Archeologists unearth 3,200 year-old cancer victim

March 20, 2014


Skeleton showing cancer is pictured above along with an amulet found with the individual. The Egyptian god Bes (right side) is depicted on the reverse side.
(Courtesy of PLOS ONE)

Archeologists digging in northern Sudan have found the earliest example of metastatic cancer yet discovered, dating to about 1,200 B.C.

The male skeleton with cancer spread throughout was discovered by Michaela Binder, a PhD student at Durham University, the BBC reported. Binder said it was of “critical importance in learning about the underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, before the onset of modern lifestyles.”

Metastatic cancer starts somewhere else in the body and spreads, often widely, as it did in the case of this particular human.

“I was surprised to see such a cancer in an individual from ancient Egyptian times,” she told BBC News.

The previous record for the oldest example of metastatic carcinoma also came from Sudan and was dated to 350BC-350AD, according to the research.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE, authored by Binder, Charlotte Roberts, Nearl Spencer, Daniel Antoine and Caroline Cartwright.

The scholars said cancer’s “dearth of evidence” in ancient skeletons has led to perception that cancer was rare, either because of shorter life spans or a healthier environment. The find, along with earlier research, challenges that assumption.

The most conspicuous lesions showing cancer were observed in the shafts of the first ribs shown in the photo below, according to the study.


Photo and radiograph of the left first rib. Arrows indicate location of the lesions. (Courtesy of PLOS ONE)

 

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Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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Nick Kirkpatrick · March 20, 2014