Oily fish and other foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids are supposed to help protect us from heart disease, so it seems unlikely that ancient Inuit hunters would have had poor cardiovascular health, given their marine-based diet. Yet surprisingly, scans of four mummified Inuits who died 500 years ago have revealed that they suffered from blocked arteries, just like millions of people living today.
Many of the unhealthy habits associated with modern lifestyles – such as excessive sugar consumption and too much time sitting on sofas – have contributed to the rise of cardiovascular disease, which is now the leading cause of death worldwide. In particular, atherosclerosis, which involves the build-up of fatty plaques in arteries, has become dangerously prevalent in wealthier countries.
In 2013, researchers examined 137 mummies from ancient civilizations in Egypt, Peru, and the Arctic, and were surprised to discover evidence of atherosclerosis in individuals who lived as long ago as 3100 BCE. However, none of the mummies involved in this study would have consumed a diet that was particularly high in omega-3, which is why researchers led by Ascension Healthcare in Wisconsin decided to look specifically at Inuit mummies.
Four specimens were obtained from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, all of which were originally found on the island of Uunartaq, close to Greenland, in 1929. An analysis of dental and skeletal features revealed that the two male and two female mummies were all likely to have been between the ages of 18 and 30 when they died, while their clothes and other items found in their graves suggest that they lived in the 16th century.
Publishing their findings in the journal JAMA Network Open, the researchers explain that “these individuals would have… hunted from kayaks with spears, bows, and arrows for their diet of fish, birds, marine mammals, and caribou.”
In spite of this diet, computed tomography (CT) scans of the mummies revealed that three of them suffered from calcified atheroma, which occurs when plaques of fatty material accumulate in arteries, causing them to harden and narrow, thereby restricting blood flow.
These plaques were remarkably similar to those seen in modern humans, and which regularly lead to fatal heart attacks and strokes by preventing blood flow around the heart and brain.
Whether or not this contributed to the Inuits’ deaths is impossible to tell, although the very fact that they suffered from atherosclerosis in spite of their fishy diet and vigorous lifestyle casts major doubt on any assumptions that modern lifestyles are responsible for the condition.
Exactly which factors led to the prevalence of atherosclerosis in this ancient Inuit population is also unknown, although the study authors suggest that it may have been caused by breathing in too much smoke from indoor fires.