Durham - A man who died 3,200 years ago in Sudan could be the earliest known case of metastatic cancer. This is indicated by numerous bone lesions, which archaeologists describe in PLoS ONE (2014; doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0090924).
In February 2013 the skeleton was in grave in Amara West on the Nile 750 km downstream found by Khartoum. It belonged to 20 to 35 year old man who died around 1,200 BC. Archaeologist Michaela Binder from Durham University immediately noticed numerous 5 to 25 millimeter holes in the vertebral bodies, ribs, sternum, collarbones, shoulder blades, pelvis and the heads of the upper arm and thigh bones. Conservators at the British Museum interpret them as osteolytic bone metastases.
Post-mortem insect damage was ruled out as many lesions expand in depth. The fact that the lesions are not evenly distributed over the bone spoke against fungal disease. In some places there were zones of new bone formation that do not occur with systemic fungal infections, writes Binder. In her opinion, multiple myeloma is also out of the question as diagnosis, as these bone tumors leave smaller lesions.
The origin of the tumor cannot clarified as no soft tissues have been preserved. Binder suspects that the man could have bladder or breast cancer as result of schistosomiasis. Schistosomiasis is still common parasitic disease on the Lower Nile. Environmental pollution is also possible cause of cancer.
The excavated houses had wood stoves for heating or for baking bread, but the rooms had neither chimneys nor windows, so that the residents were exposed to considerable pollution from smoke and soot. Of course, genetic cause of cancer cannot be ruled out either.
Cancer is by no means phenomenon of the modern industrial age. About 200 cases in skeletons and mummies have been described in recent years. The oldest primary bone cancer was found in 6,000 year old skeleton, according to the British Museum. The oldest case with bone metastases dates from around 3,000 BC. However, the diagnosis is controversial as only the skull has been preserved. The current find could therefore be the oldest confirmed case of metastatic cancer.