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Friday, April 4, 2014

An ancient case of cancer

We sometimes think of cancer as a disease of modern life, both because it can be caused by modern living conditions (smoking, pollution) and because it doesn’t usually manifest until later in life. If most of a population dies at a young age, they will probably never get cancer. Add this to the fact that it’s difficult to find archeological evidence of specific diseases and you have scant evidence for the early appearance of cancer.

That doesn’t mean that cancer wasn’t around. Scientists from Durham University and from the British Museum have found the remains of one young man who lived over three thousand years ago who almost certainly had cancer.

The man had lived in what is now Sudan and was most likely 25-35 years old when he died. As you can see in the graphic below, much of his skeleton was affected by cancerous lesions.


Dark areas indicate full preservation,
Light areas indicate fragmented areas,
Hatched areas are the bones affected by lesions.

By the way, this unfortunate individual is not the earliest example of cancer. A 6000 year old skeleton in Austria was discovered with signs of multiple myeloma. There have also been about 50 cancerous individuals described from ancient Egypt, a region that excelled both in body preservation and in record keeping.

Binder, M., Roberts, C., Spencer, N., Antoine, D., & Cartwright, C. (2014). On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC) PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090924.