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8-10-2015, 00:07

The Ancient Egyptian Diet

Bread and beer were the main staples of the ancient Egyptian diet. They were made from the two major cereals cultivated in Dynastic Egypt, emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and six-row barley (Hordeum vulgare subsp. Hexastichum). Tomb scenes of baking and brewing are known, as are three-dimensional models of these activities (see Figure 3.1). At Giza 4*h-Dynasty bakeries have been excavated, and real bread has been preserved in some Predynastic and later burials. Bread was made from flour ground on grinding stones and mixed with water that was then kneaded and left to rise. The dough could be shaped in a flat loaf or baked in ceramic molds. Potsherds from bread molds are often found in the remains of ancient settlements.

Delwen Samuel, a paleoethnobotanist at the University of Cambridge, has studied residues of ancient Egyptian beer from jars. According to her analyses, most household beer was made from barley in a two-part process. Brewing was done by sprouting (malting) one batch of barley and then mixing it in water with another batch that had been malted and heated. The mixture was then sieved and it fermented in jars. This type of beer was highly nutritious, with complex carbohydrates, sugars, and B vitamins.

Alfred Lucas, a chemist who studied ancient Egyptian materials, describes another technique of beer making that he observed, as practiced by present-day Nubians in Egypt, and various techniques may have been used in ancient times. For bouza, the Nubians make a dough of ground wheat with added yeast. The dough is then lightly baked and broken up. To ferment, moist ground wheat that has been exposed to the air is mixed with the bread pieces. After fermentation the mixture is sieved.

Although domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were raised in pharaonic Egypt, the major source of animal protein for most people was fish, including Nile perch, catfish, and mullets. Beef was used as offerings in temples, and would have been consumed by priests and persons of high status. Geese were domesticated, providing both meat and eggs. The chicken, which originated in southeast Asia, is not well attested in Egypt until Persian times.

Wild animals were also hunted for their meat, but as human habitation expanded in the lower Nile Valley populations of wild mammals declined or disappeared.

Wild cattle, addax, antelope, hartebeest, gazelle, ibex, Barbary sheep, and oryx were found in the desert, as were ostriches. (Other desert fauna included lions and hyenas,

The Ancient Egyptian Diet

Figure 3.1 Wooden model of a bakery/brewery, from the 12th-Dynasty tomb of Meketra, Deir el-Bahri. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum Excavations, 1919-20; Rogers Fund supplemented by contribution of Edward S. Harkness (20.3.12). All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Which were not hunted for food.) In pharaonic times many of these desert fauna were hunted for sport by royalty and nobles; hunting dogs similar to the greyhound were used for this.

Hippopotamuses were found in the Egyptian Nile in prehistoric times and may have been hunted for food (and the ivory of their canines), but they were also hunted because they could be very destructive in cultivated fields. The crocodile is another Nilotic animal that was hunted because of its danger to humans. The Nile Valley was also a major corridor for migratory fowl, some of which were hunted for food (especially species of duck and geese) using nets or throw sticks.

A number of vegetables were consumed by the ancient Egyptians, including onions, lettuce, radishes, and garlic, and types of cucumber, leek, and squash/gourd. The tubers of river plants, including papyrus, were also eaten, as were lotus seeds. Legumes such as chickpeas, peas, fava beans, and lentils provided protein as well.

Dates from the date palm were the most plentiful fruit in ancient Egypt, but only after hand pollination was practiced. It is not known when this tree first arrived in Egypt, where it was not indigenous, unlike the dom palm, which has a bifurcated trunk and produces a large brown fruit. Figs (both the common fig and sycomore fig), persea, melon, watermelon, and wild Zizyphus berries were also consumed. Pomegranate and carob trees became more common in the New Kingdom. Grapes were grown not only to eat but also to make wine. Large jars of wine were provided for King Tutankhamen in his tomb and there are numerous tomb scenes of wine production.

Although there is evidence of olives in ancient Egypt, olive trees do not grow well in southern parts of the country, and olive oil was an imported luxury commodity. For sweetening, honey was produced in ceramic hives. Fenugreek was used as a spice and possibly after the seeds were removed the stems provided fodder for livestock. Coriander, cumin, and dill were available from the New Kingdom onward.