paper published March 17 in PLoS One has made headlines worldwide by prompting us to reconsider the history of cancer.  Cancer in humans may have been around much longer than we had previously thought. 

Michaela Binder and fellow researchers from Durham University uncovered the lesion-riddled skeleton of a young man in northern Sudan dating from around 1200BC. Using various techniques, they suggested that the lesions be diagnosed as “metastatic carcinoma secondary to an unknown soft tissue.” 

Before this finding, a malignant neoplasm in a Neolithic skeleton from Austria (c.4000 BC) was the most widely considered case of cancer in humans. Previous descriptions of cancer have been suggested, as with the Edwin Papyrus from ancient Egypt, approximately 1600 BC (incidentally, the first time I learned about the history of cancer, this was the starting point).

Regarding palaeopathology and cancer, most evidence appears to date back 500 years. Other skeletons have been found, ranging from Egypt to Russia to Australia but these are less widely accepted among palaeopathologists.

The young man from the paper is one of the earliest cases of secondary malignant neoplasm. However, do not fear that this case will be relegated to antiquity and forgotten about. More and more palaeopathologists are using their findings to inform our current understanding of cancer epidemiology and etiology.  Various techniques can be used to map these older genomes and compare against the data we currently have. Evolutionary analyses are also at the forefront by helping to determine how cancer may have evolved by determining how the immune system of those with cancer was affected.

All in all, this paper made me feel as though this young man had reached out across the millenia and tapped us on the collective shoulder, as if to say, “here, I have more for you to learn.” Thank you and thank you to Ms. Binder and the researchers who have made this possible.


On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC)

Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?

Durham University archaeologists discover the earliest complete example of a human with cancer