4,200-Year-Old Egyptian Skeleton Shows Earliest Evidence of Breast Cancer

Ancient cancer case in Egypt


Ancient cancer incidences are rarely found in the archaeological record. Pictured is the skeleton of a woman from the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis in Egypt. This 4,200-year-old skeleton possesses the oldest evidence of breast cancer discovered to date. Photo: Courtesy Ministry of Antiquities.

Egyptian Antiquities Minister Dr. Mamdouh el-Damaty recently announced that archaeologists excavating in an ancient Egyptian cemetery have found the earliest evidence of breast cancer. Working in the elite necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa across from modern Aswan in southern Egypt, University of Jaen (Spain) archaeologists discovered the skeleton of an adult woman that displayed extensive deterioration. Further study of the bones revealed that the damage was consistent with that caused by the spread of breast cancer.

The woman lived at the end of the sixth dynasty (2200 B.C.E.) in Elephantine, an island town in the Nile River known as a religious site throughout ancient Egypt.

“The virulence of the disease impeded her [ability] to carry out any kind of labor,” el-Damaty said, “but she was treated and taken care of during a long period until her death.”

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure throughout Israel and ancient practices across the Mediterranean world.

Despite the dearth of evidence of ancient cancer incidences compared to other medical conditions, we do have some indication that the disease affected human populations in antiquity. Ancient Egyptian and Greek medical documents record conditions that are consistent with cancer. The Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating to 1600 B.C.E. but believed to be a copy of a document from 3000 B.C.E., is the world’s oldest treatise on trauma surgery and describes eight cases of tumors of the breast. A paper recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE reports on the skeleton of a young man from northern Sudan who suffered from metastatic carcinoma around 1200 B.C.E.

The University of Jaen, under the direction of Dr. Alejandro Jiménez, has sponsored excavations in Qubbet el-Hawa since 2008. The archaeologists are investigating the burials of the governors and their families who lived in Elephantine between 2250 and 1750 B.C.E.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Egyptian Diseases: Oldest Case of Scurvy?

Heart Disease in Mummies

Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

Prehistoric Parasite Bloomed with Mesopotamian Farming

Medicine in the Ancient World

The Cyprian Plague

Justinian Plague Linked to the Black Death


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  • Kurt says

    God’s View of the Dead
    Having formed the first human from the dust of the ground, he is also able to re-create a dead person. For this reason, God can view the dead as though they were alive. Regarding faithful servants of old who have died, Jesus said: “They are all living from [God’s] standpoint.”—Luke 20:38, footnote.
    While on earth, Jesus was empowered to resurrect the dead. (John 5:21) Hence, he shares his Father’s view of those who have died faithful. For example, when his friend Lazarus died, Jesus told his disciples: “I am journeying . . . to awaken him from sleep.” (John 11:11) From a human standpoint, Lazarus was dead, but to Jehovah and Jesus, Lazarus was sleeping.
    Under Jesus’ Kingdom rule, there will be “a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) In time, those who are resurrected will receive divine education and have the prospect of everlasting life on earth.—John 5:28, 29.
    Yes, the death of a loved one can cause much distress and sorrow, which may last for years. Nevertheless, viewing the dead from God’s standpoint can bring us great comfort and fill us with hope.—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4.

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