Archeologists have found the 3,200-year-old skeleton of a man with a spreading form of cancer, the oldest example so far of a disease often associated with modern lifestyles, scientists said on Monday.
The remains of a man believed to be aged 25 to 35 were found last year in a tomb in Sudan on the banks of the River Nile by a student at Durham University in northeast England.
The bones showed evidence of metastatic carcinoma, or a malignant soft-tumor cancer that has spread from the original site to other parts of the body, although it was not possible to say if he died from the disease.
“This may help us to understand the almost unknown history of the disease. We have very few examples pre the first millennium AD,” said Michaela Binder, the researcher who found the skeleton.
Small lesions on the bones could only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer although the exact site where the disease originated was impossible to determine, she said.
The cause could have been environmental, for example from carcinogens from wood fire smoke, genetic or from the Schistosoma parasite, which still causes bladder and breast cancer to this day in the area.
The university’s research team and the British Museum said that although cancer is currently one of the world’s leading causes of death, it had until now been almost absent from archeological finds.
Worldwide, there had only been one convincing example of metastatic cancer predating the first millennium BC in human remains, and two tentative examples. This had led to the conclusion among scientists that it is “mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity,” they added.
“Insights gained from archeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases,” the team said.
The skeleton was found in Amara West, 750km downstream from the capital, Khartoum.
The man was buried on his back in a painted wooden coffin with a glazed amulet.