by Fiona Macrae
15 October 2010
Cancer is a man-made disease fuelled by the excesses of modern life,
a study of ancient remains has found.
Tumors were rare until recent times when pollution and poor diet
became issues, the review of mummies, fossils and classical
A greater understanding of its origins could lead to treatments for
the disease, which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK.
Scientists found no signs of cancer
in their extensive study of
mummies apart from one isolated case
Michael Zimmerman, a visiting professor at Manchester University,
said: 'In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence
of cancer should remain in all cases.
'The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted
as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that
cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern
To trace cancer's roots, Professor Zimmerman and colleague
David analyzed possible references to the disease in classical
literature and scrutinized signs in the fossil record and in
Despite slivers of tissue from hundreds of Egyptian mummies being
dehydrated and placed under the microscope, only one case of cancer
has been confirmed.
This is despite experiments showing that tumors should be even
better preserved by mummification than healthy tissues.
Dismissing the argument that the ancient Egyptians didn't live long
enough to develop cancer, the researchers pointed out that other
age-related disease such as hardening of the arteries and brittle
bones died occur.
Fossil evidence of cancer is also sparse, with scientific literature
providing a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal fossil,
the journal Nature Reviews Cancer reports.
Even the study of thousands of Neanderthal bones has provided only
one example of a possible cancer.
Caricaturist James Gillray illustrated the taking of snuff,
appears in first reports in scientific literature
of distinctive tumors of nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761
Evidence of cancer in ancient Egyptian texts is also 'tenuous' with
cancer-like problems more likely to have been caused by leprosy or
even varicose veins.
The ancient Greeks were probably the first to define cancer as a
specific disease and to distinguish between benign and malignant
But Manchester professors said it was unclear if this signaled a
real rise in the disease, or just a greater medical knowledge.
The 17th century provides the first descriptions of operations for
breast and other cancers.
And the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive
tumors only occurred in the past 200 years or so, including scrotal
cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775 and nasal cancer in snuff users in
Professor David, who presented the findings to Professor Mike
Richards, the UK's cancer tsar and other oncologists at a conference
earlier this year, said:
industrialized societies, cancer is
second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in
ancient times, it 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 important thing about our study is that it gives a historical
perspective to this disease. We can make very clear statements on
the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We
have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of
'Yet again extensive ancient Egyptian data, 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.
Dr Rachel Thompson, of
World Cancer Research Fund, said:
research makes for very interesting reading.
'About one in three people in the UK will get cancer so it is fairly
commonplace in the modern world.
Scientists now say a healthy diet, regular physical activity and
maintaining a healthy weight can prevent about a third of the most
common cancers so perhaps our ancestors’ lifestyle reduced their
risk from cancer.'