HomeTech‘Extraordinary’ 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull may show attempts to treat cancer

‘Extraordinary’ 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull may show attempts to treat cancer

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An Ancient Egyptian skull may have evidence of brain surgery (Picture: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós/SWNS 2024)

An ‘extraordinary’ 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull shows signs of attempts to treat cancer.

Cutmarks on the skull could be indications that ancient Egyptians tried to operate on excessive tissue growth, say scientists.

An alternative theory is that they tried to learn more about cancerous disorders after a patient’s death.

Evidence in ancient texts shows that – for their times – the ancient Egyptians were ‘exceptionally skilled’ at medicine and could identify, describe, treat diseases and traumatic injuries and even put in dental fillings.

However, other conditions, such as cancer, they couldn’t treat. But a new study strongly suggests that they might have tried.

An international team of researchers examined two human skulls, each thousands of years old.

Ancient Egyptians were ‘exceptionally skilled’ at medicine (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

Study first author Dr Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen, Germany, said: ‘We see that although ancient Egyptians were able to deal with complex cranial fractures, cancer was still a medical knowledge frontier.

‘We wanted to learn about the role of cancer in the past, how prevalent this disease was in antiquity, and how ancient societies interacted with this pathology.

‘When we first observed the cutmarks under the microscope, we could not believe what was in front of us.’

Lead author Professor Edgard Camarós, of the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, said: ‘This finding is unique evidence of how ancient Egyptian medicine would have tried to deal with or explore cancer more than 4,000 years ago.

‘This is an extraordinary new perspective in our understanding of the history of medicine.’

The team examined two skulls held at the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Collection.

Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BC, belonged to a man aged 30 to 35 while skull E270, dating from between 663 and 343 BC, belonged to a woman older than 50.



What medical methods did Ancient Egyptians practice?

The ancient Egyptians were skilled practitioners, and were regarded to have an advance knowledge of anatomy and surgery.

They treated a lot of diseases, such as dental, gynecological and abdominal issues, and they could even diagnose diabetes and cancer.

Medicines seemed to come from different plants and animal products, and some plants are still used to this day.

Through preserved scripture, researchers have discovered that ancient Egyptian surgeons used instruments which were similar to what we use today, such as a scalpel, forceps, scissors and splints.

Microscopic observation showed a big lesion on skull 236 consistent with excessive tissue destruction, a condition known as neoplasm.

There were around 30 small and round metastasised lesions scattered across the skull. But what stunned the researchers was the discovery of cutmarks around the lesions, probably made with a sharp object such as a metal instrument.

Co-author Professor Albert Isidro, a surgical oncologist at the University Hospital Sagrat Cor, Spain, said: ‘It seems ancient Egyptians performed some kind of surgical intervention related to the presence of cancerous cells, proving that ancient Egyptian medicine was also conducting experimental treatments or medical explorations in relation to cancer.’

The researchers said skull E270 also shows a ‘big lesion’ consistent with a cancerous tumour that led to bone destruction.

They said their findings may indicate that although today’s lifestyle, people getting older, and cancer-causing substances in the environment increase the risk, cancer was also a common disease in the past.

The team also found two healed lesions from traumatic injuries on skull E270, where one of them seems to have originated from a ‘close-range violent event’ using a sharp weapon.

Knives like these may have been used to remove organs during the process of mummification (Picture: SSPL/Getty)

The research team believe the healed lesions could mean that the woman potentially received some kind of treatment, and as a result, survived.

Seeing such a wound on a female is uncommon, and most violence-related injuries are found on males.

Dr Tondini said: ‘Was this female individual involved in any kind of warfare activities?

‘If so, we must rethink the role of women in the past and how they took active part in conflicts during antiquity.’

But the researchers say studying skeletal remains comes with certain challenges that make definitive statements difficult, especially since remains often are incomplete and there is no known clinical history.

Professor Camarós added: ‘This study contributes to a changing of perspective and sets an encouraging base for future research on the field of paleo-oncology.

‘But more studies will be needed to untangle how ancient societies dealt with cancer.’

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.


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