Earliest Evidence of Cancer Detected in 3,000-Year-Old Complete Human Skeleton

First Posted: Mar 18, 2014 08:13 AM EDT

Archaeologists have discovered the presence of metastatic cancer in an ancient human, making it the earliest complete example of human with cancer.

Researchers at the Durham University and British Museum have discovered metastatic carcinoma cancer in a 3,000-year-old male skeleton that was found in a tomb in modern Sudan in 2013. The skeleton, discovered by a University Ph.D student, dates back to 1200 BC. The presence of cancer in this ancient skeleton makes it the oldest complete example of metastatic cancer in  archaeological records.

The skeleton of a 25-35 year old male was found buried at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan.  Based on the architecture of the tomb and the funeral rituals, the researchers conclude that the tomb was used by high status people.

Analysis of the skeletal remains clearly indicates the presence of metastatic carcinoma that extended to other parts of the body. It spread from a malignant soft tissue tumor to other parts of the body.

This finding will help in understanding the underlying causes of cancer in the ancient humans and offer insights into the evolution of cancer.  In today's time, cancer is one the leading causes of death globally and no clues of this condition are available in archaeological records. It is believed that cancer is a result of modern lifestyle, environment changes and longer life spans.

But this new study refutes such claims revealing that cancer is definitely not a modern disease and was present even during the ancient times.

"Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer. Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases. Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone," lead author Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, said in a statement.

Using radiography and scanning electron microscope the researchers studied the lesions on the bones. They noticed cancer metastases on the adult male's collar bones, shoulder bones, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.

The researchers assume that cancer in the ancient population was a result of environmental carcinogens such as smoke emitted from wood fires or genetic factors. It could even be due to certain infectious diseases like schistosomiasis caused by parasites that plagued the Egyptian and Nubia population since 1500 BC and is currently linked to bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.

Michaela Binder added: "Through taking an evolutionary approach to cancer, information from ancient human remains may prove a vital element in finding ways to address one of the world's major health problems."

The team also found well preserved pottery in the tomb that dates to the 20th Dynasty (1187-1064 BC).  The finding was documented in the journal PLOS One.

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