The people who built the Egyptian pyramids developed arthritis. That's what you might expect from pushing around 20 tonne blocks of stone with a few levers. There is an very interesting article on the excavation of the graves of pyramid builders in National Geographic. They are not talking about the pharaoh and the like, but about the people doing the donkey work.
To an archeologist this arthritis does not come as a surprise. Hard labour should produce lots of wear and tear. What is a little more strange is the fact that the Egyptian women were also severely affected. There are no depictions of women moving stone blocks. What is even stranger is that much of the arthritis is found in the women's necks. How heavy a water jug do you have to put on your head, and for how long, to develop severe degenerative arthritis of your cervical spine?
The answer is you don't have to do it at all. Spinal arthritis is rife in the modern, sedentary, middle classes of London or any other city. How many people do you know who are free of back problems? You do not need to be moving pyramid blocks to develop ankylosing spondylitis. But you do need to eat grain.
There is a fairly innocent little bug called klebsiella pneumoniae which lives not only in the soil but in the intestine of many of us, probably most of us. It is a niche bacterium which exploits a particular food source. It eats starch, but not just any starch. Starch is made of long chains of glucose. The chains are branched. At the branch points there are triplets of glucose which will not fit in to the normal digestive machinery possessed by human beings, so they get left undigested. Klebsiella eats these triplets of glucose. It has a special enzyme, pullulanase, to break them down. Happy bacterium.
Unfortumately there is a large subgroup of the population who's immune system "sees" pullulanase as something to attack. These people have a special marker on their white blood cells called HLA B27. They attack pullulanase as if it were an invading nasty. It is unfortunate that the structure of pullulanase and the structure of the collagen which forms our joints is similar. An attack on pullulanase results in collateral damage to the collagen of our ligaments and joints, most particularly those of our spine.
You don't need to carry 20 tonne "lego bricks" around on your head to get cervical spinal arthritis. You just have to eat grains and be unlucky with your HLA type. The Egyptians were amongst the first people on Earth to eat spelt, a precursor of wheat, and they suffered. So here's the £20,000 question; is the USDA Food Pyramid currently causing more arthritis than did the building of the Egyptian Pyramids?
How's your backache and would you like another slice of bread?