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‘Extraordinary’ 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull may show signs of attempts to treat cancer

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Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BCE, belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35 years. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BCE, belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35 years. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

From ancient texts, we know that, for their time, the ancient Egyptians were exceptionally gifted in medicine. For example, they could identify, describe and treat illnesses and traumatic injuries, make prosthetics and place dental fillings. Other illnesses, like cancer, couldn’t be treated, but they could have tried.

Examining the limitations of trauma and oncology treatments in ancient Egypt, an international team of researchers studied two human skulls, each thousands of years old.

“We find that even though the ancient Egyptians were capable of treating complex cranial fractures, cancer still remained a frontier in medical knowledge,” said Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and first author of the study. published in Frontiers of medicine.

“This discovery is unique evidence of how ancient Egyptian medicine would have attempted to treat or explore cancer more than 4,000 years ago,” added the study’s lead author, Professor Edgard Camarós , paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela. “This is an extraordinary new perspective in our understanding of the history of medicine.”

Cut the cancer

“We wanted to learn more about the role of cancer in the past, the prevalence of this disease in ancient times and how ancient societies interacted with this pathology,” Tondini explained. To do this, the researchers examined two skulls held in the Duckworth collection at the University of Cambridge. Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BCE, belonged to a man aged 30 to 35 years. Skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BCE, belonged to a woman over 50 years old.


Skull E270, dating from 663 to 343 BCE, belonged to a woman over 50 years old. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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Skull E270, dating from 663 to 343 BCE, belonged to a woman over 50 years old. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

On Skull 236, microscopic observation showed a large lesion consistent with excessive tissue destruction, a condition known as a neoplasm. In addition, there are around 30 small and round metastasized lesions scattered across the skull.

What stunned the researchers was the discovery of striations around these lesions, probably made with a sharp object such as a metal instrument. “When we first looked at the streaks under a microscope, we couldn’t believe what was in front of us,” Tondini said.

“It appears that the ancient Egyptians performed some kind of surgical procedure related to the presence of cancer cells, proving that ancient Egyptian medicine also conducted experimental treatments or medical explorations related to cancer,” explained the co-author , Professor Albert Isidro, surgical oncologist at Sagrat Cor University Hospital, specializing in Egyptology.


Cut marks found on skull 236, probably made with a sharp object. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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Cut marks found on skull 236, probably made with a sharp object. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

Cancer in Antiquity

Skull E270 also presents a large lesion consistent with a cancerous tumor having caused bone destruction. This may indicate that although current lifestyle, aging people and carcinogens in the environment increase the risk of cancer, cancer was also a common condition in the past.

On skull E270, there are also two healed lesions following traumatic injuries. One of them appears to be from a close range violent event using a sharp weapon. These healed lesions could mean that the individual potentially received some sort of treatment and, therefore, survived.

However, it is rare to see such an injury on a woman and most violence-related injuries affect men. “Was this woman involved in war activities? Tondini asked. “If this is the case, we need to rethink the role of women in the past and how they actively participated in ancient conflicts.”


The skulls were examined by microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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The skulls were examined by microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.


Several of the metastatic lesions of the skull 236 show striae. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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Several of the metastatic lesions of the skull 236 show striae. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.


The skulls were examined by microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

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The skulls were examined by microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.








However, the researchers also said that studying skeletal remains has certain challenges that make definitive statements difficult, especially since the remains are often incomplete and there is no known clinical history. “In archaeology, we work with a fragmented part of the past, which complicates a precise approach,” Isidro emphasized.

“This study contributes to a change in perspective and establishes an encouraging basis for future research in the field of paleo-oncology, but additional studies will be needed to understand how ancient societies dealt with cancer,” Camarós concluded.

More information:
Limits of oncological and traumatological medical care in ancient Egypt: new paleopathological knowledge from two human skulls, Frontiers of medicine (2024). DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2024.1371645

News Source : phys.org
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