The 3,500-year-old skeleton of an ancient Nubian woman may be one of the world’s earliest known cases of rheumatoid arthritis, scientists say.
Archaeologists discovered the woman’s skeletal remains in 2018 while excavating a cemetery located along the banks of the Nile near Aswan, in southern Egypt. Analyzes revealed that she would have stood about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, was about 25 to 30 years old when she died, and lived sometime between 1750 and 1550 BC. The researchers published their case study in the March issue of International Journal of Paleopathology.
BECAUSE pier was so well preserved and contained most of her bones, including her hands and feet, researchers were able to perform a complete osteological analysis of the remains.
“In many archaeological cases, you don’t often get the complete skeleton,” the study’s lead author Madeleine Mant, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada, told Live Science. The woman’s well-preserved remains “gave us the opportunity to look at this disorder that actively attacks the small bones of the hands and feet and talk about it with a little more certainty,” she said.
Analyzes of the woman’s limbs revealed that she likely had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues, resulting in inflammation, especially in the joints. today, doctors diagnose the condition using a combination of bone imaging and blood tests that look for proteins associated with inflammation and for antibodies trained to attack the body’s tissues.
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Of course, in this case, the scientists could only look at the bones.
“The joint surfaces themselves were not damaged, and in many other types of arthritis you destroy where the two bones meet,” the study co-author. Mindy Pitre, an associate professor and chair of anthropology at the University of St. Lawrence in New York, told Live Science. “In our case, we had no destruction of where the bones meet.”
Instead, the researchers observed “cavitations or erosive lesions with smoothed holes” in the woman’s bones, which point to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, Pitre said.
“I’m used to seeing osteoarthritis – it’s one of the most common joint conditions we see archaeologically,” Pitre added. “It looks like bone on bone where you get this smooth, ivory-like appearance. In rheumatoid, you don’t get that at all. The minute I knew it, I noticed the lesions didn’t look typical.”
Today, less than 1% of the global adult population has a diagnosis of this disorder, according to a 2023 study in Lancet Rheumatology. In contrast, it is estimated that nearly 8% of the global population has osteoarthritis.
“It would not be surprising that, from an archaeological point of view, it would be very rare to have in ancient Egypt“Especially since people didn’t live long enough in the past to show these types of lesions.”
The earliest clinically described cases of RA did not occur until thousands of years later in 17th-century Europe, with zero mention of the specific disease in ancient Egyptian texts, the authors wrote in the new study. Other instances of RA in the archaeological record include 5,500-year-old bones from ancient Egypt and 5,000-year-old human remains from Alabama.
The researchers said it is difficult to know what kind of impact RA had on the individual’s daily life, but she “likely experienced a reduced quality of life, especially as the condition progressed,” they wrote in the study. . The individual was found buried with grave goods, including a leather garment containing beads made from eggshells and ostrich stones, a pearl bracelet, and fragments of Nubian and Egyptian pottery.
“This person was likely dealing with a condition that caused swelling, pain and mobility issues,” Mant said. “We have to think about what it would have looked like for someone living in that landscape during that time.”