Few cultures in history have been as fascinating to modern people as Ancient Egypt. What most people today don’t realize is just how long that civilization lasted. The length of time between the building of the Great Pyramid and the end of Ancient Egyptian civilization was longer than the time between the end of that civilization and today. The whole of Ancient Egypt spans thousands of years, 30 centuries in fact. That’s a long time by anyone’s standards, which is why there are so many surprising things that occurred.
10. Little People Were Respected and Revered
We tend to think of older societies as regressive and our own as more progressive. That’s certainly a matter for debate on both sides, but if you’re looking to defend the position of ancient societies, Egypt would be a good place to start. There is ample evidence to suggest that they did not view conditions like achondroplasia and others that led to dwarfism as anything to be ashamed of or mocked the way other societies have.
In Ancient Egypt, little people were accepted into society and have been depicted in any number of common jobs. Artwork on tombs shows little people working as jewelers, dancers, nurses and more. Some were clearly high-ranking officials in the service of pharaohs. At least one was buried in a lavish tomb near the pyramids.
Several gods in the Egyptian pantheon have also been depicted as little people. Ptah, the creator of the universe and Bes, a goddess of love and childbirth, were both shown to be little people in some cases. The idea that people who were born looking different from the majority of other people were made that way by the gods was ingrained in Egyptian society. Any kind of condition that later peoples might consider a birth defect or deformity was generally accepted as being the will of the gods and therefore perfectly normal to Ancient Egyptians.
9. They Shaved to Mourn Pets
People love their pets. The global pet industry today is worth close to $100 billion. There are people who are starving that will feed their pets before they feed themselves. This desire to care for animals is one that has deep roots, and the Ancient Egyptians were no different.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the Egyptians greatly revered cats and that many of their deities had the aspects of animals. But in day-to-day life, the treatment of animals was still some next level stuff.
In modern times,the process of mourning has become a little more subdued than it was in the past. We still wear black to funerals, but in a bygone era some people would wear black for months or longer as a sign of mourning. For Ancient Egyptians, mourning pets had its own rituals.
According to Herodotus, if a cat were to die of natural causes, the mourners were to shave their eyebrows. But if a dog died in the house, then all the hair on your body had to go.
8. They First Identified the Brain
When you consider just how incredible modern medicine is and all the lives that have been saved since the advent of things like insulin and penicillin, it’s kind of amazing to think of how it all started. Doctors once believed too much blood made you sick. Known poisons were used to treat illnesses. We blamed some conditions on evil spirits. We’ve definitely come a long way.
For as much as we do know, there is still so much we don’t. The human brain is largely a mystery to science. The idea that we are conscious, that we have a personality that defines each and every individual somehow housed inside our brain, is just not something science can account for yet. But the road to understanding the brain goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt.
The first case of anyone writing about the human brain dates back to 1700 BC on an Egyptian papyrus scroll. The document covers the treatment of a skull fracture with an exposed brain. The prognosis probably wasn’t good for any patient at that time and the scroll actually recommends not treating that particular injury, but it did at least identify the organ.
There is evidence to suggest the scroll was written in 1700 BC but copied from earlier texts. Those may date back to the year 3000 BC. The Ancient Egyptians may not have fully understood the importance of the brain, and in fact there is evidence that they didn’t think it served much of a purpose at all, but they were advanced enough to discover it and understand that it could cause death if it was damaged.
7. They Invented Bowling
Every great sport had to start somewhere. A Canadian working in Massachusetts invented basketball. We consider Walter Camp the progenitor of football. And bowling, that belongs to the Egyptians.
Sir Flinders Petrie, British archaeologist and well-named gentleman, discovers the remains of what appeared to be a child’s bowling set back in the 1930s.The equipment dates back to 3200 BC making bowling one of the oldest games in the world.
There are drawings in tombs that place bowling even earlier in Egyptian history. These go as far back as 5200 BC. The modern game and that version likely have a few differences, but the fundamentals are there.
6. They Had Cheetah House Cats
As much as Egyptians seemed to revere cats, it can be hard to have a good understanding of what that means. People today love cats and they built the internet, in part, on funny cat videos. Of course the Egyptians loved cats. But to fully appreciate how much you need to look at the kinds of cats they loved.
Artwork from the time period suggests that tabby cats were likely a part of everyday life in Ancient Egypt. But there was more to it than all that. For some, in particular royalty, an average cat was maybe too average For that reason they kept more exotic cats as pets, including things like lions and cheetahs.
The size of cheetahs would have made them the more likely pet for most people, given that they are closer to large dogs than lions are. Cheetahs were also tamed and traded, and there was an industry involved in doing so. They were used as hunting companions and, naturally, admired for their speed.
Like any large, wild cat, they didn’t particularly have a fear of humans. Unlike some, they apparently have a relatively friendly disposition, one that at least lends itself to being tamed more easily than others.
5. They Invented Pregnancy Tests
In the field of medicine, the Egyptians were innovators in many ways that would be a surprise to modern society. For instance, modern home pregnancy tests were first developed in the late 1960s. That was a big innovation and arguably changed the world. But they were not the first pregnancy tests by any means. Egyptians had developed a test as far back as 1400 BC.
Back then, the method still involved testing urine, but things worked a little differently. For this test, they required the woman to urinate into two bags. One contained barley and one wheat. If either of the grains sprouted, then you could consider yourself pregnant.
Now based entirely on the way that sounds, you’d likely be willing to dismiss it out of hand as completely foolish and unreliable. It sounds like any other quack medicine based on superstition from a bygone era. Except that the National Institute of Health tested this method back in 1963 and found it to be about 70% effective, which is a decent number. Their thinking was that the elevated levels of estrogen in a pregnant woman’s urine would have promoted the grains to sprout when otherwise urine would not be able to get the job done.
4. And Maybe All Modern Medicine
The term “modern” medicine does necessarily have a very firm meaning. Some people consider the medical advances of the Industrial Revolution to be the start of modern medicine. There are plenty of sources that will say the Ancient Greeks invented modern medicine as well. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Islamic-Arabic origins of modern medicine. But Ancient Egyptian medicine predates them all.
Documents from 1500 BC show that the Egyptians had a grasp on pharmacy and medicine, long before other civilizations started making their own advances and discoveries. And they weren’t just wishful thinking. They treated wounds with things like honey and antimicrobial metals. They knew to give castor oil as a laxative and treated colic in babies with methods still used today.
After a thorough investigation, modern researchers were able to identify numerous Egyptian drugs and treatments that survived into the 20th century and are still the basis for current treatments. Since Greeks didn’t get a jump on their own medical understanding until around the 5th century BC, the Egyptians had a massive jump on things.
3. Embalmers Upsold Death
If there’s one thing that just about anyone in the modern world can easily surmise about the Ancient Egyptians, it’s that, for them, death was a very big deal. Not that our society doesn’t take death and the surrounding rituals seriously, but the lengths Ancient Egyptians went to for the dead are monumental. Literally, in fact, since the pyramids were tombs for the dead. Mummies, detailed sarcophagi, and more indicate death was one of the most important parts of life.
It should be no surprise then that the people who handled death had a lot going on in their lives. The funeral industry in Ancient Egypt was impressive, and embalmers had wide-sweeping business. They had the massive gold sarcophagi for those who could afford them, but every day folks had options as well. There were lower budget burial masks with gold foil instead of solid gold. Painted clay jars instead of alabaster. A veritable spice shop of herbs and substances needed to make a mummy.
An ancient embalming chamber discovered at Saqqara showed how elaborate the whole process was. Located deep underground with channels dig for airflow and blood flow, the business was very intricate. The process of making a mummy took 70 days, so it had to be. Not only were they providing a vital service, they were offering a wide array of products to fit every budget in a way that oddly reflects the modern funeral industry.
2. They Were Big on Beer
Beer has been a part of human society for centuries. Research has shown beer dating back to ancient Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago and Egypt around the same time. Iran may have had even older beer, and China older still. But Egypt did seem to have a unique approach to it.
Modern beer and ancient beer are typically different things when you compare recipes. The process for making the beer is obviously very different, and the ingredients were typically different as well. But chemical analysis of Ancient Egyptian breweries indicates that the Egyptians may have been making a brew that was incredibly similar to modern beers.
Their recipe included both wheat and barley. The addition of barley is something more often associated with modern methods than those from several thousand years ago. But gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and infrared spectroscopy of ancient vats also shows things like phosphoric acid. That’s a by-product you’ll find in a modern brew that comes thanks to the addition of hops. It serves as a flavor enhancer and a preservative.
Other compounds known from modern beers like caprylic acid, capric acid, laurate, and geranyl acetone have also been discovered. That means there’s a good chance that while the pharaohs weren’t exactly sipping Budweiser, they weren’t far off.
1. The Dead Had Golden Tongues
There’s an old expression to describe someone who is a good speaker: silver-tongue. Anyone who’s a smooth talker merits the description. A gold tongue is something else altogether, though.
While it wasn’t unusual for some Egyptian mummies to be buried with gold and valuables, we’ve all seen Tutantakamen’s elaborate burial mask, a gold tongue was something unusual. Still, a number of mummies have been discovered with them.
A number of mummies discovered in tombs near Alexandria were unearthed with the golden amulets in their mouths. Shaped like tongues, the belief was that these would allow the dead to speak before Osiris in the afterlife.