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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This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
#AncientEgypt #Egypt #Thebes #RosettaStone #sculpture #statue #history #BritishMuseum #mybritishmuseum We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽 This mask represents the Aztec god of rain, Tlaloc, who is characterised by large eyes and a twisted nose. The mask is formed from two snakes which intertwine to create the face, their tails forming the eyebrows (originally gold). This object has also been associated with Quetzalcoatl, the feather serpent, because of the feathers which hang down from the eyebrows. Made in Mexico about 500 years ago, the mask may have been worn by a priest during rituals.

#Aztec #Mixtec #turquoise #mask #Mexico #🇲🇽
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