An international team, including researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), has discovered the world’s oldest known cases of breast cancer and multiple myeloma. The discoveries were made by conducting CT scans of two mummies found in the pharaonic necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan, Egypt.
The team, which included Professor Miguel Cecilio Botella López of the UGR’s Department of Legal Medicine, Toxicology, and Physical Anthropology, determined that the woman with breast cancer died around 2000 B.C., while the man with multiple myeloma died around 1800 B.C. Both individuals belonged to the ruling classes of the governing Egyptian families of Elephantine.
The researchers employed computed tomography to analyze 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. 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.
The same CT scanning technique was also applied to two fully intact mummies from the Late Period of ancient Egypt — the dressings on which were also still intact. Through reconstructions carried out using specific software, researchers were able to conduct detailed studies of these mummies from the Late Period, one of which is the body of a boy around 9 years of age, while the other is that of a young teenage girl.
Meanwhile, the two oldest mummies — those which have been affected by cancer — have been reduced to bones and are wrapped in a considerable number of bandages. Details such as these suggest that embalming techniques changed over time and that the techniques described by the Greek historian Herodotus were only established in the Late Period, at least in that southern part of Ancient Egypt, from the 10th century onward.
The team obtained the images at the Radiodiagnosis Service of Aswan University Hospital. They employed a next-generation CT scanner capable of performing 124 tomographic slices simultaneously and with a very high degree of precision. Staff from the Radiodiagnosis Service of the “Campus de la Salud” Hospital in Granada also collaborated on the project.
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 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.