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3,200-year-old skeleton in Sudan

Oldest example of cancer found in 3,200-year-old skeleton


Archaeologists have discovered that the ancient remains of a man found last year in a tomb in Sudan on the banks of the River Nile had a spreading form of cancer, the oldest example so far of the disease.

The skeleton was found in Amara West, 750 kilometres downstream from the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The man was buried on his back in a painted wooden coffin with a glazed amulet. However, his remains have only just been analysed, revealing that the bones of the 25- to 35-year-old man showed evidence of metastatic carcinoma, a malignant soft-tumour cancer. Tests using radiography and a scanning electron microscope provided clear imaging of the lesions on the bones, with cancer metastases on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.

Although it is not clear whether the man died from the cancer or from another cause, such diseases are incredibly rare in an individual that lived over three millennia ago, as it is normally associated with the modern lifestyle.

The research team from Durham University and the British Museum said that although cancer is currently one of the world's leading causes of death, it has been virtually absent from archaeological finds, leading to the conclusion that it is "mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity". Until now, there had only been one example of metastatic cancer predating the 1 st millennium BC in human remains. 

Michaela Binder, the researcher from Durham University in England who made the discovery, said that it is impossible to determine the exact site where the disease originated, but that the cause may have been environmental, for example from carcinogens from wood fire smoke, genetic or from the parasite schistosomiasis, which still causes cancer to this day in the area.

The researchers hope that the discovery may help shed light on the almost unknown history of the disease. Ms Binder explained that "Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.

Featured image: Michaela Binder from Durham University inspecting the remains. Photo source.

By April Holloway



Justbod's picture

Very interesting! I remember being shocked to discover during some research, that a relative of mine who died in 1843 was recorded as dying of 'womb cancer.' Until that moment I had assumed cancer was a modern disease. It now seems the dates are being taken ever further backwards.

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aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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