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Ancient Egyptian Skull Reveals Evidence of Tumor Surgery

Egyptian skull with tumor
Archaeologists have discovered that efforts were made to remove a tumor from an ancient Egyptian skull. Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós

A 4,000-year-old skull provides new evidence that ancient Egyptian physicians performed surgery to remove a tumor, indicating they attempted to treat certain cancers surgically.

The skull, belonging to a man aged 30 to 35 at his death, is housed in the Duckworth Laboratory collection at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Since the mid-19th century, scientists have examined the skull’s scarred surface, which includes multiple lesions believed to indicate bone damage from malignant tumors.

Archaeologists consider this skull, labeled 236 in the collection, one of the oldest examples of malignancy in the ancient world, dating back to between 2686 BC and 2345 BC.

However, recent examinations of the tumor scars using a digital microscope and micro-computed tomography (CT) scans revealed cut marks around the tumors, indicating that sharp metal instruments were likely used to remove the growths. The scientists published their findings on Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

Ancient Egyptians attempted to remove tumors from the skull

“It was the very first time that humanity was dealing surgically with what we nowadays call cancer,” commented Dr. Edgard Camarós, the senior study author and a professor in the department of history at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Coruña, Spain.

Interestingly, Camarós and the other researchers are not yet sure whether the surgical procedure to remove the tumors was conducted when the patient was alive or whether they were removed after death.

“If those cut marks were done with that person alive, we’re talking about some kind of treatment directly related to the cancer,” Camarós said. However, if the incisions were made posthumously, “it means that this is a medical autopsy exploration in relation to that cancer.”

“It’s amazing to think that they performed a surgical intervention,” Camarós continued. “But we cannot actually distinguish between a treatment and an autopsy.”

The scientists also discovered cancer lesions in a second skull from the Duckworth collection. Labeled E270 and dating from 664 BC to 343 BC, this skull belonged to an adult woman who was at least 50 years old. The team identified three lesions on this specimen where malignant tumors had damaged the bone.

Unlike skull 236, E270 showed no signs of surgical intervention related to the disease. However, the woman’s skull did have long-healed fractures, indicating successful prior medical treatment for head injuries.

Ancient Egyptian medicine was advanced for its time

The ancient Egyptians had a sophisticated grasp of medicine relative to neighboring civilizations and for the time in which their own culture flourished.

“We can see that ancient Egyptian medicine was not solely based on herbal remedies like medicine in other ancient civilizations,” Dr. Ibrahem Badr, an associate professor in the Department of Restoration and Conservation of Antiquities at Misr University for Science and Technology in Giza, Egypt, told CNN. “It directly relied on surgical practices.”

Archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries were already keen to study the medical practices of the ancient Egyptians, but recent innovations in technology have enabled archaeologists in the 21st century to conduct even better research, shedding more light on how disease and injury were treated in antiquity.

“The research provides a new and solid direction for reevaluating the history of medicine and pathology among ancient Egyptians,” Badr said. The methodology of the researchers “transition their results from the realm of uncertainty and archaeological possibilities to the realm of scientific and medical certainty.”

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