History In The Headlines

3,200-Year-Old Skeleton is Oldest Known Case of Human Cancer

By Sarah Pruitt
Though cancer is one of the leading causes of death today, scientists haven’t found much evidence of it in the archaeological records. As some of its main causes--smoking, pollution, obesity and longevity--appear to be mostly absent from the remains of ancient populations, cancer has long been considered a modern disease. Now, however, a surprising new find suggests it may have been prevalent thousands of years ago, in the Nile River Valley. Earlier this week, a team of British archaeologists announced the discovery of the oldest known case of metastatic cancer in a human being, in the skeleton of a young man who died in the Nile River valley in ancient Egypt some 3,200 years ago. Scientists hope the new findings will help them better understand the origins and evolution of this all-too-common, often deadly disease.

Photo depicting sternum of Amara West skeleton with cancerous bone lesions. (Credit: British Museum)

Photo depicting sternum of Amara West skeleton with cancerous bone lesions. (Credit: British Museum)

Michaela Binder, a PhD student at Britain’s Durham University, excavated the 3,200-year-old skeleton in 2013 at the Amara West archaeological site, located in northern Sudan on the left bank of the Nile River, some 465 miles downstream from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Buried in a plain wooden coffin, it belonged to a man between the ages of 25 and 35, and was one of dozens of skeletons unearthed at Amara West as part of a detailed archaeological research project led by Dr. Neal Spencer of the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan.

After examining the young man’s skeleton using radiography and a scanning electron microscope, a team of researchers from Durham University and the British Museum were able to see clear images of lesions on the bones. According to their findings, published earlier this week in the journal PLOS ONE, lesions suggested that a type of cancer had spread to cause tumors throughout the body, including the pelvis, spine, shoulder blades, breastbone, collarbones and ribs. According to Binder: “Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer…though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone.”

In addition to cancer, the skeleton of the young man also showed evidence of severe tooth decay and chronic sinusitis. In general, the remains recovered from the Amara West site show remarkably poor general health in the ancient population, which appears to have lived during a time of climactic change and environmental stress. A quarter of the 180 skeletons examined by the British team showed evidence of chronic lung disease, while all of them had signs of serious dental disease.

The Amara West skeleton is not the first evidence of cancer in the archaeological record. Last year, for example, a U.S. team of researchers published findings based on their analysis of a 120,000-year-old fossilized Neanderthal rib found in a cave in Croatia, which showed indications of a bone tumor. There have also been several finds dating back some 4,000 years that show signs of possible cancer.

Because the newly uncovered find is a complete skeleton, however, rather than just a skull or other incomplete remains, scientists hope it will yield valuable information about the spread of cancer and how it may have evolved into modern times. By analyzing the skeleton’s DNA, for example, they could learn about gene mutations that made the young man susceptible to cancer. In addition to genetic defects, the researchers identified environmental carcinogens, such as smoke from wood fires, or an infection like schistosomiasis (caused by parasites) as other possible causes of the disease.

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Categories: Ancient Egypt, Ancient History, Diseases