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.