An ancient skull suffering from brain cancer holds clues to Egyptian medicine

Fluctuating disease rates, innovative treatments and talk of “moonshots” at the White House could make cancer seem like a modern plague. But a new discovery sheds light on how humans dealt with disease and sought cures as far back as ancient Egyptian times.

Scientists led by Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, were studying an Egyptian skull about 4,600 years old when they found signs of brain cancer and its treatment.

“There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, because we knew what we had just discovered,” Dr. Camarós said.

Using a microscope, he and Tatiana Tondini of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Albert Isidro of the Sagrat Cor University Hospital in Spain, the study's other authors, found cut marks around the edges of the skull surrounding dozens of lesions that the Previous researchers had linked it to metastasis. brain cancer. The shape of the cuts indicated that they had been made with a metal instrument. This finding, reported in a study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, suggests that ancient Egyptians studied brain cancer using surgery. If the cuts were made while the person was alive, he may also have attempted to cure them.

The new discovery not only expands scientific knowledge of Egyptian medicine, but could also push back the timeline of humanity's documented attempts to cure cancer by 1,000 years.

Cancer has plagued humans for as long as we have existed and plagued life on Earth long before that.

“Cancer is as old as time,” Dr. Camarós said. “Dinosaurs also suffered from cancer.”

Paleopathologists like Dr. Camarós study the evolution of a disease as well as attempts to understand or cure it. We know, for example, that humans in prehistoric times were affected by tumors that no longer exist. He and his colleagues hope that unraveling the changing nature of cancer over millennia will reveal information that can help design treatments for today.

Although cancer was probably not well understood, medicine in Egypt was advanced compared to much of the ancient world. An Egyptian document called the Edwin Smith Papyrus, written about 3,600 years ago, refers to what some researchers believe is a case of cancer. That text describes “a serious illness” for which “there was no cure”.

People in ancient Egypt worked on skulls in other ways as well. Dr. Camarós' team also reports in the study that they found evidence of an effective treatment for a traumatic injury on another skull, this one 2,600 years old.

Casey L. Kirkpatrick, a bioarchaeologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said the new paper presents the first physical evidence of possible cancer treatment by the ancient Egyptians.

And by documenting more ancient historical evidence of the disease, Dr. Kirkpatrick said the study had another benefit.

“It can also remind us that cancer is not a modern disease,” he said, “which might help alleviate some guilt in those who are currently affected by cancer and who are concerned about the role that their style of life it had in its development.”

Just as cancer treatment was a frontier for the ancient Egyptians, modern researchers' exploration of the deep past is fraught with uncertainty. The researchers say it is impossible to determine whether the surgical marks on the skull were made before death – suggesting treatment – or after. Many tumors also arise in soft tissues, leaving bones unchanged. This presents a challenge to modern scientists because bones are all that typically survive in the fossil record.

Despite these obstacles, Dr Camarós said the new discovery gave scientists a new perspective on what to look for. He plans to look for similar evidence at ancient sites in Kenya next.

“I'm sure this is just one example,” he said.

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