The inhabitants of Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD were on a diet largely based on fruit and veg and contaied little fish and meat, whiole it changed little over time. This is what a University of Lyon team of physical anthropoligists found by studying the carbon atoms in a group of 45 mummies now housed in two museums in Lyon, France since the 19th century.

Contrary to other researchers, who base their findings on examining hair, collagen and proteins from human remains, the research team led by Alexandra Touzeau, also worked with bones and teeth, extracting and studying carbon atoms remaining on them as a direct consequence of plant consumption.

As explained in a related news piece published in Live Science website, “carbon atoms are taken in by plants from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis. By eating plants, and the animals that had eaten plants, the carbon ends up in our bodies”. This quality allowes researchers to make assumptions on the amount of fruit/veg but also animal products people ate.

Lyon University researchers proceeded in measuring isotope ratios, mainly carbon-12 and carbon-13, as the two stable isotopes existing in carbon, and then associating them with two plant categories: C3 (garlic, eggplants, pears, lentils and wheat) and C4 (foodstuffs like millet and sorghum).

“The common C3 plants take in less of the heavier isotope carbon-13, while the C4 plants take in more. By measuring the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 you can distinguish between these two groups. If you eat a lot of C3 plants, the concentration of carbon-13 isotopes in your body will be lower than if your diet consisted mainly of C4 plants”, Live Science states.

What was surprising was that isotope ratios from the mummies’ hair corresponded to that found in hair of modern European vegetarians. As is the case with many modern people, their diet was wheat- and barley-based. C4 cereals, like millet and sorghum, were only a minor part of the diet, less than 10 percent. Isotopes also shown that fish was not eaten as often as it was expected on the basis of the wide representation of fishing in Egyptian art and of archaeological evidence (e.g. Giza and Amarna). A third result was that diet did not change over time, as, despite the Nile region becoming incresingly arid between 3500 BC and 600 AD, Egyptians had managed to control their natural environment (through irrigation) and sustain their agricultural production to a certain level.

“When the level of the Nile decreased, farmers just came closer to the river and kept on cultivating in the same way”, explains Cambridge Egyptologist Kate Spence.