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A 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull reveals surgical attempts to treat cancer

Scientists were amazed by the discovery of cut marks around cancerous tumors on an ancient Egyptian skull, which allowed them to better understand how the ancient Egyptians tried to treat the disease

Skull and mandible 236, dated to between 2687 and 2345 BC, belonged to a man aged 30 to 35. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.
Skull E270, dated to the period between 663 and 343 BC, belonged to a woman over the age of 50. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024
Cut marks on skull E206 Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.
Cut marks on skull E206 Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

Scientists were amazed by the discovery of cut marks around cancerous tumors on an ancient Egyptian skull, which allowed them to better understand how the ancient Egyptians tried to treat the disease. These findings are unique evidence that ancient societies tried to research and perform cancer surgeries thousands of years ago.

From ancient letters we know that the ancient Egyptians had extraordinary medical skills for their time. For example, they could identify, describe and treat diseases and traumatic injuries, build prostheses and install dental fillings. In other conditions, such as cancer, they could not treat - but they might have tried.

Examining the limits of traumatological and oncological treatments in ancient Egypt, an international team of researchers has now studied two human skulls, each thousands of years old.

"We see that although the ancient Egyptians were able to deal with complex skull fractures, cancer was still a frontier of medical knowledge," said Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and lead author of the study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

"This finding is unique evidence of how ancient Egyptian medicine would have tried to deal with or study cancer more than 4,000 years ago," added the study's lead author, Prof. Edgard Camaros, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela. "This is a new and special point of view in understanding the history of medicine."

**cutting marks on the skull 236**

Cut marks found on skull 236 were probably made with a sharp object. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.

The skulls were examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.
The skulls were examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.

**cutting the cancer**

"We wanted to learn about the role of cancer in the past, how common the disease was in antiquity, and how ancient societies dealt with this pathology," Tondini explained. For this, the researchers examined two skulls from the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge. Skull and mandible 236, dated to between 2687 and 2345 BC, belonged to a man between the ages of 30 and 35. Skull E270, dated to between 663 and 343 BC, belonged to a woman over the age of 50.

On skull 236, microscopic observation showed a large lesion consistent with excessive tissue destruction, a condition known as a neoplasm. In addition, there are about 30 small, round lesions that have spread over the surface of the skull.

The researchers were amazed by the discovery of the cut marks around these lesions, which were apparently made with a sharp object such as a metal tool. "When we first saw the cut marks under the microscope, we couldn't believe what we were seeing," Tondini said.

"It seems that the ancient Egyptians performed a type of surgical intervention related to the presence of cancer cells, which proves that ancient Egyptian medicine was also involved in experimental treatments or medical investigation in the context of cancer," explained co-author Prof. Albert Isidro, a surgical oncologist at Segret Kor University Hospital, who specializes in Egyptology .

**Cutting marks around lesions on the skull 236**

Some of the metastatic lesions on skull 236 show cut marks. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.
Some of the metastatic lesions on skull 236 show cut marks. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.

**Cancer in ancient times**

Skull E270 also shows a large lesion consistent with a cancerous growth that caused bone destruction. This may indicate that despite the current lifestyle, where aging and the presence of carcinogens in the environment increase the risk of cancer, cancer was also a common pathology in the past.

On skull E270, there are also two healing lesions from traumatic injuries. One of them appears to have been caused by a violent incident at close range using a sharp weapon. These healing lesions may indicate that the person received some treatment, and as a result survived.

To see such a wound on a woman is not common, and most injuries related to violence are found on men. "Was this woman involved in any war activities?" Tondini asked. "If so, we must rethink the role of women in the past and how they actively participated in conflicts during antiquity."

The skulls were examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.
The skulls were examined using microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camaros, 2024.

The researchers also noted that the study of skeletal remains poses certain challenges that make definitive statements difficult, especially when the remains are often incomplete and there is no known clinical history. "In archeology we work with fragmented parts of the past, which makes it difficult to have a precise approach," noted Isidro.

"This study contributes to a change in perspective and lays an encouraging foundation for future studies in the field of paleo-oncology, but further studies will be required to decipher how ancient societies dealt with cancer," Kamaros concluded.

for the scientific article

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