Six skeletons with signs of cancer found in an ancient Egyptian cemetery

Six skeletons with signs of cancer found in an ancient Egyptian cemetery

Six skeletons with signs of cancer found in an ancient Egyptian cemetery

During the study of the ancient Egyptians buried in Dakhleh Oasis, archeologists uncovered six cases of cancer.

This image show the mummy of an ancient Egyptian man in his 50s who had rectal cancer.

The results include a leukemia toddler, a 50-year-old mummified man with rectal cancer, and people with cancer that may be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

These cancer cases were found when researchers examined the remains of 1,087 ancient Egyptians buried 3,000-1,500 years ago.

Extrapolating from these events, the researchers estimated that the incidence of lifetime cancer in the ancient Dakhleh Oasis was about 5 in 1,000 compared to 50 per cent in modern Western societies, El Molto and Dr. Peter Sheldrick wrote in a paper published in the International Journal of Paleopathology’s special cancer issue. “The risk for life-long cancer is therefore 100 times higher in modern western societies than in old Dakhleh,” they wrote.

Molto, a retired professor of anthropology at Western University in Ontario, Canada, cautioned that some people living in Dakhleh could have died of cancer without any traces left in their bodies, and that people in the ancient world appeared to have shorter life spans than people today. However, even accounting for these factors, the researchers believe the risk of cancer was considerably lower in ancient Egypt.

In five of the six cases, scientists determined that they had cancer by studying lesions (holes and bone damage) on their skeletons. Those holes were left when cancer spread throughout their bodies.

For instance, a woman in her 40s or 50s had a hole on her right hip bone that is about 2.4 inches (6.2 cm) in size that researchers believe was caused by a tumor. In one case (the man in his 50s with rectal cancer), an actual tumor was preserved. Researchers cannot be certain where the cancers originated in many of the cases.

Three of the six cases (two females and one male) were people in their 20s or 30s, an age when it is rare for people to get cancer, the researchers said.

An ancient Egyptian woman in her 20s suffered from cancer that had spread to her skull. She may have had the HPV virus, researchers believe. 

“When the Dakhleh cases were first presented at professional meetings, a common comment against accepting the diagnosis of cancer was that ‘their ages were too young,'” wrote Molto and Sheldrick, a physician in Chatham, Ontario, in their paper, referring to the three young adults.

However, recent research has revealed that HPV is a major cause of several forms of cancer, including those that often affect young adults. “HPV is a confirmed cause of cancer of the uterine cervix and testes, and it evolved in Africa long before Homo sapiens emerged,” wrote Molto and Sheldrick in their paper.

“The two female and the male burials from Dakhleh, all young adults, could have, respectively, developed cancer of the uterine cervix and testicular cancer,” the authors wrote. “We know from current cancer epidemiology research that both types of cancers peak in the young adult cohorts.”

While scientists were not able to genetically test the three young adults to see if they had HPV, other studies confirm that it did exist in the ancient world, Molto and Sheldrick wrote, noting that the virus likely existed in the ancient Dakhleh Oasis.

So far, research into Egyptian medical texts and human remains have revealed no indication that the ancient Egyptians had a specific treatment for cancer.

This image shows an ancient Egyptian child from the Dakhleh Oasis who was between 3 and 5 years old at death. This child died of leukemia, research indicates. His bones were riddled with holes caused by the disease. 

“They knew that something nasty was going on,” Molto told BBC. However, “we have no indication as to specific treatments for cancer, because they didn’t understand [what cancer was],” Molto said, adding that the ancient Egyptians may have tried to treat some of the symptoms such as skin ulcers. 

The researchers said they hope that in the future, data will be gathered on cancer and other diseases in the modern-day Dakhleh Oasis. This data could then be compared to the ancient rate to provide more clues as to how the risk of cancer has changed over time.

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