Image: Ancient Egyptian Food
In an article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science 46 (2014): 114–124, a group of French scientists report on a study of carbon present in the remains of mummies who lived in Egypt between 3500 and 600 B.C. to discover what ancient Egyptians ate.
The tests were conducted on forty-five mummies that were brought to France during the 19th century. The results indicate that Egyptian diet consisted mostly of fruits and vegetables.
A summary of the article published in Inside Science says that the “hair of the mummies corresponded to that found in hair of modern European vegetarians, confirming that the ancient Egyptians were also mainly vegetarians. As is the case with many modern people, their diet was wheat-and barley-based.”
This conclusion seems to indicate that the Egyptian people used the fertility of the Nile to cultivate crops along the river. In antiquity, the Egyptians developed a system of irrigation that allowed them to cultivate crops very effectively.
One surprise in the diet of ancient Egyptians was the amount of fish people ate.
The article in Inside Science quotes Kate Spence, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge says that the lack of fish in Egyptian diet is not unexpected:
Most people would probably expect the ancient Egyptians living along the Nile to have eaten loads of fish. However, despite considerable cultural evidence, there seems to have been little fish in their diet.
There is abundant evidence for fishing in Egyptian wall reliefs and models (both spear and net fishing), and fish shows up in offering lists. There is also a lot of archeological evidence for fish consumption from sites such as Gaza and Amama, said Spence, who added that some texts indicated that a few fish species were not consumed due to religious associations.
The fact that some fish were not consumed in Egypt due to religious association may explain the reason for the first plague against the Egyptians.
At the command of God, “In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials [Aaron] lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died” (Exodus 7:20-21). Since ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile and the sprouting of vegetation, the lack of fish was a sign that the god who provided sustenance for the people could not provide for them in their hour of need.
However, this lack of fish in the diet of the people is also surprising in light of what the Bible says about the diet of the people of Israel while they were in Egypt. In Numbers 11:5, the people of Israel told Moses: “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
According to the biblical text, in Egypt the Israelites ate mostly vegetables, fruits, and fish. George Rawlinson, in his book Egypt and Babylon from Sacred and Profane Sources has the following to say about the diet of the Egyptians and the Israelites in Egypt:
Fish, which they “did eat in Egypt freely,” was undoubtedly one of the principal articles of food consumed by the lower orders. Herodotus says that a certain number of the poorer Egyptians lived entirely on fish. It was so abundant that it was necessarily cheap.
The Nile produced several kinds, which were easily caught. The fishermen of Egypt formed a numerous class, and the salting and drying of fish furnished occupation to a large number of persons.
The quantity of vegetable food which the poorer Egyptians consumed is noted by Diodorus, and Herodotus makes out that the labourers whom Khufu (Cheops) employed to build the great pyramid subsisted mainly, if not wholly, on radishes, onions, and garlic.
Cucurbitaceous vegetables are at present among the most abundant productions of the Egyptian soil, and the monuments frequently exhibit them. On the whole, therefore, the dietary assigned to the Israelites in Egypt may be pronounced such as the country was well capable of furnishing, and such as agrees in most particulars with the ordinary food of the Egyptian labouring class (1885:244-45).
The results of the tests conducted on the remains of these mummies reveal that the food they ate was similar to the food the Israelites said they ate when they were in Egypt. This is no surprise, since the dates for some of these mummies correspond to the dates Israel lived in Egypt.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Rawlinson, George. Egypt and Babylon from Sacred and Profane Sources. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885.