Ancient Egyptian medicine may have included cancer surgery, skull analysis reveals

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Cancer is often considered a modern-day disease. However, medical texts from ancient Egypt indicate that healers of the time were aware of this condition. Now, new evidence from a skull more than 4,000 years old reveals that ancient Egyptian doctors may have attempted to treat certain cancers with surgery.

The skull belonged to a man aged approximately 30 to 35 years old at the time of his death and is in the collection of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Since the mid-19th century, scientists have studied the scarred surface of the skull, including multiple lesions thought to represent bone damage caused by malignant tumors. Archaeologists consider the skull, labeled 236 in the collection, to be one of the oldest examples of malignancy from the ancient world, dating back to between 2686 and 2345 BC.

But when researchers recently took a closer look at the tumor scars with a digital microscope and computed tomography (CT) scan, they detected signs of cuts around the tumors, suggesting that sharp metal instruments had been used to remove the growths. The scientists reported their results Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

“It was the very first time that humanity was surgically confronted with what we today call cancer,” said Dr. Edgard Camarós, lead author of the study and professor in the Department of History at the University of Santiago de Compostela in La Coruña, Spain.

However, it is unclear whether the healers tried to remove the tumors while the patient was still alive, or whether the tumors were removed after death, for analysis, Camarós told CNN.

“If these cuts were made with this living person, we are talking about some kind of treatment directly related to cancer,” he said. But if the cut marks were made posthumously, “this means that it is a medical investigation of an autopsy in relation to this cancer”.

Regardless, “it’s incredible to think that they performed surgery,” Camarós added. “But we can’t really distinguish between treatment and an autopsy.”

Courtesy of Tondini, Isidro, Camarós

Several of the metastatic lesions in the skull 236 show cut marks. A close-up of cut marks, probably made with a sharp object, is shown.

Medical “knowledge and mastery”

Ancient Egyptian medicine, extensively documented in medical texts such as the Ebers Papyrus and the Kahun Papyrus, was undoubtedly sophisticated, and the new discoveries offer direct and important evidence of this knowledge, said Dr. Ibrahem Badr, Professor associate in the department of medicine. restoration and conservation of antiquities at Misr University for Science and Technology in Giza, Egypt.

“We can see that ancient Egyptian medicine was not based solely on medicinal plants like the medicine of other ancient civilizations,” said Badr, who was not involved in the new research. “It was directly based on surgical practices.”

But while this evidence from antiquity was well studied during the 19th and 20th centuries, 21st century technologies, such as those used in the new study, reveal previously unknown details about the medical arts of Ancient Egypt, Badr added.

“The research provides a new and strong direction for reevaluating the history of medicine and pathology among the ancient Egyptians,” he said. The study authors’ methods “move their results from the realm of uncertainty and archaeological possibility to the realm of scientific and medical certainty.”

Scientists also discovered cancerous lesions in a second skull from the Duckworth collection. Labeled E270 and dating from 664 BC to 343 BC, it belonged to an adult woman aged at least 50 years. The team identified three lesions on the sample where malignant tumors had damaged the bone.

Courtesy of Tondini, Isidro, Camarós

The research team examined the skulls from the Duckworth Laboratory collection at the University of Cambridge using microscopic analysis and CT scanning.

Unlike skull 236, E270 showed no surgical signs related to the disease. But the woman’s skull had long-healed fractures, demonstrating the success of previous medical intervention for head injuries.

“This person survived many years after this trauma,” Camarós said.

The analysis of the two skulls “is remarkable research that provides new and clear scientific evidence on the field of pathology and the development of medicine among the ancient Egyptians,” Badr said.

Badr, who collaborates with scientists in Europe and the United States to study atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in artery walls) in ancient Egyptian mummies, explained that his work follows the same scientific direction as the study of skull. By conducting detailed examinations of the mummies using 21st-century technologies such as CT scanning and DNA sequencing, Badr and his colleagues hope to further illuminate the extent of medical knowledge in ancient Egypt.

“There is an urgent need to reevaluate the history of Egyptian medicine using these scientific methodologies,” Badr said. “Using these modern techniques, we will be able to study and gain a more complete and accurate understanding of medicine in ancient Egypt.”

The new findings also help complete part of the “dark biography” of cancer by adding a chapter written thousands of years ago, Camarós added.

“The more we look into our past, the more we know that cancer was much more widespread and much more present than we thought,” he said.

The perception of cancer among the ancient Egyptians focused on the visible tumors produced by the disease. The first recorded observation of cancer is found in an ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, which dates back to approximately 3,000 to 2,500 BC. This text contains 48 case studies covering various conditions, including a description of breast cancer.

Courtesy of Tondini, Isidro, Camarós

One of the metastatic lesions with cut marks on the 236 skull is shown.

While ancient Egyptian healers may have been aware of the existence of cancer, treating it was a different story. Most of the medical cases in Edwin Smith’s papyrus mentioned medications or healing strategies. But there was none for the breast cancer patient’s tumors, Camarós said.

“It specifically says there is no treatment,” he said. “They realized this was a frontier in terms of their medical knowledge. »

However, incisions around skull tumors suggest that ancient Egyptian healers were trying to change this, surgically removing tumors either to cure the patient or to examine the tumors more closely.

“We have these two possibilities: in a way where they tried to treat it, or in a way where they tried to understand it medically, in terms of likely treatment in the future,” Camarós said. “I think this is an important milestone in the history of medicine.”

Mindy Weisberger is a science writer and media producer whose work has appeared in Live Science, Scientific American, and How It Works magazines.

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