Ancient Egyptian skulls reveal early attempts to treat cancer

Skull and mandible 236, dating from between 2687 and 2345 BCE, belonged to a male individual aged 30 to 35. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024.

4,000-year-old skulls show evidence of ancient Egyptian medical practices

New research reveals that ancient Egyptians, known for their advanced medical skills, might have tried to treat cancer over 4,000 years ago.

Researchers studied two ancient skulls, uncovering clues about their medical practices and the challenges they faced.

Ancient Egyptians were skilled in medicine. They could treat various diseases, heal injuries, build prostheses, and even put in dental fillings.

However, cancer was a mystery they couldn’t fully solve, but they might have tried.

An international team of researchers examined two human skulls from the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge.

These skulls date back thousands of years. One skull, named 236, belonged to a man aged 30-35, dating between 2687 and 2345 BCE. The other, named E270, belonged to a woman over 50 years old, dating between 663 and 343 BCE.

On skull 236, researchers found a large lesion indicating excessive tissue destruction, known as neoplasm, and about 30 small, round metastasized lesions scattered across the skull.

The most surprising discovery was the cut marks around these lesions, likely made with a sharp object like a metal instrument. This suggests that ancient Egyptians might have performed surgery to remove cancerous tissue.

“When we first saw the cut marks under the microscope, we were stunned,” said Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and first author of the study published in Frontiers in Medicine.

This finding shows that ancient Egyptians might have been experimenting with treatments for cancer, highlighting their advanced medical knowledge.

Skull E270 also showed a large lesion consistent with a cancerous tumor that led to bone destruction. This indicates that cancer was present in ancient times, even though today’s lifestyle and environmental factors increase cancer risk.

The female skull also had two healed injuries from traumatic events, suggesting she received treatment and survived. This finding is unusual as most violent injuries are found on males.

The healed wounds on the female skull raise questions about her involvement in violent activities. “Was this female individual involved in any kind of warfare activities?” asked Tondini.

This challenges the traditional view of women’s roles in ancient societies and suggests they might have actively participated in conflicts.

Studying ancient remains is challenging because the remains are often incomplete and lack a known clinical history.

“In archaeology, we work with a fragmented portion of the past, making an accurate approach difficult,” said co-author Prof Albert Isidro, a surgical oncologist specializing in Egyptology.

This study opens a new perspective on ancient Egyptian medicine and sets a foundation for future research in paleo-oncology.

“More studies will be needed to understand how ancient societies dealt with cancer,” concluded Prof Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

This research provides a glimpse into the medical practices of ancient Egyptians and their attempts to treat complex diseases like cancer, showcasing their advanced skills and curiosity in exploring medical frontiers.