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Ancient History: Two Mummies Discovered With Cancer

The oldest cases of multiple myeloma and breast cancer date back to ancient Egyptian mummies.
BY Kristie L. Kahl
PUBLISHED January 16, 2018
Ever wonder how far back cancer diagnoses actually go? Well, according to an international group of researchers, the oldest known cases of multiple myeloma and breast cancer date back to two Egyptian mummies.

A team of researchers, including members from the University of Granada’s anthropology group in Spain, conducted CT scans of two mummies found in the pharaonic necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan, Egypt.

Through their analysis of CT scans, the researchers determined a woman with breast cancer died around 2000 B.C., and a man with multiple myeloma died around 1800 B.C. According to the researchers, both individuals belonged to the ruling classes, or at the very east to the wealthy classes, of the governing Egyptian families of Elephantine.

The researchers chose CT scans, in this instance, rather than traditional methods because these scans would yield better results when dealing with the dressing and embalming of the mummies.

“CT scanning techniques provide better results than traditional methods, which invariably lead to significant loss of the mummy wrapping as well as to partial destruction of the dressing and the body itself,” a University of Granada press release said. “Moreover, tomography scanning techniques are more precise when it comes to ascertaining information about the insides of the mummies, as well as capturing minute details in the dressing and about the embalming techniques employed.”

Specifically, the researchers used a next-generation CT scanner capable of performing 124 tomographic slices simultaneously and, they noted, with a very high degree of precision.

The mummies had been reduced to bones, but were wrapped in a large number of bandages. “Details such as these suggest that embalming techniques changed over time,” the release said.

The team conducted CT scans in two additional intact mummies from the Late Period of ancient Egypt – a boy around 9 years of age and a young teenage girl. However, no traces of disease were found in these mummies.

Lastly, the researchers highlighted how important these findings are.

“Studies conducted on the two oldest mummies, which reveal evidence of breast cancer and multiple myeloma – the oldest known cases to date – have enabled researchers to confirm that these diseases were already present in humans in ancient times,” the release said. “The research findings also confirm that these individuals belonged to an advanced society with enough resources to support and care for them throughout the long course of their diseases, at a time when no cures or treatments were available.”
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