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Ancient Egypt burials show traces of cancer

This image shows the mummy of an Egyptian man in his 50s who had rectal cancer. Credit: Image courtesy of El Molto

Archaeologists have discovered six cases of cancer during the study of the bodies of the ancient Egyptians, who were buried long ago in the Dakhleh Oasis. The findings are a toddler with leukemia, a mummified man in his 50s with rectal cancer and people with cancer, possibly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The researchers found these cases of cancer during the viewing of the remains of 1,087 ancient Egyptians buried between 3000 and 1500 years ago.

Extrapolating from these cases, the researchers estimate that the lifetime risk of cancer in the ancient Dakhleh Oasis was about 5 on the 1000, compared with 50 percent in modern Western societies, wrote El Molto and Dr. Peter Sheldrick in a paper published in a special cancer issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology. “So, the lifetime cancer risk in current Western societies is 100 times larger than in the old Dakhleh,” they wrote. [Photos: Ancient Egyptian Cemetery with 1 Million Mummies]

Molto, a retired professor of anthropology at Western University in Ontario, Canada, warned that some people live in Dakhleh would have died of cancer, without any traces left in their remains, and that the people in the old world tend to have a shorter life span than the people of today. However, even in the assumption of these factors, the researchers believe that the risk of cancer is significantly lower in the ancient Egypt.

In five of the six cases, scientists determined that she had cancer by the study of lesions (holes and bone damage) on their skeletons. Those holes were left in the spread of cancer in their body. For example, a woman in her ’40’s or’ 50’s had a hole in her right hip bone, that is approximately 2.4 inches (6.2 cm) in size, that researchers believe was caused by a tumor. In one case (the man in his 50s with rectal cancer), a real tumor was preserved. Researchers can’t be sure where the cancer originated in many of the cases.

Young adults

Three of the six cases (two females and one male) were people in their 20’s or 30’s, an age where it is rare for people to get cancer, the researchers said.

“When the Dakhleh cases were first presented at professional meetings, a common reaction against the acceptance of the diagnosis of cancer was that their ages were too young,'” wrote Molto and Sheldrick, a doctor in Chatham, Ontario, in the newspaper, referring to the three young adults. [Image Gallery: Digging up a Cemetery in Dakhleh Oasis]

However, recent research has shown that HPV is a major cause of a number of cancers, including those that often affect young adults. “HPV is a known cause of cancer of the cervix and testicles, and it has developed in Africa long before Homo sapiens emerged,” wrote Molto and Sheldrick in their paper.

“The two female and male burials from the Dakhleh, young adults, and could have, respectively, developed cancer of the cervix and testicular cancer,” the authors wrote. “We know of the current cancer epidemiology research that both types of cancer peak in the young adult cohorts.”

While scientists were unable to have genetic testing of the three young adults to see if they had HPV, other studies confirm that it existed in the ancient world, Molto and Sheldrick wrote to note that the virus probably existed in the ancient Dakhleh Oasis.

No old treatments

So far, the research into the Egyptian medical texts and human remains have revealed no evidence that the ancient Egyptians had a specific treatment for cancer.

“They knew that something nasty was going on,” Molto told Live Science. However, “we have no indication for specific treatments for cancer, because they do not understand what cancer was,” Molto said, adding that the ancient Egyptians may have tried to treat some of the symptoms such as skin ulcers.

The researchers said that they hope that in the future, data will be collected about cancer and other diseases in the modern-day Dakhleh Oasis. This data can then be compared with the old rate to provide more clues about how cancer risk changed over time.

Originally published on Live Science.

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