Frazzled Hair and Clogged Arteries: Stress in the Ancient World

We, sitting comfortably in front of our computers here in the 21st century, a mocha-choca-frappe-latte possibly close at hand, like to complain a lot about stress.

Balancing the demands of work, family, health and the full range of entertainment offered our by multi-channel digital TV package, is after all a trying daily endeavour. Its blissful to believe that life was somehow calmer and simpler in the quaint days of ancient history. But the findings of some new studies have suggested that that firmly was not the case.

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been detected in the hair of ancient Peruvians considerably higher levels, it should be noted, than those detected in the hair of humans today.

A different investigation of CT-scans of Egyptian mummies, meanwhile, has suggested that atherosclerosis a hardening of the arteries that causes strokes and heart attacks, and can be brought on by stress may have been a major problem in the land of the pharaohs.

Both scans promise to add to a new line of anthropological investigation that is gradually telling us a lot not just about what the ancients did, but also how they felt and how it effected their actions.

Tearing Their Hair Out

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the body when it experiences real and perceived threats. It can be found everywhere from blood to saliva, urine and hair. Anthropologist Emily Webb and her team at the University of Western Ontario measured cortisol in hair from 10 individuals discovered buried at five different sites in Peru. They found that in the years and months before their deaths these poor souls were literally tearing their hair out with worry.

Accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Webbs study cites various pressures including food availability, drought conditions and nutritional stress, as having potentially contributed to the ancient Peruvians agitated state. They may also have endured threats, real or perceived, to physical or social integrity, i.e., to health, safety and well-being, she told Discovery News. Wild animals, rival tribes, invading Spaniards who knows what fears might have been playing upon their minds?

Societal Pressures, New and Old

“Our society effectively protects us from extreme year-to-year differences in food availability, but as individuals, we still experience considerable stress in our lives for other reasons.”

The average cortisol levels in ancient Peruvians were shown to be higher than those found in the hair of modern Canadians. Are we to assume, then, that stress is less of a problem in the modern world than it was in the ancient? Not necessarily. While our globalised 21st century society serves to insulate us from primal threats, it also serves up new, modern anxieities. A recent survey by a British life assurance firm found that larger, more vague fears about issues such as identity theft, terrorism and health risks are what distress people most today.

A society serves as a protective buffer, said Webb, and while our society effectively protects us from, for example, extreme year-to-year differences in food availability, as individuals, we still experience considerable stress in our lives for other reasons. You can be sure that ancient Peruvians didnt lay awake at night sweating about things like credit crunches and global warming. (That said, the eco-friendly Maya of South America did worry about forest conservation).

Worried Mummies

Examinations of CT-scans of Egyptian mummies carried out by a cardiologist at Saint Lukes Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City have revealed that stress was perhaps a big problem among the upper classes of ancient Egypt too.

Out of sixteen mummies all of them of high social status, including priests and members of pharaohs’ households nine suffered from atherosclerosis. This could, of course, have been brought on by bad diets, lack of exercise or smoking. But stress may well have been a factor too.

Perhaps they represent some of the first examples of work-related stress? The mummy with the worst case of atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, a nursemaid to Queen Nefertiti. She died around 1530 BC between the age of 30 and 40 likely from her calcified arteries. Nefertiti was a powerful and beautiful queen in an age when such privileges generally werent enjoyed humbly. Quite possibly she was a bit of a slave-driver its maybe not out of the questions to speculate that she stressed her unfortunate nursemaid to death.

On the Couch With the Ancients

In a wider sense, studies such as these and others into such subjects as, say, tendencies towards sexual promiscuity in the prehistoric world represent a whole new avenue of anthropological study. Weve long been able to make educated guesses at what the ancients did and how they lived their physical actions. Now, in different ways, we can begin to investigate how they felt too, and how that effected the way they led their lives.

According to Webb: Combined with archaeological reconstructions of past communities and societies, and traditional bioarchaeological approaches to understanding stress, health and well-being, research like this will significantly enrich our ability to reconstruct ancient life histories, and let us explore individualized experiences of people who died hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A new chance to stress about stressed people as if we werent all anxious enough already.