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Ancient Egyptians tried to treat cancer: archaeologists examined a 4000-year-old skull and made a phenomenal discovery

Anna BoklajukNews
A 4000-year-old Egyptian skull shows signs of attempts to treat cancer. Source: livescience.com

In the new study, experts analyzed a human skull from the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge, dating from between 2686 and 2345 BC. The skull contained traces of a large primary tumor as well as more than 30 smaller metastatic lesions.

The researchers found that these lesions were surrounded by cuts, possibly made with a sharp object such as a metal tool. This suggests that the ancient Egyptians were attempting to perform surgery to treat a patient who is believed to have been a man in his 30s, LiveScience reports.

Ancient Egyptians tried to treat cancer: archaeologists examined a 4000-year-old skull and made a phenomenal discovery

The authors of the study believe that these results, which were published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, may eventually change our understanding of when modern medicine began.

Ancient Egyptians tried to treat cancer: archaeologists examined a 4000-year-old skull and made a phenomenal discovery

"What we found is the first evidence of a surgical intervention directly linked to cancer. This is where modern medicine begins," explains study co-author Edgard Camaros Perez, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The team also analyzed the skull of a 50-year-old woman who lived between 664 and 343 B.C. Her skull is also kept in the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge. Like the male skull, she had a large lesion that indicated cancer. However, the team found that the woman's skull also had two other lesions caused by traumatic injuries, such as an attack with a sharp weapon.

Ancient Egyptians tried to treat cancer: archaeologists examined a 4000-year-old skull and made a phenomenal discovery

Both traumatic lesions healed, suggesting that medicine in ancient Egypt was advanced enough to treat her injury but not her cancer.

"The new findings suggest that cancer was a 'frontier' in the medical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians-something they may have tried but failed to successfully treat," said Camaros Perez. However, he acknowledged that without the clinical history of patients, scientists cannot get a complete picture of the cancer they have suffered. In the future, the team wants to look even further back in time to learn more about how people have fought cancer for thousands of years.

"If we know that more than 4000 years ago the ancient Egyptians were trying to understand cancer on a surgical level, we're pretty sure that's just the beginning of something that started many, many thousands of years ago," said Camaros Perez.

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