The once populous and lively ancient Egyptian town of Kahun left behind a set of invaluable papyri that date back to 1900 BC. The papyri discussed and covered major issues in the fields of law and business, administration, mathematics and medicine. This collection of papyri, – which also goes by Petrie Papyri or Lahun Papyri- is one of the largest ever found and they are currently kept at the University of London. Most of the text dates back to 1825 BC during the reign of Amenemhat II and they generally covered the span of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Among the medical papyri, the one on veterinary medicine stands out to be unique among the others for it was probably the first documented text discussing veterinary medicine in ancient Africa.
In ancient times, a number of animals used to live in the waters of the Nile, the marshes of the Delta and the desert regions of the land of Egypt. The ancient Egyptians lived close to many animals and had a good knowledge of the fauna around them. They hunted wild beasts and tried to domesticate many of them. They would paint their images, carve them in stone and even draw animal cartoons. How highly they regarded animals and their power is evident in their depiction of their gods in full or partial animal forms.
Pharaonic reliefs and paintings depicting animals with an emphasis on cattle
With animals playing an important role in the lives of the Egyptians, both as being sacred as well as them being used in other purposes to aid the people in their daily lives, the need would surely arise to look after those animals and maintain their health. The Kahun papyrus provided the most extensive details on veterinary matters. In this document, cattle diseases and their treatment are prominently featured, which reflects the religious and economic importance of those species to the early Egyptian society. Besides cattle, the diseases of other animals such as dogs, birds and fish are partially dealt with, concentrating mostly on afflictions that concern the animal’s eyes. In the Kahun papers, a portion is dedicated to discussing veterinary gynaecological matters. The topic of veterinary obstetrics has been tackled prior to the Kahun papyrus which is evident from Egyptian hieroglyphics and art that pre-dates the papyrus by several centuries. An example of that can be seen in tomb decorations, which depict animal attendants delivering calves by manual traction. Other ancient Egyptian relics portray the removal of the placenta from cows along with internal examination of the cattle. The obstetricians were not necessarily lay healers or priests, but they could have also been specialist individuals who were given the title ‘The Overseer of Cattle’. The early development of veterinary obstetrics shows that ensuring a healthy supply of cattle’s most important products, -which is its offspring- was of high importance and value to the ancient Egyptians.
Plate number 7 of the Kahun Papyrus discussing veterinary medicine (source)
Fragments of the Kahun Papyrus on veterinary medicine
How to read the papyrus and sample translated texts
The example below shows a portion of the fragment of the Kahun papyri discussing the cattle disease ‘ushau’ (trypanosomiasis). The title is written at the top, and is read horizontally from left to right (1). The body of the text is written vertically from top to bottom, and the sequence of the text starts from the left column (2) moving to right (13).
(1) Title: Treatment of the eyes (?) of a bull with ushau in winter. (2) If you see a bull with ushau (3) in winter, and he is blinded (?), (4) his two eyes are thick; gash thou as (5) above. If you see a bull (6) with ushau in winter from cold, (7) since its arrival in (?) the summer, (8) his temples are wrinkled (?), his eyes are running, his stomach groaning (?), (9) he does not walk (?) ………(10) …………… (11) …………… (12) thou all his body with ……… as is done to one (13) with a bruise (?) .
Other parts of the survived text from the large fragment of the Kahun papyrus records the following treatments;
[Treatment for the eyes (?) of a dog with (?)] the nest of a worm
…………… if when it courses (?) scenting (?) the ground, it falls down, it should be said “mysterious prostration as to it.” When the incantations have been said I should thrust my hand within its hemu, a henu of water at my side. When the hand of a man reaches to wash the bone of its back, the man should wash his hand in this henu of water each time that the hand becomes gummed (?) until thou hast drawn forth the heat-dried blood, or anything else or the hesa (?). Thou wilt know that he is cured on the coming of the hesa. Also keep thy fingers ………….
Treatment for the eyes (?) of a bull with the wind (cold ?)
If I see [a bull with] wind, he is with his eyes running, his forehead ? uden (wrinkled ?) the roots (gums ?) of his teeth red, his neck swollen (or raised ?): repeat the incantation for him. Let him be laid on his side, let him be sprinkled with cold water, let his eyes and his hoofs (?) and all his body be rubbed with gourds (?) or melons, let him be fumigated with gourds ……… wait herdsman ……………. be soaked ………….. that it draws in soaking ……….. until it dissolves into water: let him be rubbed with gourds of cucumbers. Thou shalt gash (?) him upon his nose and his tail, thou shalt say as to it, “he that has a cut either dies with it or lives with it.” If he does not recover and he is wrinkled (?) under thy fingers, and blinks (?) his eyes, thou shalt bandage his eyes with linen lighted with fire to stop the running.
1400 years later, around 500 BC and during the Greco-Roman period, a number of famous individuals started recording their knowledge regarding animal care and disease. They focused on animals that used to power agricultural activities such as oxen, asses and horses, as well as sheep and goats which were raised for food and fiber. Under the reign of the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, Hammurabi, the veterinary text ‘Code of Hammurabi’ was produced, which comes second in importance after the Kahun papyrus. It discusses animal welfare, animal disease treatments and care services. At the time, a list of glossary terms specifically related to veterinary medicine was produced. The different types of vets were more specifically identified according to the animal they treated such as; “Hippiatroi” doctors treating horses, “Mulomedicus” doctors treating mules and “Medicus Pecuarius” doctors treating livestock. The animals that were used for labour such as mules, horses and donkeys were collectively called ‘Beasts of Burden’, and it is believed that its Latin translation ‘veterinarius’ is how the term ‘veterinary’ originated.
The first known person to have dissected animals for scientific research was the Greek scientist, Alcmaeon (500 BC). The Greek “Father of Medicine”, Hippocrates contributed greatly in the emerging of the veterinary profession due to the fact the he was the one to develop methods of medicine and the basics of the philosophy of medicine. Moreover, he proposed the use of drugs that produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated (Homeopathic Medicine). He recorded some of his theories and observations in his book “The Nature of Animals. Based on his work, Aristotle later on founded the ‘Comparative Medicine’, which is the application of medical methods studied for human medicine to animal species and thus demonstrating how to handle animal diseases. This is recorded in many of his books including; “Historia Animalium”, “De Partibus Animalium and “De Genetatlone Animallium”. Aristotle also proposed a classification system for the animal species that served as the basis for the development of the systematic classification known as ‘Taxonomy’.
Animal care flourished in ancient Egypt and neighbouring civilizations as well. And with the increase in livestock wealth among all sorts of people in the society, from peasants to landowners, this necessitated the evolving of the ancient science of animal care and treatment. Since the care of sick animals was usually left up to shepherds and peasants with experience and knowledge of tending to the animals, isolating the ailing and curing them, it is only normal that from the ranks of those people, the veterinary doctors emerged. Veterinary medicine might not be using the same methods that the ancient people used centuries ago, but they certainly did open a lot of windows that helped in the evolving of the modern day veterinary medicine.
- Veterinarian Papyrus from University College, London.
- Dunlop and Williams: Veterinary Medicine: An Illustrated History. ISBN 978-0801632099
- Klaus-Dietrich Fischer: Ancient Veterinary Medicine: A survey of Greek and Latin sources and some recent scholarship. Medizinhistorisches Journal, Bd. 23, H. 3/4 (1988), pp. 191-209