Cancer treatment in ancient Egypt?

Cancer treatment in ancient Egypt?

This ancient Egyptian skull shows cancerous lesions and possible signs of surgical intervention. © Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

The medical field of oncology has a surprisingly extensive history, as shown by the results of an ancient Egyptian skull: Cutting marks around malignant bone changes show that healers in the Nile Empire tried to treat cancer or learn more about the disease after the patient’s death over 4,300 years ago.

They already had medicines, successfully treated various ailments and even made custom-made prostheses: One of the many fascinating cultural achievements of the ancient Egyptians was a surprisingly highly developed medicine, as can be seen from numerous written testimonies and archaeological findings. They document extensive knowledge of various diseases and treatment options. The focus of the current study by researchers led by Tatiana Tondini from the University of Tübingen was a health problem that still represents a major challenge for medicine today. “We wanted to shed light on the role that cancer played in the past, how widespread this disease was and how it was treated back then,” says Tondini.

As part of their study, they examined two ancient Egyptian skulls with striking features from the University of Cambridge collection. The specimen, designated “236”, is dated between 4680 and 4340 years old and belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35 years. The second skull, “E270”, on the other hand, dates from a later period in ancient Egyptian history: from the period between 660 and 340 BC. According to the findings, it belonged to a woman who was older than 50 years.

Cancer diagnosis after thousands of years

As the team reports, they found traces of cancer on both skulls. These were lesions that were caused by tumors that had led to the destruction of bone structures. In the case of E270, this was particularly drastic: a crater-like structure was visible in the skull bone. In principle, these findings add to the evidence that cancer was a common disease in the past, say the researchers. According to them, the skull, which is over 4,300 years old, is also one of the oldest evidences of this kind.

As it turned out, specimen 236 had an even more interesting aspect to offer. As the team explains, the man’s primary tumor in the palate area had led to the formation of metastases in the skull. This was reflected in around 30 hole-like tissue destructions in the bone structure. When the researchers took a closer look at these lesions using microscopy and micro-computed tomography, they made an astonishing discovery. “When we looked at the cut marks under the microscope for the first time, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” says Tondini. Some of them showed cut marks that were the result of the deliberate use of a sharp object.

The researchers found cutting marks around several of the cancer lesions on skull 236. © Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

Traces of an operation or autopsy

According to the team, there are two possible explanations for this finding: the ancient Egyptian healers may have attempted to remove the diseased areas from the man’s skull during an operation. However, there are no signs of healing. It therefore also seems possible that the cut marks are the result of an examination after the patient’s death that was dedicated to clarifying the cause of the disease, the researchers explain.

As they emphasize, however, both possibilities are exciting: “This finding is a unique indication of how ancient Egyptian physicians tried to deal with or research cancer more than 4,000 years ago,” says senior author Edgard Camarós from the University of Santiago de Compostela. “Our study thus forms a basis for future research in the field of paleo-oncology. Further case studies should now follow in order to better shed light on how societies in the past dealt with cancer,” the scientist concludes.

Source: Frontiers, specialist article: Frontiers in Medicine, doi: 10.3389/fmed.2024.1371645

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