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Secret unwrapped: 2,250-year-old mummy had cancer

Prostate cancer,‭ ‬one of the most common types of modern malignancies,‭ ‬did affect the ancient Egyptians,‭ ‬according to a radiological investigation of a‭ 2,250‭ ‬year old-mummy.
Image: Mummy that showed lesions
A 2,150-year-old Egyptian mummy has revealed small, round lesions — the oldest case of metastatic prostate cancer in ancient Egyptians.Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação, I.P., Lisbon
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Prostate cancer,‭ ‬one of the most common types of modern malignancies,‭ ‬did affect the ancient Egyptians,‭ ‬according to a radiological investigation of a‭ 2,250‭-‬year-old mummy.

Kept at the National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon,‭ ‬and cataloged as M1,‭ ‬the unnamed wrapped Ptolemaic mummy‭ (‬c.‭ ‬285‭–‬30‭ ‬BCE‭) ‬was adorned with a cartonnage mask and bib,‭ ‬and boasted an elaborately painted shroud.

The mummy is that of an adult male‭ ‬— "a view further justified by the preserved male perineal anatomy and an obvious mummified penis,‭" ‬Carlos Prates,‭ ‬a radiologist at Imagens Médicas Integradas in Lisbon,‭ ‬and colleagues write in a study now in press in the International Journal of Paleopathology.‭

The man,‭ ‬about‭ ‬5 feet, 5 inches tall,‭ ‬was between‭ ‬51‭ ‬and‭ ‬60‭ ‬years old when he died a slow,‭ ‬painful death.

The researchers subjected the mummy to powerful Multi-Detector Computerized Tomography‭ (‬MDCT‭) ‬scans.‭ ‬The specially designed protocol produced‭ "really unusual high-quality images,‭" ‬Prates told Discovery News.

Digital X-rays showed that M1‭ ‬had been buried with crossed arms‭ (‬a common pose in Ptolemaic mummies,‭ ‬although in the New Kingdom it was often associated with royals‭) ‬and suffered from lumbosacral osteoarthritis,‭ ‬which was probably related to a lower lumbar scoliosis.

Several‭ ‬post-mortem fractures,‭ ‬possibly produced by mishandling when the mummy was transported to Europe,‭ ‬afflicted the body.

But that wasn't all they found.‭ ‬A pattern of round and dense tumors,‭ ‬measuring between‭ ‬0.03‭ ‬and‭ ‬0.59‭ ‬inches,‭ ‬interspersed‭ ‬M1‭’‬s pelvis and lumbar spine.‭

"The bone lesions were considered very suggestive of metastatic prostate cancer,‭" ‬wrote the researchers.

Indeed,‭ ‬prostatic carcinoma typically spreads to the pelvic region,‭ ‬the lumbar spine,‭ ‬the upper arm and leg bones,‭ ‬the ribs,‭ ‬ultimately reaching most of the skeleton.‭

Prates and colleagues‭ ‬considered other diseases as alternatives.‭ ‬But‭ ‬M1‭'‬s sex,‭ ‬age,‭ ‬the‭ ‬distribution pattern of the lesions,‭ ‬their shape and density,‭ ‬strongly argued for prostate cancer.

"It is the oldest known case of prostate cancer in ancient Egypt and the‭ ‬second-‬oldest case in history,‭" ‬Prates said.

The earliest diagnosis of‭ ‬metastasizing prostate carcinoma came in‭ ‬2007,‭ ‬when researchers investigated the skeleton of a‭ ‬2,700-year-old Scythian king who died,‭ ‬aged‭ ‬40-50,‭ ‬in the steppe of Southern Siberia,‭ ‬Russia.

"This study shows that cancer did exist in antiquity,‭ ‬for sure in ancient Egypt.‭ ‬The main reason for the scarcity of examples found today might be the lower prevalence of carcinogens and the shorter life expectancy,‭" ‬Paula Veiga,‭ ‬a researcher in Egyptology,‭ ‬told Discovery News.

Moreover,‭ ‬high-resolution CT scanners,‭ ‬able to detect tiny‭ ‬tumors‭ (‬measuring‭ ‬0.03-0.07‭ ‬inches in diameter‭)‬,‭ ‬became available only in‭ ‬2005.‭ ‬This suggests that earlier researchers might have missed several cases.

‭"This technology improved significantly the interpretation of data.‭ ‬Radiology,‭ ‬and its latest developments,‭ ‬like high resolution CT scan,‭ ‬is a phenomenal non-destructive tool in many fields of art and archeology,‭"‬ Prates said.