Ancient Egyptian skull shows traces of cancer research

Ancient Egyptian skull shows traces of cancer research

picture: The skull dating back four to five thousand years revealed the remarkable medical incisions. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024

Much was already known about the revolutionary knowledge of medical problems among the ancient Egyptians at that time. The recovered texts showed, among other things, that they could indeed identify, define and treat many conditions correctly. We also learned that they used dentures and dental fillings. But whether – and especially to what extent – they have tried to learn more about cancer is still very much a question mark.

The research team led by Tatiana Tondini (University of Tübingen) wanted to know what role cancer played in past societies. To what extent did what we today call the “disease of civilization” occur at that time? How did they deal with it?

To find out what happened in ancient Egypt, the team looked at two skulls from a collection linked to an archaeological research center at the University of Cambridge. One of them is of a man between 30 and 35 years old, dating between 2687 and 2345 BC. The second, for a woman over fifty, dates back to more than 600 to 300 years BC.

Mysterious effects of the cuts

In summary, both skulls showed traces of tumor, and the first also showed metastases. According to the researchers, this indicates that cancer was a common condition in ancient Egypt. But what’s really special is what they found on the oldest skull around the tumor and metastases. To their great surprise, they saw traces of wounds. Further investigation revealed that the result was some incisions made with a sharp object, possibly made of metal.

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This led co-author Albert Isidro (Sagarat Cor University Hospital, Barcelona) to a pioneering hypothesis. According to him, it seems that the ancient Egyptians already resorted to surgical operations four to five thousand years ago after the discovery of cancer cells. This can mean two things, which are not mutually exclusive. Or they were already doing medical research to understand the disease. Or they had already gone a step further and tried possible treatments.

Oncologist Isidro, who specializes in Egyptology, is keeping a close eye on things. This is a reservation that applies to archaeology in general and to such research in particular. Neither a complete skeleton nor a clinical history is available. It means you are working with a fragmented piece of the past and this makes drawing an accurate full picture complicated.

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