History Stories

British researchers have found the earliest known case of human metastatic cancer in the skeleton of a young man who died around 1200 B.C. in ancient Egypt.

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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