By Rossella Lorenzi
Researchers in Portugal have found the first radiological outline of a kidney in an ancient Egyptian mummy and the oldest case of renal tuberculosis.
Kept at the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, Portugal, the mummy, of unknown provenance, dates back to some 2,800 years.
“It’s a male named Irtieru. We do not know exactly what he did in life, but the quality of his cartonnage links him to an elite family,” professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Discovery News.
She noted the white cartonnage decorated in polychrome, on which Irtieru's name is painted vertically, is typical of the Twenty-Second Dynasty (about 945–712 BC).
X-Rays (radiography and CT scans) revealed Irtieru rests in his coffin with his arms lying alongside his body and with his hands crossed over his body. He was tall for his time, about 5.61 feet, and died between 35 and 45 years of age.
The researchers’ attention, however, was drawn by a small, bean-shaped structure at the left lumbar region. To their knowledge, this is the first time a kidney has been depicted in X-Rays.
“This kidney display only happened as a consequence of a pathologic preservation, since Irtieru was affected by an end-stage renal tuberculosis,” Carlos Prates, a radiologist at Imagens Médicas Integradas in Lisbon, told Discovery News.
Calcification outlines Irtieru’s putty kidney. The disease is characterized by a slow progression of fibrous lesions and calcifications.
Detailing their findings in The International Journal of Paleopathology, Prates, Ikram and colleagues argue that the diagnosis for kidney turberculosis is supported by the anatomical location, and morphologic and structural analysis of the organ.
Prates added that the only known transformative process that could lead to such condition is renal tuberculosis.
“If this diagnosis is correct this would be the oldest recorded case of this disease,” the researchers wrote.
Irtieru's renal disorder is the reason his kidney was visible in the radiological analysis.
Kidneys did not seem to be well understood in ancient Egypt. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus reported that these organs were usually not removed, because they were considered unimportant and difficult to extract through the embalming cut.
“It is possible that kidneys exist in more mummies but simply have gone unnoticed,” Ikram said.
She added these organs completely decay or are altered by the embalming process to the point that they become indistinguishable.
Most likely, kidney turbeculosis wasn’t Irtieru's cause of death.
“Earlier on, sometimes several years, Irtieru's must have endured, and resisted, a more threatening event: his initial lung infection,” he said.
Irtieru is one of the three human mummies studied at the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon along with seven animal mummies.
The task, known as Lisbon Mummy Project, began in 2007 and led to some new paleopathology findings, one of them being at rare prostate cancer in a mummy resting alongside Irtieru.