Archaeologists Found a Medieval Body With a Tumor That Was Growing Teeth – But That’s Not the Whole Story
Digging up a graveyard in Lisbon, Portugal, archaeologists found the remains of a woman who had died sometime between the 15th and 18th century. They can’t be sure what killed her, but it may have been the thing that was growing inside of her womb. Because this woman had an ovarian tumor – and it had grown teeth.
Five teeth had sprouted out inside of her pelvis by the time she died. These teeth were hard, jagged bones that had pushed their way through the growth inside of her body. Their tips were split and frayed like an old, rusted knife. She had likely felt it inside of her – but it’s unlikely anyone had seen it. It was her secret, buried inside of her; even she had no idea what was growing in her body.
Archaeologists discovered this ovarian teratoma, a tumor that had teeth, in a graveyard in Lisbon, Portugal. ( Sofia N. Wasterlain et al./International Journal of Paleopathology)
This is Not the First Time It’s Happened
Tumors like the one found on this woman’s body are called teratomas, and this woman was by no means the only one to have one. 20% of all tumors inside of women can become teratomas. They’re benign and comparatively harmless, but they can be deeply unnerving. Because a teratoma can grow hair, teeth, eyes, and even organs.
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Her teratoma isn’t even the most unsettling. That prize has to go to an unidentified woman in Japan who, in 2003, had a teratoma tumor removed from her body that looked almost like some monstrous, newly born child. It had grown a head with ears, teeth and one single eye. Her tumor even had a stomach and a brain of its own.
CT showing a teratoma of the ovary: fatty formation with a smooth boundary, with a dense part, possibly a tooth. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Still, this woman’s tumor was unique because it is from about 500 years into our past. In the modern world, we expect to see cancerous tumors. We understand what they are, and we have an idea of how to treat them, even if it isn’t perfectly effective. This woman, though, adds to a body of evidence that these types of afflictions have affected us throughout all of human history.
It sparks the thought – what was it like to see a cancerous tumor growing in ancient times? And how did our ancestors react if they saw one growing teeth?
A Long History of Cancer
Cancer and tumors aren’t new diseases. As much as we connect them to our modern lifestyles, they’ve been around for a long time, and people have been dealing with them for thousands of years.
Lesions and holes in the skull of an Early Bronze Age Siberian man reveal cancer is not only a modern phenomenon. (Angela R. Lieverse et al)
The oldest teratoma tumor was found on a body buried 1,600 years ago. A Spanish woman was buried with one growing in her pelvis, which, like the woman in Lisbon, had grown two monstrous teeth. Researchers, looking over her body, theorized that the tumor may have grown large enough that it shifted her internal organs out of place and killed her.
Cancerous tumors, though, have been around even longer. The oldest tumor found on a human being was in an Egyptian woman who died in 1,200 BC, but we have reason to believe that cancer has been plaguing humans for far longer. If we broaden the definition of “human” a little, we have found the remains of Neanderthal who died of cancer 120,000 years ago.
A Curse from The Gods
Even the word “cancer” is thousands of years old. It was first written by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC, who took one of the first serious, medical approaches to treating it as a real disease.
Representation of Hippocrates from Linden, Magni Hippocratis...1665 (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)
He wasn’t the first person to write about it, though. More than 1,000 years before he was born, the Egyptians wrote the oldest papers on cancer. To them, though, it was no mere disease. The believed that it was curse brought upon people by Khonsu, the god of the moon. There was nothing that could be done to stand in the way of his divine will.
“You shall concerning it: ‘It is a swelling on Khonsu,’” an Egyptian text instructed the doctors who read it. “You should not do anything against it.”
The first record of a teratoma comes from Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. They, too, treated these tumors as an act of god – but in this case, they thought it was a good omen. “When a woman gives birth to an infant that has three feet,” an Assyrian seer wrote, describing the deformed child in a way that modern doctors are convinced it must be a describing a teratoma tumor, “there will be great prosperity in the land.”
Restored Adad Gate of Nineveh. (CC BY SA 3.0) The first known record of a teratoma comes from this site.
A Medical Problem
As our cultures and our understanding of the world evolved, humanity started understanding these things better – but we never lost our abject terror of cancer’s devastation.
Hippocrates was the first to treat cancer as a simple medical problem, but he didn’t have much a solution. “If treated, the patients die quickly,” he warned. His only recommendation was to do nothing and let the patients cling on to life for as they could, writing, “If not treated, they hold out for a long time.”
For centuries, doctors struggled with trying to understand this strange disease that seemed to be completely unstoppable. In the 9th century AD, more than 1,000 years after Hippocrates, the Arab surgeon Abu al-Qasim wrote, about cancer, “I for one never could cure one single case, nor do I know anybody else who succeeded in doing so.”
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A Growing Understanding
We’d understood cancer for thousands of years, though, before he started to understand teratomas. The first record of anyone found with a teratoma comes from as recently as 1658, when a doctor reported that a woman died with a monstrous tumor that had grown hair.
Humanity’s understanding of what these strange growths were seems to have started then and developed slowly. But the woman in Lisbon likely died before then, in a time when no one had any idea that something like that could get into a human’s body.
The skeleton of the woman found with the tumor. (Wasterlain et al/International Journal of Paleopathology)
And that’s what makes her death all the more tragic. She had an illness that looked monstrous; that no one around her could understand. She would have no idea what was wrong with her as she suffered through a pain she couldn’t understand – and that wouldn’t be diagnosed until 500 years after the day she died.
The Convent of Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal. (Juliancolton/CC BY 2.0) The woman’s remains were found outside the Church and Convent.
Top Image: The tumor with teeth was found in a cemetery in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Sofia N. Wasterlain et al
By Mark Oliver
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