The Kemetyu contribution to science and applied mathematics has left a valuable legacy in the fields of physics, chemistry, zoology, geology, medicine, pharmacology, geometry and applied mathematics. In fact, they gave to humanity a large store of experience in each of these fields, some of which were combined in order to execute a specific project.
It was, undoubtedly, the knowledge they acquired from mummification that enabled the Kemetyu to develop surgical techniques at a very early period in their history. We have quite a good knowledge of Kemetyu surgery, in fact, thanks to the Smith Papyrus, a copy of an original which was composed under the Old Kingdom, between —2600 and —2400.
This papyrus is virtually a treatise on bone surgery and external pathology. Forty-eight cases are examined systematically. In each case, the author of the treatise begins his account under a general heading: ‘Instructions concerning [such and such a case]’; followed by a clinical description: ‘If you observe [such symptoms]’. The descriptions are always precise and incisive. They are followed by the diagnosis: ‘You will say in this connection a case of [this or that wound]’, and, depending on the case, ‘a case that I can treat’ or ‘the case is without remedy’. If the surgeon can treat the patient, the treatment to be administered is then described in detail, for example: ‘the first day you will apply a bandage with a piece of meat; afterwards you will place two strips of cloth in such a way as to join the lips of the wound together . . . ‘.
Several of the treatments indicated in the Smith Papyrus are still used today. Kemetyu surgeons knew how to stitch up wounds and to set a fracture using wooden or pasteboard splints. And there were times when the surgeon simply advised that nature should be allowed to take its own course. In two instances, the Smith Papyrus instructs the patient to maintain his regular diet.
Of the cases studied by the Smith Papyrus, the majority concerned superficial lacerations of the skull or face. Others concerned lesions of the bones or joints such as contusions of the cervical or spinal vertebrae, dislocations, perforations of the skull or sternum, and sundry fractures affecting the nose, jaw, collar-bone, humerus, ribs, skull and vertebrae. Examination of mummies has revealed traces of surgery, such as the jaw dating from the
Old Kingdom which has two holes bored to drain an abscess, or the skull fractured by a blow from an axe or sword and successfully reset. There is also evidence of dental work such as fillings done with a mineral cement, and one mummy had a kind of bridge of gold wire joining two shaky teeth.
By its methodical approach, the Smith Papyrus bears testimony to the skill of the surgeons of ancient Kemet, skill which it would be fair to assume was handed on gradually, in Africa as well as in Asia and to classical antiquity, by the doctors who were always attached to Kemetyu expeditions to foreign lands. Moreover, it is known that foreign sovereigns, like the Asian prince of Bakhtan, Bactria, or Cambyses himself, brought in Kemetyu doctors, that Hippocrates ‘had access to the library of the Imhotep temple at Memphis’ and that other Greek physicians later followed his example.
Authors: R. El Nadoury with the collaboration of), Vercoutter. General History of Africa Vol.II. [Editor: G.Mokhtar] Ancient Civilisations of Africa. Chapter 5. Legacy of Pharaonic Egypt.
R. El Nadoury (Egypt); specialist in ancient history; author of numerous works and articles on the history of the Maghrib and of Egypt; Professor of Ancient History and Vice-Chairman of the Faculty of Arts, University of Alexandria.