British Museum blog

New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

Follow the latest from the British Museum team now excavating at Amara West: http://blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org/
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Ancient human remains from Sudan: training future specialists


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Sudan has perhaps one of the richest and most fascinating archaeological records in the world. Construction projects such as roads and dams are an increasing threat to its cultural heritage which prompts a large number of salvage excavations by Sudanese and international teams. Accordingly, as a large number of archaeological sites are cemeteries, the amount of human remains housed in museums and universities for use in research is steadily growing.

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe, a UNESCO World Heritage site since April 2011

Despite the fact Sudan has many excellent archaeologists, the scientific potential of human remains – which can increase our knowledge about many aspects of past human cultures – is not fully harnessed. This is mainly due to the fact that there is relatively little training in the study of human remains within the country itself.

Recognising this problem, the British Museum’s Amara West project has instigated a Bioarchaeology Field School, generously funded by the Institute of Bioarchaeology. I am currently in Khartoum running a one-week workshop at the National Council of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM). Over the course of the workshop, nine participants, including senior members of NCAM and archaeologists from the universities of Khartoum, Shendi, Bahri (Juba) and Wadi al-Nil, will gain a basic understanding of the study of human remains, the methods involved and the potential information that can be obtained.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

During the first few days, we have been busy learning about the anatomy of the human skeleton. Following practice on a plastic skeleton, the participants get hands-on experience with skeletons excavated at the Meroitic cemetery at Berber, by workshop participant Mahmoud Suleiman Bashir, an inspector at NCAM.

We have also visited excavations at al-Khiday near Khartoum, a multi-period site with cemeteries of the Pre-Mesolithic, Neolithic and Meroitic periods, where Tina Jakob of Durham University, who works on the human remains of Al-Khiday, gave a talk about her research.

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

You can read more about our discoveries at Amara West on the British Museum website where we have uploaded new pages about the excavation of a Ramesside house at the town, and post-New Kingdom burials in cemetery C.

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