Brutal Realities of Life in Ancient Egypt


For years, we have all heard of the glories of Ancient Egypt and their technological marvels. Countless movies, articles, games and other media talk up how incredible it was, and the folks on Ancient Aliens have attributed to them almost every technology and magic you could imagine. However, the truth is that for the people of Ancient Egypt, things were not nearly so amazing as we imagine, and many of them would have thought that we were the ones who truly lived like kings.  

10. Dental Problems Were Common; Sand Grains In Bread May Have Played A Role 

Many times when you hear about Ancient Egypt, you will hear about all the incredible innovations they had in regards to their teeth. They were known for being one of the earliest cultures to use both toothpaste and toothbrushes as well. This might give people the idea that Ancient Egyptians had some of the best teeth of the ancient world, especially as we imagine that sugar wasn’t as big in diets as it is now, but the truth is that Ancient Egyptians had pretty horrible teeth and it is more than likely that all their innovations were mostly due to necessity. 

Ancient Egyptians lived in an extremely sandy environment, as we all know, and since they didn’t have advanced technology, or all of the insulation and other vacuums and things we have today, the sand was pretty much in everything all the time, and you really couldn’t get rid of it entirely. For this reason, Ancient Egyptians were always getting grit in their food, especially their bread, which was the most common thing they ate. This, along with regularly enjoying beer (or wine if they were rich) and diets full of sweet dates or honey (again, if they were rich), led to some really bad dental problems that they were constantly trying to find solutions for.

9. Lead Based Makeup Helped Fight Infections, But Also Caused Harm

Many ancient cultures were known to use lead based makeup, and now many cultures shake our heads in dismay, knowing in hindsight how toxic lead really is to be put on the skin like that. And many find it even more amusing or sad due to the fact that cultures tended to use it just for decoration, in an attempt to get that really nice black look around the eyes. However, while the Ancient Egyptians may not have been advanced enough to realize that lead was toxic, they did figure out that a compound they mixed made mostly of lead could help fight eye infections, something that was common among the Ancient Egyptian people, both due to the constant sand getting in people’s eyes, and diseases from the Nile River. 

Ancient Egyptian makeup samples from the Louvre have been found to contain lead based compounds that can boost nitric oxide in human skin cells, something that greatly boosts our body’s immune system response, which is helpful in fighting infections. Some of the compounds would have had to have been synthesized, which means a lot of work from Ancient Egyptian scientists and doctors likely went into making these medicinal makeup compounds. Unfortunately, they had no idea at the time that lead also causes all sorts of other health problems at the same time.  

8. Because Of Lice Worries, People Had To Shave Their Entire Bodies Constantly 

It was incredibly hot in Ancient Egypt, and back then people didn’t have showers with running water all the time, nor did they have modern air conditioning (despite what shows like Ancient Aliens would like you to believe). Along with that, they didn’t have modern medicine either, nor all of the tools for hygiene that we do today. For this reason, finding ways to stay cool, avoid disease, stay clean easier, and also avoid awful pests like lice, was very important. Because of that, most Ancient Egyptians shaved their heads entirely, and many sources contend that they regularly shaved the rest of their bodies as well — and we don’t just mean the women, either. 

Especially for any women reading this who know what it is like to shave more than your face, it can be difficult to imagine just how much of a regular chore this must have been for everyone who lived in Ancient Egypt. Shaving your entire body regularly, without modern tools, and avoiding infection or scrapes on your skin, had to be quite an ordeal. Many people also might feel this would affect fashion, with most of the women being bald, but they actually usually wore wigs much of the time — especially among the upper class. Among the Pharaohs, of course, fancy, golden headdresses were common to hide their baldness and show off their wealth and power. 

7. Ancient Egyptians Had To Worry About Hippopotamuses Swamping Their Boats 

One thing many people don’t realize is that the creature that kills the most people in Africa each year (the most dangerous creature on the continent!), and one that has been so since the ancient world, is not even a carnivore. It is the hippopotamus, beloved by American children, despite its aggressive disposition and horrifying power. Hippopotamuses are the only creature that ever really freaked out Steve Irwin, who carefully crossed the river with his crew while being extremely quiet, instead of trying to mess with them for fun. 

Now, while they may not live on the Nile River anymore today, they certainly did back in the days of Ancient Egypt, and were sometimes considered a bad omen because of how dangerous they were. They could easily swamp boats, drag people under and drown them, and just out of sheer aggression, could maul people to death with their huge mouths and teeth, even if they had no interest in eating them. They are so vicious they may have even killed a Pharaoh. While there are many theories as to how King Tut died, a more recent theory suggests that he was bitten to death by a hippo while out hunting (possibly while hunting hippos, which is something the upper class occasionally did). The support for this theory is that the Pharaoh had damage to his ribs, and was mummified without his heart or part of his chest wall, which some believe could support the idea that the Pharaoh was mauled to death while hunting the most actual dangerous game in Africa. 

6. Pharaohs Usually Had Bad Teeth, Heart Disease And Obesity 

Now, some people might imagine that the Pharaohs, being the richest of the rich, would have the most access to the best foods, and would be healthier than other Ancient Egyptians. This misconception is easy to believe, because the richer Egyptians usually did have more access to meat, vegetables and a chance at a somewhat varied diet. And typically, artwork depicts the Pharaohs as thin. However, evidence from actual mummies shows that many of the Pharaohs were quite fat, and extremely unhealthy, dying at an age that was young even for their time period, especially for someone with all their money and access to the best healthcare in the kingdom. 

The thing is the Pharaohs had pretty much all the power they could want, and usually skewed quite young even by older world standards, at least when they first hit the throne. With no one to tell them about moderation, many of their diets consisted almost entirely of honey, wine or beer (or both), and bread. This binging on a combination of carbs, alcohol, and pure sugar led to severe dental problems, hardening of the arteries and other heart problems, and obesity among the Pharaohs. Evidence has also shown that much of the upper class ate in a similar way when they could, likely because they didn’t fully understand the health consequences, so even if you were a high class Ancient Egyptian you were likely to deal with a lot of health problems from a poor diet. 

5. Crocodile Dung, With Its Alkaline Properties, Was Used As A Spermicide 

Today, we have a lot of advanced birth control options. There are pills women take on a regular basis to prevent pregnancy, we have many options for condoms (which have improved greatly since the days they were made of sheepskin), and there are other things like the diaphragm that work with spermicide to prevent pregnancy. However, if you lived in the days of Ancient Egypt, you may have had to deal with a much grosser way of attempting to avoid pregnancy. 

See, in the days of Ancient Egypt they didn’t have silicone molded objects they could use or modern spermicide, but they wanted something similar, so they mixed crocodile dung with sour milk and formed it into a paste that they then shoved into the vagina to make a sort of plug. Some researchers believe that as disgusting and unsanitary as it was, it may have worked alright, since crocodile dung does have alkaline properties — which would make it decent as a spermicide. However, it is unlikely anyone will even theoretically learn whether it really works or not, as it would not just be an unethical experiment, it would also be wholly disgusting. 

4. Jails Weren’t Really A Thing, So Punishments Were Extremely Harsh 

In Ancient Egypt, they didn’t really have the kind of long term jailing that we have now, as they didn’t consider it productive. To have someone taking up food and other resources while sitting in a cage and not working would have been pretty wasteful, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t punish people. If someone was found guilty of a crime, punishments often involved being badly beaten or lashed, or given some other strict physical penalty, up to and including death. And, of course, sometimes financial penalties were also involved. 

However, some Egyptologists had been puzzled for years as to whether some of the more extreme punishments had really been enacted — after all, we have some silly laws on the books in modern times that would never pass muster in a court of law. One that was considered particularly extreme stated that for some more extreme or violent crimes that didn’t warrant execution, they might be given 100 lashes and “five wounds.”

While it was so extreme researchers weren’t sure it was real, a recent discovery found skeletons that confirmed that punishment had happened to at least a few unfortunate men once — although we will never know what their particular crimes were. According to experts who examined the bones, the wounds were given on their backs with a spear, and the gouges were expertly done so the could keep living and working afterwards. 

3. Forced Suicide Could Sometimes Be A Punishment For Crimes 

Actually punishing someone with death was relatively rare in Ancient Egypt to begin with, even with the lack of prisons — people simply didn’t find need to kill each other that often, which was usually the only reason someone was actually executed. However, when someone was punished with death, it could be much tougher on you depending on what you did. If they felt you were truly evil and had sinned enough against the gods, they might burn your body, or impale you — two methods that could potentially cut you off from having a proper chance at a good afterlife. 

In some cases though, you could actually be punished with being told to kill yourself (presumably you’d have been killed anyway if you refused). One situation where this occurred was the failed Harem Plot against Pharaoh Ramses III. Several of the conspirators had to commit suicide, while some were killed and other minor players had their noses and ears cut off. Egyptologists who have studied the texts surrounding this and other references to forced suicide have struggled to find a single, unifying reason as to why it was chosen as a punishment over execution. 

2. The Ancient Egyptian Diet Wasn’t Varied, And Nutritional Deficiencies Were Common

As we mentioned earlier, the Pharaohs had a pretty bad diet, but there is also the diet of the common folk to talk about. While some of the upper class could afford meat on a more regular basis, and even more vegetables (even though we know some chose to eat a much worse diet anyway), the common folk really didn’t have that option. Most Ancient Egyptians couldn’t afford meat except on special occasions, and didn’t even eat that many veggies regularly, either. 

Most Ancient Egyptian diets consisted largely of bread, and was often supplemented with things like figs or dates, and honey if they could afford it. The common people drank a lot of beer, while the upper class tended to drink wine more often. This led to all kinds of nutritional deficiencies — especially with iron, as they had almost no sources of iron, or even that many sources high in any real proteins either. And the truth is, no matter how hard you tried to have a healthy diet, unless you were rich, your diet was almost certainly not varied enough to get even close to a good nutritional balance, much less a proper one. 

1. Ancient Egyptians Had To Worry About Multiple Types Of Parasitic Worms 

Back in the days of the Ancient Egyptians, they didn’t have the kind of footwear choices we have today (this article is not sponsored by Nike… but it could be, Phil Knight! Call us!), and foot problems were common. Walking on sand wasn’t great for the feet and most people only had very basic sandals. However, even worse was when it came to working in water. If they were wading into water for whatever they did for work, or even just for fun, they had the risk of the schistosoma worm getting into their bodies through their feet, and then wreaking havoc on their internal organs. It would also weaken their immune system overall, so that it was easier for anything else to harm or kill them.

And to make matters worse, they could also end up dealing with the guinea worm as well, which entered the body through contaminated drinking water. The guinea worm would then travel down to the legs, doing damage on the way down, so that it could lay its eggs in its preferred spot. They could also get regular old hookworms as well, which could cause iron deficiency, anemia, and all kinds of other lovely symptoms. Perhaps they should have used some of that magic “ancient technology” and made more protective footwear.

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