A team of British researchers has discovered the oldest confirmed case of cancer: lesions on the bones of a man buried in the Sudan around 1200 BC. According to their findings, which were published last week in science journal PLOS One, the skeleton showed clear signs of metastatic carcinoma, a type of cancer that spreads throughout the body from an original tumor and which identifiable leaves marks on affected bones.
The findings represent “the earliest complete example in the world of a human who suffered metastatic cancer to date,” the researchers wrote, and added that the research provides “new insights into the history and antiquity of the disease as well as its underlying causes and progression.”
Cancer was not unknown to the ancients — there are Greek and Egyptian medical works which reference the disease — but current thinking on the various forms of cancer has placed them firmly in the category of modern ailments, i.e., brought on by the stress, pollutants, food and lifestyle of contemporary civilization.
However, it is likely that cancer was more prevalent in the past than is commonly thought, according to the researchers, who note that there have been about 200 documented cases of possible cancer found among ancient remains, with about 50 coming from ancient Egypt.
A Discovery report from last year on ancient cancer postulated that cancer has “been with us all along” and that, taking out modern factors such as carcinogens and pollutants, the cancer rate for the ancient world might have been much the same as for modern times.