Scribe Spine

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Ancient Egyptian scribes probably had carpal tunnel syndrome and were definitely in pain from other occupational hazards, according to a new study.

Researcher Petra Brukner Havelková and her team recently studied the skeletal remains of 69 people buried in the Egyptian necropolis of Abusir dating from around the third millennium BCE.

Among the samples, 30 of them belonged to scribes who held elevated social status because of their integral administrative roles in the ancient kingdoms – and because only one percent of the population was literate.

But the work had “occupational risks,” the authors wrote.

The scribes showed a higher incidence of degenerative changes in their joints and bones, compared to other occupations: Common problems these scribes faced included osteoarthritis in the jaw, right collarbone, shoulder, knees, and spine.

The team also found signs of physical stress on the humerus and the left hip bones, as well as alterations in the right ankle.

They explained that these changes were consistent with depictions of those scribes in ancient Egyptian art, which show them sitting cross-legged with unsupported arms and forward-leaning heads.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome on the hand, but unfortunately we can’t identify that on the bones,” Brukner Havelková told the Guardian.

The researchers suggested that these postures and repetitive tasks could have caused a lot of physical strain for the scribes, who began their “office work” in their teens.

Co-author Veronika Dulíková told Newsweek that the findings provide a better picture of what early clerical and administrative work was “without desks and special chairs designed for sitting for long periods of time.”

The paper also underscores the importance of studying the skeletal remains of scribes and other ancient workers to understand how their occupation impacted their health.

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