Image: Dr. Miguel Botella and Dr. Alejandro Jiménez showing images of the skeleton
Researchers from the University of Granada and the University of Jaén have discovered what is now the world’s oldest known case of breast cancer, detected in the 4,200 year-old skeleton of a woman in Aswan, in the south of Egypt.
The woman is believed to have been an aristocrat from the 6th Pharaonic Dynasty. Her skeleton, discovered in the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis and dated to approximately 2200 BC, shows signs of an “extraordinary deterioration” in the bones, explains Dr. Miguel Botella - Director of the UGR’s Anthropology Laboratory and the research team in Aswan.
The Egyptian Antiquities Minister, Dr. Mamdouh el-Damaty, adds: “the study of her remains shows the typical destructive damages provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis in the bones.”
The Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis was discovered in the 19th century and archaeological excavations have been carried out at the site on numerous occasions. However, as Dr. Alejandro Jiménez from the University of Jaén’s Department of Anthropology, Geography and History remarks: “these archaeological remains are completely intact, are well-preserved, and have been analyzed for the first time ever.”
The woman, between 30 – 40 years old, also suffered from acute osteoporosis and was unable to move for a considerable period of time, revealing her delicate state of health due to the metastasis.
Shedding light on Ancient Egyptian society
The researchers began a new excavation project at the site in 2008 in an attempt to reconstruct the lives and funeral rites of the rulers, and their families, who lived in the region between 2250 – 1750 BC.
Dr. Botella points out that the analysis of the archaeological remains at the site indicates that: “The inhabitants of Ancient Egypt lived considerably worse off than their great monuments might lead us to believe. They suffered from numerous infectious diseases which drastically lowered their life expectancy.”
The team detected Malta fever; tumours; degenerative illnesses (such as osteoarthritis) and ankylosis, as well as signs of violence, in the mummies. “As a result of these infectious processes and diseases,” Botella notes, “half of Egypt’s population would die before the age of five.”
Until now, the oldest known case of breast cancer had previously been dated to 1600 BC, meaning that this newly discovered case dates back a further 600 years in time. Botella explains: “Moreover, the disease appears to be described in the Edwin Smith Papyrus (the Ancient Egyptian medical text), but until now there has been no substantial evidence to back up this theory. Our discoveries have provided us with this evidence via the skeleton of a woman from an even more ancient period than previously recorded (4200 years ago), and we will now proceed to study this evidence in minute detail.”
The underlying causes of cancer, one of the deadliest and most pervasive diseases in modern times, have commonly been attributed to factors related to modern living. These new research findings suggest, however, that there were instances of cancer in the Ancient Nile Valley and therefore, that cancer is not just a modern day disease, but rather, that it has its origins in the ancient past.
To date, only a few instances of the disease have been unearthed from this ancient past, and for this very reason the findings may become crucial in determining the origins and causes of cancer in ancient civilization. Moreover, if the DNA can be analyzed, it may reveal what kind of gene mutations occurred in order to make this woman susceptible to breast cancer. Such a finding could, in turn, play a decisive role in helping us not only to understand the evolution of the disease, but also the evolution of the human species itself.
Contact research group director:
Director: Miguel Botella López
Telephone: +34 958 240 710