having imported food remains coming to them. And sometimes, I found a gift coming from a royal, like a scarab or a figure inscribed with the name of Queen Hatshepsut, or King Tut Moses the Third. So it tells me, that this person was gifted something or had association with the elite, or she has served something and she received a gift from the royal court.  The second thing here, with stable isotope analysis, basically, I did oxygen on their teeth to know the water source where they grew up. And then, luckily, I have also the hair preserved, which when I measured the oxygen, tells me the water source for the last few years where they lived. Here another striking evidence happened. Some of them were Egyptians, because the oxygen of the Nile River is very, very distinct from any other water source, and it is very rich in oxygen 18. And some of the Egyptians were clear when I did it on the teeth and hair, but some of them actually were not Egyptian. There was a striking example of a woman who grew up in Southwest Asia based on the oxygen in the teeth- because the teeth gives me the water source for the first 10 years of your life. And because the hair remodels and it will be cut and grow again like one centimeter every month, I cut it month by month, one centimeter by one centimeter. And it tells me like her passport, where she was for these past years. So I have her food and her water source to know who she is, where she’s coming from, and where she died. So striking social history to unpack here.  One final surprise for us came from the life science side. I said how about doing the stable isotope on the food to know the water source and the climate condition where the food itself was grown. Because it’s the same thing, we are like walking plants. When I measured the oxygen and carbon to know the efficiency of water used by the plants and the climate conditions, I got very shocking news. I found that the ancient plants had grown up in better humidity conditions, except for one Juniper species that came from the Mediterranean and was imported. It showed evidence of high drought, but then all of the plants consistently showed evidence of very high and rich soil fertility based on the nitrogen isotope, and this of course, determined the nutritive content of the food and their health and immunity. What was shocking when I got the modern samples collected from the farms and the spice shops in the area and did a test on them, I found them all very low in soil fertility, all of the plants that date after the construction of the High Dam. The bridging thing for me was a sample of wheat from the Charleston museum taken right before the High Dam and it showed the high soil fertility, like the ancient Egyptian one. It is only after the dam, where we see the terrible decrease in soil fertility levels and decrease in the nutrition content of the food growing along the Nile.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:04

And why do you think the dam contributed to this degredation of the soil?

Dr. Amr Shahat  20:09

That’s another great question, Wendy! Every July, the monsoon rain comes from Ethiopia and Eritrea regions and filled in Lake Victoria, or the native name, Lake Nyanza, and then it brings not only the water, Nile flood coming down to Egypt, but while bringing the water it also brings rich minerals and clay all along. So we get water high in oxygen 18 because it is coming from monsoon rain, not like in California or Northern California, coming from a snow melt. And it gives us also fertile soil that deposits on both banks of the Nile, free, so we don’t need to use any fertilizers. Sometimes they used dung of cattle and cows and sheep and goat, and I discovered those dungs too, in the settlement. But the shocking thing is that after the dam, there is a decrease in soil fertility because this fertile soil is behind the dam. Now we don’t have access to it, we banned it. But the second shock is that the industrialism of food increased the use of fossil fuel based fertilisers and these are close to zero in their nitrogen isotope. So when I see lower nitrogen in my modern food samples, I know, here’s evidence of lower soil fertility, and most likely the use of fossil fuel based fertilizers.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:50

So, I have a couple of follow up questions on that because I’m not actually that familiar with the differences between monsoon rain quality versus the oxygen that’s in the H2O of the rain from California. Explain to me what that means?

Dr. Amr Shahat  22:09

That’s a great question too. Usually, most rivers in the world get their water from rain of the snow melt. So the water source is coming from a cold source, from snow melt. And the heavier isotope will have different oxygen isotope, oxygen 16. And oxygen 18 is mostly studied in water research. And oxygen 18 is very low in waters that come from snow melt. Like in California, Northern California, I think I measured it, the oxygen 18 was around minus 9 to minus 12. And in Vancouver,was close to minus 12, minus 14, because it’s also coming from snowmelt. But when the water flood comes to you from a monsoon rain, monsoon rain comes in hot and desiccating conditions. So in a very hot climate, the light isotope, oxygen 18, is like a small ball compared to a big ball. And the small ball dessicates faster in the air, and the heavier isotope, oxygen 18, rests in the water that comes down. So this is one of the reasons why the oxygen 18 in the Nile water is so high, and I thought that this is in modern time. But a colleague from Florida, Tosha Dupras, the Chair of Archaeology there, actually used that evidence of the high oxygen Nile water to differentiate between people growing up along the Nile and people who came from the Nile but went to exile in the oasis because they had leprosy, because in the oasis, they have water coming from closed wells. And they have way lower oxygen 18 in the water, again, like minus 12. And she found that the Egyptians have plus 2 oxygen 18 in the Nile water, so she said okay, I have the Egyptian population and I have people in the Oasis, and the people who came from the Nile and ended up in the Oasis, their teeth shows where they grew up drinking.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:32

So it’s really more the difference of oxygen 18, high levels versus low levels is more significant just in terms of you understanding where people are coming from. Is there any significance in terms of health from that?

Dr. Amr Shahat  24:47

This is a question that I am still thinking about, but I did not experiment yet. There is an on going discussion in life sciences that the alkaline water, richer in 18 O is good for the membrane of the cells, our cell membrane is sensitive to the oxygen 18 level. So that’s why here in California, they make advertisement for alkaline water, etc. But I did not test this yet. I want to add that Nile, water is naturally alkaline. So the pH is over 7.8 sometimes, and sometimes 8.2, really high. We can brand Nile water here in California.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:33

Why besides the oxygen 18? Why else is it so alkaline in the Nile?

Dr. Amr Shahat  25:38

This is probably again, because of the source of the water, coming from a monsoon rain. I’m still thinking of the reasons but it is helpful for me to write social history, because it’s easier for me to say where plants and food and people come from.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:56

So this knowledge that you are really gleaning in such a fascinating and  transdisciplinary way, you mentioned the food now is low in nitrogen compared to in ancient times, and probably related to this, the dam and also the artificial fertilizing that we do. How do you think this relates to the same food that we’re eating now compared to then? What are you interpreting this as for our for our own current situation?

Dr. Amr Shahat  26:29

For our current situation, we were all tested by the quarantine situation. Suddenly, we have to be at home, no restaurants, and we have to cook ourselves. And here, the healthy choice is not in the hands of the restaurants, but in the hands of every individual in society. So my role was to summarize my research, in two-three sentences to the public. I volunteered in the Kindness Task Force group. And I was basically helping families who lost their spouses or dear people during the virus, and couldn’t even have funerals. So besides the emotional support, I was trying to give the summary of my research. If you at least increase your fiber intake, and if we take the recommendation of Zheng et al 2019 paper of having 40 grams of fiber- of course, it’s difficult for them to understand, but I tell them how I apply it. I said if you go to Trader Joe’s and buy a packet of dates, one piece of that is four grams of fiber. So if you have 10 a day, like five in your morning yogurt, or something on a fruit salad, and 5 in the evening as a snack, you have your 40g fiber intake, and you have a healthy snack. But I give examples for something meaningful to my culture. But of course for them, you may think of other plant species that are rich in fiber, and native here to California or America, in general. I just summarized them in simple words as much as possible.  And when sometimes they argue about the evidence- “how did you know, the relation between the gut microbiota in the past? And did you go into the stomach of an ancient Egyptian”, I say actually, luckily I do! I have the mummies, and sometimes if I don’t find the plant remains buried next to them in a pot, I go dig for them inside their stomach or between their teeth (they didn’t floss). All evidence from the mummies, physically showed fibers  in their bread. We could find in the intestines, fibers that did not get digested. So this tells us that the bread I discovered in Egyptian tombs, and rich in fiber, was not processed fast or not cleaned well because it will be buried in a tomb, as some archaeologists argued. Now, we actually find these fibers inside their stomach. They did not remove the chaff from the bread and we see association of the diversity of families in their gut microbiota, around 13,000 families of bacteria in their gut. How many families we have in our modern gut with our overconsumption of processed sugar and processed meat and fat? It’s around 5000 families, from 13,000 in the past to 5000. So see the dramatic decline of the gut microbiota diversity in our stomach because of our modern food habits.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:44

So if you were to be an ancient Egyptian, how would you comment on our current diet?

Dr. Amr Shahat  29:53

It is really wonderful. I would say stick to your identity food. But also enjoy interactions with other people and their food culture by understanding them and understanding their food. And this is actually the title of my dissertation, “The Archaeologies of Diversity and Interaction in Ancient Egypt”. What inspired me for the diversity part is first, the original diversity. My mother came from the north, they had different wild fruits than the south, where my dad came from, and there was interaction between both but also there were new food species that came from Egypt’s social interaction with other regions. Queen Hatshepsut, launched long distance trade to bring incense trees, for example, to make a garden in front of her temple. And the text shows here, that the leaders from the Egyptian side met the leaders from the land of Ponte side, under the shrine of God Amman, and they shared food. So they got introduced to each other’s tradition and food. But at the same time, we found evidence of Egyptian wild fruits from Upper Egypt like this dome fruit and Persea nuts and Balanites dates. We found them  along the ports, all the way. So the upper Egyptians here traveling down to Africa, dropped the date pits that carry markers of their identity, showing that they were there and interacting with other people. Keeping your identity doesn’t mean you’re closed, you will still interact and engage and and even in the very close, intimate context, in the food offering in the tomb, people don’t just bring in their tombs random life histories, but they bring things that were meaningful to them. So they brought their identity food, they buried it with them. And they also buried the foods they were introduced to by other cultures. In this case, I had pomegranite and Juniper coming from the Mediterranean, and I had watermelon coming from tropical Africa, and frankincense, also coming from tropical Africa.  This was also useful for me during the quarantine, as I treated myself many times without going to the doctor by food. I brought my samples from the lab, and I started to eat some of the modern ones, not the ancient. So one time I got a gum infection, I knew that the tree species Hatshepsut brought from tropical Africa, one of their uses is having it as a gum, and it is healthy for your for your gum infection. And actually for your throat, the smell goes down in your throat, and it cleans your lungs. Of course, this is not completely tested in lab. But I’m building on some educated guesses from published research, better than none. I cannot go to my lab and test the efficiency right now. But at least I have some educated guesses. And what inspired me of this, my mom before she passed away, when I grew up as a child, she avoided me from eating like this gum full of sugar, processed sugar. And she had me eat this traditional myrrh and mastic gums that were actually not native to Egypt, but one of the most common imports from tropical Africa or south east Africa, that Hatshepsut depicted on her wall and made propaganda about interacting with these people.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:41

Wow, I have a feeling that you’re going to be going in so many different directions in your next phase of your research and your life. And I can see you even being a consultant on the next version of Game of Thrones! You’re full of data and facts and information that they didn’t even get into. So before we wrap up, I’d love you to tell us what is your dream for the future? And where do you hope your work and research will go and build on?

Dr. Amr Shahat  34:23

You ask a lot of wonderful questions. And before I actually say this, you and Dr. May, and I should also credit Dr. William McCarthy, were among the most inspiring people I have ever met, not only in the Fielding School of Public Health, but in UCLA, or actually in my life. Because it is the synergy between the three of you that opened this whole new way to think of my data completely differently. I was just digging, bringing these plants, identifying them botanically, and I say what their significance is for history. I never thought that I would even say anything helpful for food scientists, for cancer researchers, like Dr. William McCarthy was in the Center for Cancer Prevention. So and when my mom actually passed away from cancer, and I started to connect, my dream was to do anything helpful with archaeology, and you made me feel I found a home for my ideas. Now, I can bring the past to serve the present in a way that heals my heart for the loss of my mother to cancer. And I knew the underpinning causes because it was a cancer related to obesity and diabetes. So here in a kind of divine timing, all the phases I experienced in my life growing up in Egypt and coming to America, from  Memphis, Tennessee, and then to UCLA. I felt everything coming in a full circle that makes sense now.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:05

Wow, I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing the next steps. And thank you so much for your kind words, and most of all, your incredible passion and ability to communicate complicated subjects in a way that is digestible, and relatable. And I hope that maybe we’ll be able to find that the nutrients in the soil along the Nile and other places can be rejuvenated to go back to a healthier time so we can grow healthier food. Because I think a lot of people don’t realize that even though you might be growing wheat or other foods in and producing it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as nutritious as it could be or was in the past. That’s problem for us for our current food system. And we need to recover from that. And it’s possible regenerative practices for soil have been shown to be effective. It just takes patience and time.

Dr. Amr Shahat  37:08

That is true, and your class was actually an eye opener to this.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:12

Fantastic. Well, thank you again, and we’re going to post some of your research on the web for all the listeners that want to learn more, and follow your career. Thank you.

Dr. Amr Shahat  37:27

Thank you so much.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:31

Thank you for tuning into UCLA Live Well. For more information about today’s episode and the resources mentioned, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA live well on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Get to know us a little better and follow us @healthyUCLA. If you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, tweet your idea to us, please. Have a wonderful rest of your day, and we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well being.

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