A Brief History of the Brain: Ancient Egyptians

The brain has always been looked upon with reverence and awe for its power and capacity of conscious thought… right? Absolutely not. Not only is the brain the coolest thing in science (no bias, I swear) but historically it has been neglected or set aside as the “housing of the soul.” Well, that’s irritating.

So let’s start back in ye’ olden days of the pharaohs. It seems the Egyptians fall into a weird category of belief. They recognized the problems that would arise from head wounds but ignored it in terms of thought and consciousness. During the mummification process they would enter the nasal cavity, break through the thin-layered ethmoid bone, and draw out the contents of the skull. We’ve all heard this spiel since elementary school. The important parts to ask though are the why and how.

The why seems relatively straight forward. It was removed along with all the other organs excluding the heart to prepare the dead for their afterlife. The heart was left in place to be judged in Duat, the Egyptian underworld. Under supervision of Anubis, the heart was weighed against Ma’at’s feather of truth. The Declaration of Innocence: Spell 125 details a 42-part moral system which they were judged upon – similar to that of the 10 Commandments of Christianity but 2000 years prior (coincidence? >_>). If the heart was found to be unworthy it was eaten by the “devourer”, Ammut. If not, they proceeded to Aaru, the heavenly reed field.

That’s neat and all, but it’s not the whole story. Only 50% of recovered mummy skulls had the brain removed prior to mummification. In addition, the eyes had also been removed and replaced with various materials. Why? Because they rot and stay moist. The whole point of mummification is to remove as much water as possible to preserve the remaining tissue. The body needed to stay as recognizable as possible; I’ll explain in a minute. An example concoction used as a dehydrant consisted of 84.7% sodium carbonate or bicarbonate, 1.5% sodium chloride, and 13.8% sodium sulphate. While this prevents most bacterial decay it doesn’t stop it all. The brain and eyes start to leak fluid and rot. Quick fix? Take them out. Sure, it’s a little more difficult than the other organs, but it works better in the long-run. A dry mummy is a happy mummy.Credit goes to http://www.offbeatenough.com/

Another key part is how the brain was removed. Mummification was usually performed in a manner that minimized cosmetic damage as it was believe the soul (the Ba) needed to recognize the body to return to it every night. The  common belief of the process behind it seems to be a gross misconception. It is largely held that the brain was sucked out, scooped out with a hook or some variation thereof. For the most part, this is untrue. The tool used did indeed have a hook but it did not function in that fashion. The viscosity of the brain allowed it to stick to the entire tool. So, as the tool would be drawn out it would bring brain with it. With repeated entry from the tool the inside tissue would begin to liquefy and eventually could be poured out of the nasal cavity.

The Egyptians were pioneers of the medical realm. They were even recognized by Homer in the Odyssey: “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.” The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus details a great many of their accomplishments along with a few of their more… unique practices. Maybe with a bit more time they could have perfected the art of medicine a little more. Until next time, remember to “pour milk into both ears” for a wounded temple.

The Problem of Brain Removal during Embalming by the Ancient Egyptians
F. Filce Leek. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology

About James R

A twice-over senior at the University of Minnesota - Morris. View all posts by James R

2 responses to “A Brief History of the Brain: Ancient Egyptians

  • samuraistuffff

    hah? is this the history of the brain in your respect? what about the history of the brain? was it only egyptian mummies that had brains back in history? And you preset this amazing photo of a clearly different shape/size skull and make not even the slightest reference to this very fact? I know this is your blog man but seriously does the history of the brain resume to cerebral extraction in ancient egyptian embalming practices? What about that striking difference in brain dimension and all the zillion details you could serve?
    Why is this a darn priority search result?
    I love you as I love all life

    P.S. you think you think and therefor you think you are…

    • James R

      Thank you for reading my blog. I always enjoy feedback but I’m not entirely sure you understand the purpose of this post. This was intended to be one part of several entries (currently pending) on different viewpoints and beliefs of the brain from different cultures and time periods. An example of a following post would be a brief history of the brain: 1500s prior to Thomas Willis’ contribution to the field. This specific post was dedicated to the ancient Egyptians and their views of the brain. Granted, most of the article was reserved for the mummification process and the religious aspect behind it, I do include their contributions to medicine and even cite additional resources on the topic. As to the photo, I’m not sure what you mean. That is a mummified skull without gross deformity as you claimed. Perhaps if you could clarify your concerns a bit I would be better able to address them. Thanks again.

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