British archaeologist excavates oldest human cancer sufferer in tomb by banks of the Nile

By Ben Miller | 17 March 2014

Experts hope to explore the evolution of cancer after discovering the oldest known victim of the disease

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Buried on the banks of the Nile in a deteriorated wooden coffin painted 3,000 years ago, a disease-ravaged adult male found by a British scientist has been declared the oldest complete example of a human with cancer.

A diagram of a skeleton
Preserved elements of the skeleton and elements affected by pathological changes. Dark areas indicate full preservation, light areas indicate fragmented areas. Hatched areas are the bones affected by lytic lesions© Trustees of the British Museum
Metastatic carcinoma – cancer which has spread around the body – was found in a soft-tissue tumour across large areas of the skeleton, which was discovered on Amara West, a world-renowned archaeological site 750km downstream of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by a Durham University student last year.

Radiography and scanning electron microscopy, carried out by experts from the university and the British Museum, showed the disease had attacked the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones of the man, who could have been exposed to carcinogens through wood fire smoke, genetic factors or parasitic infections.

Experts believe a schistosomiasis infection, of the kind known to plague residents of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500BC, is a “plausible” explanation. The strain is now recognised to cause bladder and breast cancer in men.

A photo of skeleton bones
The skeleton of the adult male excavated from Amara West© Trustees of the British Museum
Three examples of pre-1st millennium BC metastatic cancer have been found in human remains before. But only the skulls were kept from the early 20th century excavations, denying archaeologists the chance to fully re-analyse each skeleton.

“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,” says Michaela Binder, who excavated and examined the bones.

“Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.

“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.

A photo of bone sections
Pathological changes in the right femoral head. Photo- and radiograph of lytic lesions in the right femoral head (arrows indicate areas of pathological lesions)© Trustees of the British Museum
“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.”

The tomb architecture, which carried Pharaonic elements including a glazed amulet grave good, suggests the 25-35-year-old victim was a high-status individual, although he was unlikely to have been among the ruling elite.

Its well-preserved pottery dates from the 20th Dynasty, between 1187 and 1064BC, when Egypt ruled Upper Nubia, battled with Libya and oversaw the burials of pharaohs such as Ramses III in the Valley of the Kings.

An exhibition, Ancient Lives: new Discoveries, will reveal the results of non-invasive scientific examinations on eight mummies from ancient Egypt and Sudan when it opens at the British Museum on May 22.

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A photo of a sandy grave
The skeleton in its original burial position in the western chamber of the grave. The insert shows the faience amulet from both sides. The Egyptian god Bes (right side) is depicted on the reverse side© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of various scientific scans
Detail of new bone formation in the iliac crest, magnified 40 times. The close-up shows a focus of new bone formation indicated by arrows in a lytic lesion in the iliac crest© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a section of brown bone
Destructive lesion in vertebral body of the 7th thoracic vertebrae. Detail of the pathological changes in the 7th thoracic vertebra. The rectangle indicates area of new bone infill of the spongiosa© Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of two bone scans with arrows indicating points of scientific interest
A general view of the left clavicle with the pathological lesions indicated by arrows, and a radiograph of the same bone on the bottom© Trustees of the British Museum
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Pics: Trustees of the British Museum
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