Despite being one of the leading cause of death today, cancer has been absent from archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions. That is why many scientists reached the conclusion that cancer is the product of modern living and increased longevity, but a new discovery of a human skeleton showing metastasis on bones has proven the previously held conclusion as wrong.
A researcher from Durham University has found a skeleton of a young adult male that dates back to 1200 BC. Analysis of the skeleton showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through bones alone. The skeleton is of an adult young male who was 23-35 years old when he died and was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in Northern Sudan situated on Nile, 750 km downstream of the country’s capital. It was buried extended on its back, within a badly decayed painted wooden coffin and was provided with a glazed faience amulet as a grave good.
The examination of the skeleton by Radiography and Scanning Electron Microscope revealed the presence of lesions on the bones that could only have been caused by the soft tissue cancer. It showed clear metastasis on the collar bone, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones. Researchers say it could be the result of environmental factors like smoke from wood fires, through genetic factors or from an infectious disease. Researchers say most probably the cause of cancer in the skeleton was a parasitic infection ‘Schistosomiasis‘, as it had plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500 BC. This infection is recognized as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.
The tomb where the skeleton was found appears to have been used for high status individuals from the town but not the ruling Elite, based on the tomb architecture and aspects of funerary ritual. The architecture of the tomb provides evidence of a hybrid culture, blending Pharaonic elements with Nubian culture. The pottery record which was well preserved provides the date of 20th Dynasty (1187-1064 BC),a period when Egypt ruled upper Nubia.
Previously, there have been only one convincing and two tentative examples of cancer found in human remains, but as these remains only contained skulls, it was not possible to make a differential diagnosis. But this discovery is the first ever which provides a solid evidence of cancer in ancient humans and proves the prevalence of cancer to be far older than many people believed. The analyses of ancient mummies with the evidence of cancer can Enhance scientific researches about antiquity and epidemiology of cancer in past populations and its evolution throughout ages and evidence gathered by such analysis can be used to detect mutations in certain gene associated with particular types of cancers.
[Source: University of Durham]