What Was Discovered In Egypt?
Archaeologists discovered 1,087 skeletons buried between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago in the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt. Only six of those skeletons had cancer.
The findings were published in a study in the International Journal Of Paleopathology.
Using the distribution of legions found on the skeletons, researchers were able to determine the cancers that each person had. Some of them had cancers tied to HPV, with two young females likely developing uterine cervix cancer and a young man with testicular cancer. These cancers typically peak when a person is a young adult. An older woman identified likely had ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer. There was also an older man who had rectal cancer, with the actual tumor preserved. A toddler in the group likely had acute leukemia.
Treatment for cancer in ancient Egypt was not as advanced as it is in modern times.
"They knew that something nasty was going on," anthropologist El Molto told Live Science. "We have no indication as to specific treatments for cancer because they didn't understand [what cancer was]."
Caveats Of The Study
There were two caveats that researchers in the study warned about. First, they relied heavily on traces of cancer on bones to determine who had the diseases. Soft tissue would have been preferred, but that usually doesn't survive more than a millennium.
The second caveat has to do with the prevalence of cancer in ancient Egypt. Although a total of six out of 1,087 skeletons is a low rate for cancer, researchers warned that life expectancy during this time was very young. Only 7.7 percent of the people who lived there survived over the age of 60. Cancer tends to strike older people more than younger people, so the cancer rate is not perfect.
What Is The Impact Of This Study?
Despite the caveats, the cancer rate in ancient Egypt was significantly better than modern society, where it is approaching 500 cases for every 1,000 people. This means that people living in ancient Egypt were roughly 100 times less likely to get cancer than people living today.
"In our opinion, it is doubtful that even if the ancient Dakhlans had the same life expectancy as modern western societies the rate of cancer would have been equivalent," the researchers wrote. "The carcinogenic load in their past environments would have been considerably less carcinogenic than modern western societies."
This study could help show how cancer rates increased over the course of history.