Healthy living

Prostate cancer discovered in ancient mummy

Prostate cancer discovered in ancient mummy Second oldest case in the world

The discovery of prostate cancer in a 2,200-year-old Egyptian mummy suggests that genetics, rather than environment may play a bigger role in the development of the disease, researchers say.

An international research team identified the cancer in a Ptolemic mummy, kept at the National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, using high-resolution computerised tomography (CT) scans.

Known only as M1, the mummy was that of a 5ft 5ins adult man who had lived between around 285-30BC, and aged between 51 and 60 when he died.

CT images revealed several small, round, dense bone lesions found mainly in the mummy's pelvis, spine and nearby limbs, indicative of prostate cancer.

"The bone lesions were considered very suggestive of metastatic prostate cancer," the researchers wrote in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

It is the oldest case of prostate cancer in ancient Egypt and the second oldest case in the world, the researchers said.

Lifestyle and the environment are often cited as key factors in the development of many types of cancer.

However, according to Professor Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo: "We’re starting to see that the causes of cancer seem to be less environmental, more genetic.

"Living conditions in ancient times were very different; there were no pollutants or modified foods, which leads us to believe that the disease is not necessarily only linked to industrial factors."

Prof Ikram said that more people die from cancer today simply because they have longer lifespans: "Life expectancy in ancient Egyptian societies ranged from 30 to 40 years, meaning that those afflicted with the disease were probably dying from reasons other than its progression.

She added: "Findings such as these bring us one step closer to finding the cause of cancer, and, ultimately, the cure to a disease that has besieged mankind for so long." 

The earliest detection of prostate cancer in the world came from the 2,700-year-old skeleton of a Scythian king in Russia, leading scientists to suspect that cancer was quite prevalent in the past, despite the scarcity of recorded cases.

This article was published on Mon 30 January 2012

Image © swisshippo -

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