Recent Archaeological Discovery Reveals That in Antiquity Thin Was Out and “Stylishly Plump” Was In

Image courtesy Krzysztof Grzymski

It is resolution time! Popular culture and media are booming with ideas for weight loss– Dr. Oz’s green shakes, CNN’s stories of inspiration, The Biggest Loser’s dedication to stopping childhood obesity and countless advertisements for gym memberships. According to the website Statistic Brain, resolutions to lose weight ranked number one on a list of top resolutions in 2012 and it is safe to assume 2013 will be no different.

When did thin become the ideal? It turns out this is a completely modern fixation.  In antiquity, being overweight was beautiful, at least among a certain noble class of women.  Weight symbolized class, health and most of all, fertility.  And in reality, this was probably accurate.  Being overweight meant you had an abundance of food and were thus healthier and more able to bear children.

A recent archaeological discovery illustrates the trend.  According to LiveScience, a 2,000 year old relief carving of a “stylishly plump” African royal  was recently found in Sudan on the site of an ancient palace in the city of Meroe. The archaeological sites of the Island of Meroe are the epicenter of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th century B.C.E to the 4th century A.D. . The property, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is composed of several parts including the royal city of the Kushite kings at Meroe near the River Nile, the nearby religious site of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra.

The relief depicts what is thought to be a female member of the Kush royalty with a double chin and a small roll of fat on her neck. It is possible she was actually a Kush queen-often referred to as a Candace-although this cannot be proven because the headdress is not intact. In the Kush Empire, with borders stretching as far north as Egypt, it was not uncommon for queens to rule, often battling an encroaching Roman army as it swept across Northern Africa.  According to the late Miriam Ma’at Ka-Re Monges, an expert on Kush, these female nobility were generally depicted as overweight in funeral memorial carvings and other iconography.  She explains, “There is a distinct possibility that the large size of the Candaces represented fertility and maternity.” [1]

Interestingly, thousands of years later in a different part of Africa, but still on the banks of the Nile, obesity in royals was once again prized. In 1867, Sir Samuel W. Baker wrote in his book “The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile  and Explorations of the Nile Sources” about a small village in Uganda:

The young girls of thirteen and fourteen that are the wives of the king are not appreciated unless extremely fat–they are subjected to a regular system of fattening in order to increase their charms; thus at an early age they are compelled to drink daily about a gallon of curdled milk, the swallowing of which is frequently enforced by the whip; the result is extreme obesity. [2]

Today, it is widely known that obesity is unhealthy and can lead to several health problems, but perhaps we should also remember that a woman’s curves have been prized throughout history. So when you step on that scale this January, remember that 2,000 years ago in the Kush Empire thin was out and fat was in.  Take this as “food for thought.”

1. Monges, Miriam Ma’at Ka-Re. “Nubia.” Encyclopedia of Black Studies. SAGE Publishing (2004): 385.

2. The Albert Nyanza, Great Basin of the Nile, and Explorations of the Nile Sources by Samuel White Baker; Journal of the Discovery of the Sources of the Nile by John Hanning Speke; The Sources of the Nile by Charles T. Beke
The North American Review , Vol. 104, No. 214 (Jan., 1867), pp. 122-142

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