Ancient cancer case in Egypt
Egyptian Antiquities Minister Dr. Mamdouh el-Damaty announced in 2015 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.”
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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.
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