| 1 April 2014
Earliest complete example of human cancer found
In 2013 the skeleton of an adult male was found in a tomb at the Amara West site in northern Sudan. Dated to 1200 BCE, he is estimated to have been between 25 and 35 years old when he died. He was buried extended on his back within a painted wooden coffin, and provided with a glazed faience amulet.
The skeleton showed cancer metastasized on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones. It is the oldest convincing complete example of metastatic cancer in the archaeological record. Researchers say that an underlying schistosomiasis infection seems a plausible explanation, as the disease had plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500 BCE, and is now recognised as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.
The discovery will help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, and provide insights into the evolution of cancer in the past.
Even though cancer is one of the world's leading causes of death today, it remains almost absent from the archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions, giving rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity. These findings suggest that cancer is not only a modern disease but was already present in the Nile Valley in ancient times.
Co-author Dr Neal Spencer from the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said: "From footprints left on wet mud floors, to the healed fractures of many ancient inhabitants, Amara West offers a unique insight into what it was like to live there - and die - in Egyptian-ruled Upper Nubia 3200 years ago."
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's architecture and aspects of funerary ritual, which blend Pharaonic elements (burial goods, painted coffins) with Nubian culture (a low mound to mark the tomb).
The well preserved pottery recovered from the tomb provides a date within the 20th Dynasty (1187-1064 BCE), a period when Egypt ruled Upper Nubia, endured conflicts with Libya, and pharaohs such as Ramses III were being buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Edited from Popular Archaeology (17 March 2014), BioNews Texas (19 March 2014)
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