When Humans First Treated Cancer Just Got a Big Update

Cut marks around brain lesions in 4K-year-old Egyptian skull suggest surgical intervention
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2024 11:14 AM CDT
Ancient Egyptian Skull May Show First Cancer Treatment
A metastatic lesion on the skull of an ancient Egyptian male shows signs of cut marks.   (Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024)

A new study describes a potential awe-inspiring achievement of the ancient Egyptian civilization far apart from the pyramids. According to the research, ancient Egyptians may have been the first to explore and treat cancer. The finding is based on two skulls discovered in Giza and held at the University of Cambridge, one of which shows evidence of surgery to address brain tumors. The skull belonged to a 30-something man who died more than 4,000 years ago, between 2686BC and 2345BC. Analyses revealed it had more than 30 cancerous bone lesions, as well as cut marks made by a sharp, metal instrument, implying surgical intervention to remove the growths, the Wall Street Journal reports.

If the man was dead at the time of surgery, it shows a groundbreaking exploration of cancer, says paleopathologist Edgard Camaros of the University of Santiago de Compostela, co-author of the study published Wednesday in Frontiers in Medicine. If the man was alive at the time of surgery, "we might be talking about a cancer treatment, and that is absolutely the first treatment in history, not just in ancient Egypt," Camaros tells the Journal. The second skull belonged to a woman older than 50 who died more than 2,000 years ago, between 664BC and 343BC. It had three lesions where malignant tumors had damaged the bone. Two of the lesions were healed, suggesting some kind of intervention, per the Journal.

CNN, however, reports healed skull fractures indicate "prior medical intervention for head injuries," as opposed to cancer. Texts reveal ancient Egyptian healers had a sophisticated knowledge of medicine. Indeed, the first observed case of cancer comes from a breast cancer case study in an Egyptian medical text dated as early as 3000BC. That ancient Egyptians were trying to better understand cancer or even treat the disease some 4,000 years ago is "a milestone in the history of medicine," Camaros tells the outlet. The discovery may "push back the timeline of humanity's documented attempts to treat cancer by up to 1,000 years," reports the New York Times. (More ancient Egypt stories.)

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