Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Factors involved in modern day living, such as smoking and exposure to certain chemicals, are thought to be major causes of the disease. Now, there is evidence that cancer was present in humans more than 3,000 years ago; archaeologists have discovered the world’s first complete human skeleton with metastatic cancer that dates back to 1200 BC.

The research team, led by Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University in the UK, recently published the details of their discovery in the journal PLOS ONE.

The investigators say their findings could provide insight into the evolution of cancer and lead to discoveries that may help future treatment of the disease.

Binder discovered the skeleton last year in a tomb at Amara West in northern Sudan. The skeleton is of a young adult male, estimated to be between 25-35 years old when he died.

Experts at Durham University and the British Museum used radiography and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to analyze the bones of the skeleton. This revealed that cancer had spread from an unknown organ to the bones. Cancer metastases were found on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.

“Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer, even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone,” says Binder.

Although the researchers cannot be sure as to exactly what caused cancer in this human, they say there could be several possibilities.

Binder told Medical News Today that it could have been caused by an infectious disease, such as Bilharzia. This is a parasitic infection that causes liver cirrhosis and has been linked to breast cancer in men.

Lytic lesionShare on Pinterest
Pictured is a lytic lesion – an area of bone destroyed by cancer – in the vertebrae of the 3,000-year-old skeleton.
Image credit: British Museum.

She said that exposure to smoke from wood fires could have also caused this man to develop cancer.

“We know that the people at Amara West had large ovens in roofed or small, enclosed spaces. People in these rooms would have been exposed to a lot of smoke, which is just as unhealthy as smoking,” she added.

The researchers say there is no doubt that cancer is more common today than it was in the past. This is mainly because people are living longer and there are more environmental factors that can cause cancer.

But Binder says the team’s discovery suggests that ancient humans could have contracted cancer just as much as people do today.

“One of the reasons why there is so little evidence for cancer in the past is because it’s difficult to diagnose in skeletons. But with more research and better investigative techniques, it is possible that in future people will find more evidence for cancer in the past,” she added.

The investigators say that when it comes to the epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations, very little is known.

There have only been three previous discoveries of metastatic cancer in human remains that predate the 1st millennium BC, and the researchers say only one of these was convincing. Furthermore, only the skulls of these humans were retained, making it impossible to complete a full re-analysis of each skeleton and search for possible cancer diagnoses.

Therefore, this most recent discovery is of great importance. Such discoveries can provide valuable insight into the evolution of cancer and could even lead to the development of new treatments for the disease.

Talking to Medical News Today, Binder explained:

There is now an established link between some infectious diseases and cancer, but still a lot needs to be learned.

With new techniques, such as DNA testing, we may find mutations linked to cancer in past people and track the evolution of these changes. This may also help predict developments in the future and may be a useful tool for medical research in developing new therapies.”

Binder told us that the excavations at Amara West are ongoing and she is in the process of analyzing pathological changes in skeletons to find out more about health and disease in the area in the late 2nd and 1st millennium BC. She also wants to find out how people in these areas could have been affected by environmental change.

There is also evidence of other so-called modern diseases in these skeletons, such as atherosclerosis. She told us that this is another major area of research and the team’s findings will be published soon.