Ancient skeleton is the earliest case of cancer yet detected


Researchers have discovered the earliest confirmed case of cancer in a young man who lived in ancient Egypt.

The discovery of a diseased skeleton dating back to around 1,200 BC was made at the Amara West site in northern Sudan.

The new finding suggests that the disease has its roots in the distant past.

Details of the skeleton have been published in the Journal PLOS ONE.

The skeleton was discovered by Michaela Binder, a PhD student at Durham University.

She said the find was of "critical importance in learning about the underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, before the onset of modern lifestyles".

Cancer is thought of as a modern-day disease, spurred on by smoking, unhealthy lifestyles and the stresses of day-to-day living. Ms Binder's discovery suggests that the disease was prevalent thousands of years ago.

"I was surprised to see such a cancer in an individual from ancient Egyptian times," she told BBC News.

"We still don't know a lot about cancer. Only a very few examples have been found of the disease in the distant past."

Ms Binder's finding is of particular interest because it is 2,000 years older than the previously confirmed instance of the disease.

Evolving disease

When she unearthed the skeleton she found that the bones were riddled with holes.

She worked with Daniel Antoine, a curator at the British Museum, who is responsible for the museum's human remains.

"It was very exciting to work with such a well preserved skeleton," he told BBC News.

Written By: Pallab Ghosh
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  1. The oldest example of cancer that I’m aware of is bone cancer in dinosaurs – that’s from the Mesozoic, waaaay predating this find.

  2. Interesting article, but, I do wish more journalists would invest in dictionaries.

    How does “…a very few examples have been found of the disease in the distant past.” equate to a suggestion of its being “prevalent”?

    “Ms Binder’s discovery suggests that the disease existed thousands of years ago.” Fixed, damn it!

  3. What kind of cancer? “Cancer” is not just one disease with a single pathognomic sign or symptom. It must have been a primary bone cancer or a type that commonly metastasizes to bone, such as prostate or breast cancer, to leave evidence in a skeleton. Other cancers such as colon, pancreatic, ovarian, and brain tumors would not leave much, if any, evidence behind.

    “Cancer” is just a term that covers a multitude of disorders resulting from cellular dysregulation. And cancer has multiple causes or predisposing factors, including genetic mutations – whether inherited, congenital, or environmental – viruses, and environmental carcinogens, plus others that we are just now beginning to fathom. Cellular dysfunction has probably been around since cells themselves evolved. I don’t know why any scientist would think that it’s a recent phenomenon.

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