The Ancient Egyptian Diet

In today’s lecture, Ethan briefly mentioned the diet of ancient Egyptians consisted of three items: bread, beer, and onions. Bread and beer were the biggest staples in the Egyptian diet, as both the lower and higher class consumed each daily. The main grain grown in Egypt was emmer, also known as farro. Emmer was used to make both their bread and beer. Their beer was made from crumbling bread into vats and letting it naturally ferment in water. This process created a clouded and thick beer that was actually nutritious, and like Ethan mentioned, full of protein.

Looking further into their diet, I came across an article from Inside Science that explained how scientists used carbon dating to determine what food was consumed by ancient Egyptians. Scientists looked at isotopes in the hair, bones, and enamel of 45 mummies . They then compared the isotopes found to those present in vegetables and other food items to determine what food was eaten. Contradictory to what Ethan said about one room in the Wall of the Crow settlement containing an abundance of fish scales, bones, and fishing tools, isotopes show that fish was not regularly eaten. This is especially surprising since there was a large selection of fish in the nearby Nile River. There’s evidence however, that some fish were not eaten because they were believed to be sacred. When fish was prepared, it was typically roasted, boiled, or preserved by salting and drying it in the sun.

Onions were popular, as Ethan noted, and they were also used for medical purposes. Honey was used by the wealthy as a sweetener whereas the impoverished typically used dates as they were easier and cheaper to obtain. Dates and other fruits were dried or sometimes fermented to make wine.

One surprising finding from the carbon dating study was that for the most part, ancient Egyptians had a constant diet. The scientists conducting the study said that they had expected changes in their diets over time. The other finding was that ancient Egyptians kept relatively vegetarian diets. The mummies the scientists studied had little intake of meat and fish in their diets according to the carbon isotopes. There is contrasting evidence on this conclusion considering an abundance of animal bones found at sites and depictions of meat and fish in their artwork.

Much of what we know about the ancient Egyptian diet comes from what was illustrated in their artwork. Depictions of banquets, game, and food preparation allow archaeologists and anthropologists to draw conclusions about their diets and lifestyles. Other evidence, such as carbon dating and artifacts found at sites, can confirm these conclusions.

2 thoughts on “The Ancient Egyptian Diet

  1. As a dietetics major who loves learning about food, nutrition, and its relationship to health effects on our bodies, I loved reading your post about the ancient Egyptian diet. I find it fascinating to learn about what foods were commonly eaten by early civilizations and how they utilized agricultural resources to nourish their bodies. You mentioned that Emmer, also known as farro, was the main grain grown in Egypt and actually, farro is an excellent source of nutrients, minerals, and complex carbohydrates. It is high in fiber, protein, magnesium, iron, as well as more antioxidants than other types of wheat. When looking more into the nutritional content of farro, I found that farro contains a carbohydrate called cyanogenic glucosides, which improve the immune system, lower cholesterol, and maintain proper blood sugar levels. This grain definitely would have helped nourish the ancient Egyptians.

    I also liked how you mentioned the Nile River as a source of food for the ancient Egyptians. Looking more into this, I found that because the Egyptians had access to the Nile River, they were able to consume foods such as vegetables, fruit, and fish. This goes to show that the ancient Egyptians were very fortunate in that the fertile soil from the Nile River allowed them to produce an abundance of foods making them food secure. I agree with your point about how fish not being eaten often is surprising because of the Nile River, however in my own research, I found that part of this confusion could be due to the fact that Alexandria and the coast of Egypt consume a lot of fish, but the typical ancient Egyptians consumed mostly a vegetarian diet, like you mentioned, and foods that were grown in the ground. The Egyptians believed that vegetables were healthy, which may indicate that they had some background of nutrition knowledge. Beans were a major source of protein in their diet. Additionally, I found that meat was only eaten on special occasions because it was so expensive and there was not much land available for grazing.

    Your point about using the carbon dating by comparing isotopes in the hair, bones, and enamel of 45 mummies to determine what foods the ancient Egyptians actually consumed was very interesting. I was not aware of this process before you mentioned it, but it actually sounds like a great way to obtain accurate information regarding their diet, which gives us a look into their lifestyle. You also mentioned that their artwork allows people to draw conclusions about the Egyptian diet. I decided to look up some of their artwork after you mentioned this and I found one piece of artwork interesting. It was a man milking a cow, which could indicate that the Egyptians did consume dairy products. I thought this was interesting based on what we know about them having a typical vegetarian diet.

    Lastly, an interesting find while researching this topic was that the workers of the Pyramids of Giza actually were paid in beer, bread, and onions, which we learned in class are the three staples of the Egyptian diet, like you mentioned.

    Overall, your post really intrigued me and it made me interested in further researching this topic. It is so fascinating to learn about how the Egyptians were able to use their agricultural resources, such as the Nile River, and utilize its soil to grow an abundance of food, which ultimately made them food secure and allowed them to properly nourish their bodies.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, especially how you incorporated findings from the carbon dating study. The thing that I find interesting about the Ancient Egyptian diet is that it was primarily vegetarian. As you mentioned, bread, beer and onions were consumed regularly as they were readily available. I found out that apart from emmer, barley was also used to make bread and beer. It is not surprising, however, that the noble in ancient Egypt fed on a meat-centered diet almost similar to the Western diet as they could afford it. They ate beef, goat, gazelle, antelope and sheep and their meals were generally more varied. Wine was also common among the rich. It is believed that the life expectancy of a member of the noble class was about forty to fifty years, with the cause of death being or related to high-fat diets.
    I believe that the reason why ancient Egyptians avoided fish in their diets was mostly due to religious reasons. I came across an article that talked about how Herodotus had mentioned that it was not acceptable in the feasts offered to the gods or in the tombs of the dead. There is even a speculation that a pharaoh by the name Piankhi refused to eat with the nobles of a certain region because their diet included fish. I find this interesting because I never would have guessed before that there are cultures which do not consume fish.
    I was curious about how the ancient Egyptians conducted themselves during banquets. It was striking to note that they sat according to their social status – wealthy guests sat on taller chairs while the poor sometimes sat directly on the ground. Also, they were expected to wash their hands before eating, use their fingers while eating and avoid staring at or wasting their food at all times.

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