It turns out you can learn a lot from mummies, including why the modern world is plagued by cancer. Clues from nearly one thousand mummies indicate that cancer was extremely rare in ancient times and appears to be a modern, man made disease.
Modern lifestyle and pollution are main cancer cause
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cancer is a leading cause of death around the world, accounting for about 13 percent of all deaths in 2007. It also notes that about one-third of cancer deaths can be prevented, and that tobacco use is the single most important risk factor. Numerous studies have found an association between diet and cancer.
Researchers have been intensely interested in learning what causes this spectrum of diseases. While some have maintained that cancer is a naturally occurring phenomenon or that the dramatic rise of cancer incidence since the Industrial Revolution is related to people living longer, mummies indicate a different story.
Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, and a colleague, Professor Michael Zimmerman, searched for evidence of cancer in hundreds of mummies, fossils, and ancient medical texts. One might say that the silence was deafening.
In fact, the researchers uncovered only five cases of tumors, most of them benign. As an aside, they also found evidence of arthritis and hardening of the arteries, which suggests some ancient people lived long enough to develop these age-related conditions. The researchers determined that the average life expectancy of the mummies they inspected was 25 to 50 years.
Their findings led them to state that cancer among ancient peoples “was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.” The bottom line: “Cancer appears to be a modern disease created by modern life.” The dramatic increase in childhood cancers also suggests that “living long” is not a requirement for cancer to develop.
Although some people have argued that tumors may have disintegrated over the millennia, making it impossible for the scientists to come to their conclusion, Professor Zimmerman pointed out that his work indicates that tumors actually are better preserved than normal tissue.
Further investigation by David and Zimmerman revealed that records of breast and other cancers did not appear until the seventeenth century. In particular, scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps was reported in 1775, nasal cancer among snuff users in 1761, and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832.
The mummies don’t lie. David concluded that their findings, “along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message—cancer is man made and something that we can and should address.”
University of Manchester
World Health Organization