Archaeologists have found the 3,200-year-old skeleton of a man with a spreading form of cancer, the oldest example so far of a disease often associated with modern lifestyles, scientists said Monday.
The remains of a man believed to be aged between 25 and 35 were found last year in a tomb in Sudan on the banks of the River Nile by a student at Durham University in northeast England.
The bones showed evidence of metastatic carcinoma, or a malignant soft-tumour cancer which has spread from the original site to other parts of the body, although it was not possible to say if he died from the disease.
"This may help us to understand the almost unknown history of the disease. We have very few examples pre the first millennium AD," said Michaela Binder, the researcher who found the skeleton.
Small lesions on the bones could only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer although the exact site where the disease originated was impossible to determine, she said.
The cause could have been environmental, for example from carcinogens from wood fire smoke, genetic or from the parasite schistosomiasis, which still causes bladder and breast cancer to this day in the area.
The research team from Durham University and the British Museum said that although cancer is currently one of the world's leading causes of death, it had until now been almost absent from archaeological finds.
Worldwide, there had only been one convincing example of metastatic cancer predating the 1st millennium BC in human remains, and two tentative examples.
This had led to the conclusion among scientists that it is "mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity," they added.
"Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases."
The skeleton was found in Amara West, 750 kilometres (466 miles) downstream from the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
The man was buried on his back in a painted wooden coffin with a glazed amulet.
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On the antiquity of cancer: evidence for metastatic carcinoma in a young man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC), Binder et al, published in PLOS ONE (17 March 2014) dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090924