4,000-year-old skulls suggest ancient Egyptians tried to treat cancer with surgery

Study describes earliest known surgical procedure related to a cancerous tumour

Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345BC, which belonged to a male aged 30 to 35. Photo: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós
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Ancient Egyptians may have tried to treat cancer with surgery, according to a new study that has uncovered the earliest known evidence of a procedure for the disease.

Texts dating back thousands of years describe ancient Egyptians’ advanced knowledge of medicine, including identifying and treating numerous diseases and traumatic injuries, using prostheses and dental fillings.

But it was not believed that they knew how to treat cancer, until now.

Studying ancient skulls, scientists discovered cut marks around cancerous lesions – appearing to provide evidence of experimental treatments or medical explorations of the disease.

Was it a treatment or a postmortem intervention? We cannot tell, but clearly, they were trying to deal with it
Prof Edgard Camaros, University of Santiago de Compostela

Lead author Prof Edgard Camaros from the University of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, told The National that the team’s research “changes our understanding of the history of medicine”.

“This is the earliest known, at least for the moment, surgical procedure related to a cancerous tumour,” he said.

“Was it a treatment or a postmortem intervention? We cannot tell, but clearly they were trying to deal with it.”

Researchers made the discovery as part of efforts to understand more about the role of cancer in the past and how prevalent it was in ancient societies.

They studied two Egyptian skulls in the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Collection. One, from between 2687 and 2345BC, belonged to a male aged 30 to 35. The other, from between 663 and 343BC, belonged to a female who was older than 50 years.

The man’s skull showed evidence of a large lesion consistent with excessive tissue destruction, a condition known as neoplasm. There were also 30 or so small and round metastasised lesions scattered across the skull, with cut marks, which appeared to be from surgery.

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“This evidences a surgical intervention directly related to cancerous tumours that show that they were somehow trying to understand oncological conditions,” said Prof Camaros.

“Similar techniques were used (and sometimes still used) related to oncological surgical intervention. However, successful cancer treatment is a milestone of recent modern medicine,” he added.

The second skull, belonging to the woman, had a large lesion consistent with a cancerous tumour that destroyed the bone. The researchers said that may indicate cancer was common in the past.

It also showed two healed lesions from past traumatic injuries, one of which appeared to have been caused by a sharp weapon. The researchers say that may suggest the woman received some kind of treatment and survived as a result. Wounds were uncommon in women, with most violence-related injuries found in males.

“Was this female individual involved in any kind of warfare activities?” said Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tubingen and first author of the study, published in Frontiers in Medicine.

“If so, we must rethink the role of women in the past and how they took an active part in conflicts during antiquity.”

According to the Cancer History Project, ancient Egyptians knew and understood cancer.

The first earliest written observation of cancer was found in a papyrus dating from about 3000 to 2500BC. It detailed case studies of several breast tumours, with accounts “astonishingly akin to descriptive data that a modern physician might summarise in their clinical text today”.

Treatments described in the papyrus were, however, very different to modern techniques, including “binding the tumour with fresh meat (potentially for haemostasis) on the first day, followed by application of grease, honey, and lint every day (potentially as an ointment) until the patient recovers”.

“The ancient physicians also used astringent to dry the wounds in the tumour. However, an interesting case is a bulging tumour with swellings spread over the breast and cool to the touch, for which the physician does not prescribe any treatment, possibly because this was an untreatable tumour at that time,” it said.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 11:47 AM