Archaeologists Unearth Oldest Human Skeleton Known To Have Cancer

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

Archaeologists, publishing a paper in PLOS ONE on Monday, say that they have discovered a 3,000 year-old human skeleton who had metastatic cancer.

The skeleton discovered in a tomb in modern Sudan is the oldest complete example of a human with metastatic cancer. The researchers say this discovery could help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations and provide insights into the evolution of cancer in the past.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in modern society, but little evidence has been uncovered from the archaeological record when compared to other pathological conditions. This lack of evidence has led some to conclude that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity. However, the latest findings suggest that cancer is not only a modern disease, but was present in the Nile Valley in 1200BC.

“Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer,” Michaela Binder, lead author of the paper and a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, said in a statement. “Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.”

The skeleton is an adult male that was between 25 and 35 years-old when he died. The archaeologists discovered him at the site of Amara West in northern Sudan, situated on the Nile, or 450 miles downstream of Khartoum. The skeleton was buried on his back within a painted wooden coffin.

The team from Durham University and the British Museum performed an analysis on the skeleton to reveal evidence of metastatic carcinoma from a malignant soft-tissue tumor spread across large areas of the body.

“Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone,” Binder said.

There has only been one convincing and two tentative examples of metastatic cancer predating the 1st millennium BC. However, because the remains were discovered from the early 20th century excavations only the skulls were retained.

The analyses show cancer metastases on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones. The cause of the cancer can only be speculated, but the researchers say it could be due to environmental carcinogens like smoke from wood fires or from infectious diseases caused by parasites.

“Through taking an evolutionary approach to cancer, information from ancient human remains may prove a vital element in finding ways to address one of the world’s major health problems,” Binder said.

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