Ancient Skull With Brain Cancer Preserves Clues to Egyptian Medicine

Fluctuating disease rates, innovative treatments and talk of “moonshots” in the White House may make cancer seem like a modern scourge. But a new discovery highlights how humans dealt with the illness and hunted for cures as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Scientists led by Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain were studying an approximately 4,600-year-old Egyptian skull when they found signs of brain cancer and its treatment.

“There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, because we knew what we had just discovered,” Dr. Camarós said.

Using a microscope, he and Tatiana Tondini of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Albert Isidro of the University Hospital Sagrat Cor in Spain, the study’s other authors, found cut marks around the skull’s edges surrounding dozens of lesions that earlier researchers had linked to metastasized brain cancer. The shape of the cuts indicated that they had been made with a metal tool. This discovery, reported in a study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, suggests that ancient Egyptians studied brain cancer using surgery. If the cuts were made while the person was alive, they may have even attempted to treat it.

The new discovery not only expands scientific knowledge of Egyptian medicine, it may also push back the timeline of humanity’s documented attempts to treat cancer by up to 1,000 years.

Cancer has bedeviled humans for as long as we have existed, and it even afflicted life on Earth long before.

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