"Extraordinary" 4,000-year-old skull reveals medical milestone

Ancient Egyptian were medical masters of their time. The Egyptian physicians treated everything from cranial fractures to dental issues with impressive success. Treating cancer was a struggle, although evidence suggests they may have tried.

An international team recently examined two ancient skulls held at the University of Cambridge, uncovering clues about early cancer treatment attempts. One skull of a 30- to 35-year-old male is dated from between 2687 and 2345 BCE while the second once belonged to a female who was over 50 and lived between 663 and 343 BCE.

The first skull revealed lesions from a cancerous tumor, accompanied by cut marks likely made with a sharp metal tool.

"When we first observed the cutmarks under the microscope, we could not believe what was in front of us," said University of Tübingen researcher Tatiana Tondini in an announcement about their new Frontiers of Medicine scientific paper about the skulls.

The marks suggest ancient surgeons experimented with removing cancerous tissue, according to surgical oncologist Albert Isidro of the University Hospital Sagrat Cor.

The second skull also showed signs of cancer, along with healed injuries from trauma, hinting at ancient medical interventions. The fact that these injuries were on a female skull raised intriguing questions.

"Was this female individual involved in any kind of warfare activities?" Tondini asks. "If so, we must rethink the role of women in the past and how they took active part in conflicts during antiquity."

Despite the fascinating discoveries, researchers acknowledge the challenges of studying incomplete skeletal remains. "In archaeology we work with a fragmented portion of the past, complicating an accurate approach" making definitive conclusions difficult, says Isidro.

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