Researchers found evidence of metastatic cancer in a 3,000 year old skeleton.
The skeleton was believed to be a male young adult, and was found in a tomb in what is now Sudan, a Durham University news release reported.
The research team found evidence the metastatic carcinoma, cancer had spread to other large parts of the body from where it started, making it the oldest cancer sample ever discovered.
The finding could help researchers gain insight into what caused cancer in the past and how the disease evolved. Scientists can use DNA analyses of ancient remains to pinpoint mutations in the cancer.
Cancer is one of the lead disease-related killers in modern days, but records of cancer in the past have been scarce; medical researchers believe modern living has caused the number of cancer cases to spike dramatically.
"Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer. Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases," Lead author, Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University who excavated the skeleton, said in the news release. "Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone."
The individual was believed to be in between the ages of 25 and 35 when he died, he was buried in a painted coffin. Before this finding was made there had only been two examples of possible metastatic cancer dating before the first millennium.
"From footprints left on wet mud floors, to the healed fractures of many ancient inhabitants, Amara West offers a unique insight into what it was like to live there - and die - in Egyptian-ruled Upper Nubia 3,200 years ago," co-author, Dr Neal Spencer from the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said in the news release.
Researchers used radiography and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to take a closer look on the bone lesions left behind by the ancient cancer. The analysis showed the cancer had been present in the "collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones," the news release reported.
The cancer could have been caused by environmental carcinogens such as wood fires and parasites, or it could have been genetic. A schistosomiasis infection is also a plausible trigger, as it can lead to bladder cancer and has been prevalent in the region since about 15,000 B.C.
"Through taking an evolutionary approach to cancer, information from ancient human remains may prove a vital element in finding ways to address one of the world's major health problems," Binder said.