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Skull exhibiting evidence of cancer. Source Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

Cancer Deaths Were Far Less Prevalent in Ancient Egypt

Researchers in the deserts of Egypt have made a remarkable discovery while studying the bones of ancient Egyptians. In total, they were able to identify six cases of cancer at a burial site at an oasis in the west of the country. The find is allowing researchers to understand more about the risk of cancer in the ancient world and what were its main causes.

Dakhleh Oasis

The bones were found at the Dakhleh Oasis in the desolate western deserts of Egypt. This oasis has been populated since pre-history and was long part of the Egyptian Kingdom. The bones of over 1080 ancient Egyptians buried in the area were examined as part of the research study. They were all buried between 1500 and 3,000 years ago.  From the studies of ancient Egyptian texts, it seems that they had little or no knowledge of the disease and could not treat it.

Al-Qasr town at Dakhleh Oasis. (CC BY 2.0)

Al-Qasr town at Dakhleh Oasis. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The cancer cases

Among the six cases of cancer was a toddler with leukemia and a middle-aged man who had rectal cancer. Three of the six cases were believed to be in their 20s or 30s, two of them were females and one was male. The sixth case of cancer was found in a woman who was in her forties and fifties. Cancer was determined in five of the six cases by the study of lesions and damage to the bones, which were almost certainly caused by the spread of tumors. In one instance a preserved tumor was found, in the remains of the fifty-year-old man.

Images of the Egyptian child from the Dakhleh Oasis who was between 3 and 5 years old at death. It seems the child died of leukemia. Image credit: El Molto

Images of the Egyptian child from the Dakhleh Oasis who was between 3 and 5 years old at death. It seems the child died of leukemia. Image credit: El Molto

Minimal Cancer Sufferers

The discovery of the cancers has allowed experts to determine the rate of cancer in a community in ancient Egypt. Based on the extrapolation of the data it would appear that there was a lifetime risk of around 1 in 200 of developing the disease in Pharaonic Egypt. The study, published in The International Journal of Paleopathology , reports that the risk of cancer ‘in today’s western societies is 100 times greater than in ancient Dakhleh’.

However, there are those who caution against this conclusion. The disease is associated with people who are older and in the ancient world humans had considerably shorter lives. Even allowing for this, it is clear that cancer was much less prevalent in ancient Egyptian society. This is probably due not only to the fact that Ancient Egyptians died younger but that modern western lifestyle choices have led to increasing instances of cancer.

Young Cancer Victims

The evidence of cancer in the bones of individuals in their twenties initially baffled researchers. This was because it is very rare for a person that young to develop this disease. The age of the victims led researchers to speculate that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) may have caused the disease in the three younger individuals. LiveScience reports that ‘recent research has revealed that HPV is a major cause of several forms of cancer, including those that often affect young adults’.

The skull of a woman in her 20s showed she suffered from a cancer that had spread to her head. She may have had the HPV virus. Image credit: El Molto

The skull of a woman in her 20s showed she suffered from a cancer that had spread to her head. She may have had the HPV virus. Image credit: El Molto

Among the cancers that are mostly associated with HPV are cancers of the uterine cervix and testes. It was not possible to test the bones to see if the young adults had the virus, but other studies have proven that it existed in the ancient world and that it even predates the emergence of Homo sapiens . It is highly probable that HPV was present in the population of Dakhleh Oasis.

Researchers hope that further data on the incidence of cancer among the modern inhabitants of Dakhleh Oasis can be collected. This can then be compared with the findings from the ancient population of the oasis. Such a study would allow experts to understand the risk of the disease throughout the centuries and would allow them to have a better understanding of this cruel affliction. The findings are also adding to the body of evidence regarding HPV and cancer.

Top image: Skull exhibiting evidence of cancer. Source Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

By Ed Whelan

Comments

I wonder what the average age was? It would give a general sense of well being. Some of the medical papyrus are fascinating, you can understand where modern-day surgery and medician come from. One could argue the latter being the right approach, they at least attempted to cure rather than an endless dependency on continuous treatments.

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