The researchers hope that the 3,000-year-old skeleton, which was found in a tomb in northern Sudan off the river Nile, will offer clues about the history, underlying causes and evolution of the fatal disease.
Scans of the skeletal bones showed evidence of metastatic cancer in the form of tumours throughout the body of an adult male, between the ages of 25-35.
Researchers from the British Museum and Durham University used radiography and an electron microscope to develop clear images of lesions on the skeleton. They showed that the cancer had spread extensive tumours on the shoulder blades, upper arms, collar bones, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.
“Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases,” Michaela Binder, a Durham PhD student who led the research and excavated and examined the skeleton, told reporters.
“Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer … though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone,” Binder said of the findings, which were published in PLOS ONE journal this week.
While researchers cannot be sure of the exact cause of the ancient man’s cancer, they speculate that it may have been a result of genetics, or environmental carcinogens such as smoke from wood fires, or from an infectious disease, such as schistosomiasis, caused by parasites.
Interestingly, schistosomiasis, a disease that plagued the inhabitants of Egypt from 1500BC has now been recognised as a cause of bladder and breast cancer in men.
Although one of the leading causes of death in the world today, cancer is ‘virtually absent’ from archaeological records – hence why many think of cancer as a modern disease. The World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency says new reported cases of cancer rose to 14 million in 2012 and the figure is expected to rise to 22 million in 20 years.