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Two ancient Egyptian skulls show how long cancer has been an issue for humans


We tend to think of cancer as a modern affliction, but it's stalked humanity for millennia. Now, two ancient skulls confirm just how far back our relationship with this disease goes. Science reporter Ari Daniel has more.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: The University of Cambridge in England houses one of the world's largest collections of human remains, a kind of library filled with blood, hair and boxes of bones. During her master's degree, Tatiana Tondini got to walk among those ghosts.

TATIANA TONDINI: I mean, it's strange because you are surrounded by people that died. So it was like a respect feeling, I would say.

DANIEL: Tondini and her colleagues wanted to examine two skulls from the collection whose records reported evidence of cancer. The first was from an adult woman who lived in ancient Egypt some 2,400 to 2,700 years ago.

TONDINI: Well, I think this skull is particularly impressive because, first of all, of course, we have this big hole.

DANIEL: It's a crater, not quite the size of a ping pong ball, which Tondini says was likely the result of an osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer that seems to have slowly chewed through the middle of this woman's skull.

TONDINI: We probably think the person died due to this cancer, but, of course, we cannot be 100% sure.

DANIEL: The skull also reveals two other injuries. One's a gash in the forehead above the left eye.

TONDINI: So that probably was made by a sharp object, like a knife.

DANIEL: Behind that, halfway back on the skull, there's a fracture.

TONDINI: That is from a blunt object. Yeah. I know.

DANIEL: Maybe, Tondini says, this woman was a warrior. Or maybe...

TONDINI: We cannot totally dismiss the possibility was domestic violence as well.

DANIEL: The woman survived these two injuries because they're at least partially healed, suggesting she may have been treated for them. Now, let's turn to the second skull. It's from an adult male in his 30s who also lived in ancient Egypt but some 2,000 years earlier than the woman. Half the roof of his mouth is just gone. Tondini says it was probably devoured by a kind of carcinoma.

TONDINI: So basically, here this cancer starts and then it spreads to other parts of the body.

DANIEL: Including elsewhere in the skull, 46 small holes riddled in the cranium, all likely formed by smaller secondary tumors. But it was when Tondini used a 3D digital microscope that she saw two of the outside holes were marked by short, shallow cut marks.

TONDINI: We basically asked half of the department of archaeology if they also thought there was cut marks because we couldn't believe that.

DANIEL: The reason for that disbelief is what the cut marks might have been, possible remnants of medical tools used to remove the cancer from the skull, either around the time of death or afterwards.

TONDINI: Ancient Egyptian civilization was particularly advanced in medicine, different way of treating many disease.

DANIEL: If true, she says this would be one of the earliest examples of humans performing cancer surgery ever found. Tondini, who's now a researcher at the University of Tubingen, and her colleagues, published their findings in the journal Frontiers In Medicine.

RACHEL KALISHER: It might need a little bit more investigation if I'm being perfectly honest.

DANIEL: Rachel Kalisher is a bioarchaeologist at New York University who wasn't involved in the research. She says the study is a solid exploration of medical care in the ancient world, but she's not fully sold on the explanation for the cut marks.

KALISHER: They could have happened, you know, 50, 60 years ago. The crania could have been treated with something. It could have been cleaned with something. They don't necessarily look super ancient to me, but I'm not there in person to see it.

DANIEL: Tatiana Tondini agrees there's more work to do. She'll continue to study these skulls and others.

TONDINI: I think we can learn a lot from our past and from these people as well.

DANIEL: To her, these skulls are vessels with messages about an affliction humans have battled for generations, one that can be carved into our very bones. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Daniel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]