A recent review of tissue samples taken from ancient Egyptian mummies has revealed a strikingly rare occurrence of cancer, says a team of British and American scientists. Given the relatively high frequency of cancer among the modern population, the lack of cancer patients in Ancient Egypt leads researchers to propose the fact that cancer is a modern, manmade illness.
According to one of the lead researchers for the study, Rosalie David, “In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death, but in ancient times, it was extremely rare.” This fact leads her to conclude, “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.”
However, this conclusion is not a universal viewpoint of the scientific community. Certainly, there are a few variables that need to be taken into account when reviewing signs of cancer in a mummified subject that is more than 1,000 years old.
For example, John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin points out, “To see cancers with the skeletal record, you really have to have a tumor that’s affecting bone. Although there might be few confirmed diagnoses of tumors in bones, it’s because cancer is a difficult diagnosis to make from bone.”
Still it is not unheard of to effectively diagnose cancer from a skeletal record. In fact, Dr. Michael Zimmerman of Villanova University (and lead author for the study) was able to use mummified tissue to identify rectal cancer in a mummified specimen that is approximately 1,700 years old. Given this success, and the lack of cancer found across all mummies examined, Zimmerman agrees with David on the fact that cancer appears to be caused by pollution, diet and other manmade health hazards.
To bolster their claims, David and Zimmerman combed through ancient Egyptian and Greek texts in an effort to identify any mentions of cancer among both human and animal populations. The near lack of such data may be interpreted as an additional sign that some credence can be given to the controversial idea.
Critics have also brought up the fact that individuals living in ancient times had a typical lifespan of less than 30 years. Today, cancers generally manifest beyond the 30-year mark. As such it could just be that ancient individuals did not live long enough for cancer to occur.
The British/American team attempted to debunk this possibility by reviewing signs of other age-related illnesses. The fact that they found fairly common symptoms of atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and Paget’s disease of bone suggests that aging was progressed enough to reveal higher rates of cancer than actually found.
Still, the idea that cancer is wholly a manmade illness is a hard pill to swallow – signs of cancer have previously been found in the remains of dinosaurs. However, the evidence compiled by the team is compelling enough to raise questions about how much human contributors have affected the rise of cancer in our society. In the cases of clear carcinogens like asbestos, the connection to cancer (mesothelioma) is certainly present, but for many other cancers it is not clear.