Groundbreaking Research Shows Ancient Egyptians Were Conducting Cancer Surgery Over 4,000 Years Ago

By putting an ancient skull under the microscope, scientists are proving that cancer research is about 1,000 years older than previously thought

Egyptian Cancer Surgery Skull
Researchers found cut marks related to cancer surgery on this ancient Egyptian skull dating back more than 4,000 years ago. Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine is radically changing ideas about early cancer studies.

Researchers examining an over 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull have found that ancient doctors may have used surgical intervention to treat brain cancer.

"What we found is the first evidence of a surgical intervention directly related to cancer," Edgard Camarós, paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and co-author of the research paper, tells Live Science’s Emily Cooke. "This is where modern medicine starts."

The skull, part of the University of Cambridge's Duckworth Collection, dates from between 2687 and 2345 B.C.E. and belonged to a 30 to 35-year-old man. Since the mid-19th century, experts have been examining the Egyptian man’s cranial remains.

Close up cut marks
A close-up look of the skull and cut marks made at the edge of the cancerous lesion Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

Studying cancer in the ancient world can be tricky because the disease often presents in the soft tissue, and experts do not have access to a patient’s medical history. Previous research on the skull showed that the man had suffered from one large brain tumor and 30 small metastasized lesions.

Through microscope and microtomography scans, Camarós and his team found cut marks on the skull’s edges right where the cancerous lesions appeared. They concluded that a sharp metal tool was responsible for the incisions. Thus, ancient doctors were not only aware of the cancer, they were likely looking to learn more about it through surgical intervention.

“When we first observed the cut marks under the microscope, we could not believe what was in front of us,” says Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and study co-author, in a statement.

“There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, because we knew what we had just discovered,” Camarós tells the New York Times’ Jordan Pearson.

Before the study was published, researchers believed that the oldest description of cancer came from the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text from around 1600 B.C.E. The new research changes the timeline on the first cancer treatments in human history, moving the date up about 1,000 years earlier.

Still, the researchers do not know whether doctors cut into the skull while the patient was still living or shortly after his death for a cancer-related autopsy.

“If those cut marks were done with that person alive, we’re talking about some kind of treatment directly related to the cancer,” Camarós tells CNN. He adds that either way, “it’s amazing to think that they performed a surgical intervention.”

CT Scanned Image of the Skull
Researchers examined skulls through microscopic analysis and CT scanning. Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

The researchers also found other evidence of ancient Egyptian medicine.

The team looked at the skull of a woman over 50 years old who lived between 664 and 343 B.C.E. The woman had two lesions related to a traumatic head injury that had healed. In turn, experts believe that someone attacked her with a sharp weapon and she likely survived with the help of medical treatment. Her skull also had a cancer-related lesion, but there weren’t signs she received treatment for it.

With this new evidence, Camarós and his team are wondering if other ancient societies studied cancer as well. 

He tells Live Science, "If we know that more than 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians were trying to understand cancer at a surgical level, we are absolutely convinced that this is just the beginning of something that started many, many thousands of years ago."

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