Cancer is a modern disease caused by factors such as pollution and diet, a study of ancient human remains has indicated.
The study of remains and literature from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and earlier periods shows almost no evidence of the disease, says Professor Rosalie David of the University of Manchester.
Only one case has been discovered during the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, and there are few references to cancer in historical records. Cancer, and particularly child cancer, has become vastly more prevalent since the Industrial Revolution.
“In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare,” says David. “It has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”
The data includes the first ever histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy by Professor Michael Zimmerman of Villanova University, who found rectal cancer in an unnamed mummy from the Ptolemaic period.
“In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases,” says Zimmerman. “The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization”.
It’s not just that people didn’t live long enough to get cancer, says the team, as individuals in ancient Egypt and Greece did still develop such diseases as atherosclerosis, Paget’s disease of bone, and osteoporosis.
Nor do tumors simply fail to last. Zimmerman’s experiments indicate that mummification preserves the features of malignancy, and that tumours should actually be better preserved than normal tissues.
The first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours have only occurred in the past 200 years, such as scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761 and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832.
“Extensive ancient Egyptian data, along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address,” says David.