LONDON — British archaeologists have found what they say is the world's oldest complete example of a human being with metastatic cancer and hope it will offer new clues about the now common and often fatal disease.
Researchers from Durham University and the British Museum discovered the evidence of tumors that had developed and spread throughout the body in a 3,000-plus-year-old skeleton found in a tomb in modern Sudan in 2013.
Analyzing the skeleton using radiography and a scanning electron microscope, they managed to get clear imaging of lesions on the bones which showed the cancer had spread to cause tumors on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.
A 3,000-year-old skeleton found in modern Sudan had lesions showing cancer had spread throughout the body. The insert shows an amulet found with the individual, with the Egyptian god Bes depicted on the reverse side (right).
"Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases," said Michaela Binder, a Durham Ph.D. student who led the research and excavated and examined the skeleton.
"Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer ... though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone."
Despite being one of the world's leading causes of death today, cancer is virtually absent in archaeological records compared to other diseases — and that has given rise to the idea that cancers are mainly attributable to modern lifestyles and to people living for longer.
These new findings, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE on Monday, suggest cancer is not only a modern disease, but was around in the Nile Valley even in ancient times.
The skeleton, dating to around 1200 B.C., is of an adult male estimated to be between 25 and 35 years old. It was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, on the Nile, 465 miles (750 km) downstream from the capital Khartoum.
The researchers said they could only speculate on what may have caused of the young man's cancer, but it may have been as a result of environmental carcinogens such as smoke from wood fires, or due to genetic factors, or from an infectious disease such as schistosomiasis, which is caused by parasites.
— Reuters and NBC News