All  

Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BC, belonged to a female individual who was older than 50 years. Image: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.                 Source: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers

Ancient Egyptian Medical Experts Apparently Tried to Treat Brain Cancer

Print
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The ancient Egyptians were known for making extraordinary advances in medicine, which put them way ahead of their time. A new study just published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine certainly highlights their skills and achievements in this area, as it produces evidence to show that Egyptian healers apparently tried to treat cancer in an individual who lived in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago.

To learn more about the incidence of cancer in ancient Egypt, and to discover how such problems might have been addressed, a team of medical researchers from Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom carried out a study of two skulls that had been held in the Duckworth Collection at Cambridge University for many years.

One of these skulls featured a large lesion that indicated immense tissue destruction, which is caused by a type of brain tumor that can grow in a person who suffers from a condition known as neoplasm. But what shocked the researchers was their discovery of a series of cutmarks around the lesion which would have been made by a metal instrument with an extremely sharp edge - in other words, by a medical tool.

Skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BC, being examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

Skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BC, being examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

This was a most unexpected find. While it is known that the Egyptians could treat many illnesses successfully even thousands of years ago, up to now there had been nothing discovered in the archaeological record indicating any kind of aggressive cancer treatment had been undertaken in ancient times.

“This finding is unique evidence of how ancient Egyptian medicine would have tried to deal with or explore cancer more than 4,000 years ago,” stated study co-author Prof. Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, in a press release detailing his team’s discoveries. “This is an extraordinary new perspective in our understanding of the history of medicine.”

Studying the Astonishing Work of Ancient Egypt’s Medical Masters

In this new study, the researchers were seeking information about how medical experts in ancient Egypt dealt with cancer specifically, and to some extent with other conditions that might have affected the skull as well.

“We wanted to learn about the role of cancer in the past, how prevalent this disease was in antiquity, and how ancient societies interacted with this pathology,” explained Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and lead author of the new study.

To help with this mission, the researchers got permission to examine two scarred skulls recovered long ago from digs on Egyptian soil. One was the skull of a man, aged 30 to 35, who had lived and died between the years 2,687 and 2,345 BC, while the other skull belonged to an older woman (beyond the age of 50) who had lived and died between 663 and 343 BC.

Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BC, belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BC, belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

The male’s skull had an especially large lesion, indicating the presence of a brain tumor at the end of his life. Additionally, there were approximately 30 smaller metastasized lesions found on other locations around his skull, showing that his condition had in fact been cancerous and was spreading (the tumors associated with neoplasm are often benign).

The researchers were delighted to have the chance to analyze how Egyptian medical experts reacted to the onset and progress of such a condition, if they reacted at all. As it turns out, they reacted in a way that was most unexpected.

 “When we first observed the cutmarks under the microscope, we could not believe what was in front of us,” Tondini said.

She is referring here to the discovery of the cutmarks, which had never been seen before in ancient Egyptian skeletal remains that showed signs of cancer. There was no question they had been put there intentionally, and in connection with the large and small lesions on the skull.

“It seems ancient Egyptians performed some kind of surgical intervention related to the presence of cancerous cells, proving that ancient Egyptian medicine was also conducting experimental treatments or medical explorations in relation to cancer,” stated study co-author Prof Albert Isidro, a surgical oncologist at Sacred Heart University Hospital in Spain who has expertise in ancient Egyptian medicine.

Several of the metastatic lesions on skull236 display cutmarks. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

Several of the metastatic lesions on skull236 display cutmarks. (Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers)

While the working theory is that the cutmarks resulted from a surgical procedure, the researchers acknowledge there is no way to tell for sure if the cuts were made while the person was still alive or if they were post-mortem wounds. If it was the former they may have been made as part of an attempt to cut out or otherwise treat the lesions, but if they came from a procedure carried out after death they may have involved an attempt to learn more about the cancerous condition.

In either scenario, it seems the ancient Egyptians were eager to gain more understanding about what cancer was and what could be done to stop its progress.

A Second Cancer-Scarred Skull, plus Even More Surprises

The researchers also found lesions on the woman’s skull that could have been created by a cancerous tumor that was spreading. No cutmarks were found in this case, although finding cancer on two separate skulls buried in Egypt 2,000 years apart shows that people in that country were at some risk for the disorder in ancient times, despite the absence of some factors known to drive high cancer rates today (like environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, the consumption of unhealthy processed foods and advanced age, none of which would have been common in ancient Egypt).

Interestingly, the woman’s skull had two other lesions caused not by cancer, but by traumatic injuries, one of which was apparently the result of a blow from a sharp weapon. The fact that both of these lesions had healed long before her death suggests that ancient Egyptian healers might have treated them (successfully) in some way.

The latter discovery was an uncommon find for another reason. The existence of such wounds could indicate that the woman was some kind of warrior, and if that is the case that would be significant news.

 “Was this female individual involved in any kind of warfare activities?” Tondini asked rhetorically. “If so, we must rethink the role of women in the past and how they took active part in conflicts during antiquity.”

Tracking the Cancer Fighters of Ancient Egypt, One Study at a Time

Given the antiquity of the two skulls and the absence of written records to describe what their owners had experienced, the researchers acknowledge there is some speculation involved in their conclusions.

“This study contributes to a changing of perspective and sets an encouraging base for future research on the field of paleo-oncology, but more studies will be needed to untangle how ancient societies dealt with cancer,” Camarós stated.

Nevertheless, it seems clear from this discovery that the ancient Egyptians understood that cancer was a unique and dangerous condition, and they were making efforts to understand it and likely to treat it more than 4,000 years ago, if not even earlier.

The paper “Boundaries of oncological and traumatological medical care in ancient Egypt: New palaeopathological insights from two human skulls” is published by Frontiers and avail able at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2024.1371645/full

Top image: Skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BC, belonged to a female individual who was older than 50 years. Image: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.                 Source: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024/Frontiers

By Nathan Falde

 
Nathan Falde's picture

Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

Next article