Friday, May 15, 2015

Short Story: Tracking Ancient Disease

Evidence of the earliest case of breast cancer yet to be discovered has been found in an ancient Egyptian skeleton, written by Nevine El-Aref.
At the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Qubbet Al-Hawa, near the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, Spanish excavators, restorers and anthropologists have been hard at work since 2008.

It was then that a Spanish-Egyptian team from Granada and Jaen Universities and the Ministry of Antiquities began excavations aimed at reconstructing the lives and funerary rituals of people living on Elephantine Island between 2250 and 1750 BCE. Elephantine Island was a ruling power in the southern part of Egypt, and its governors were almost kings of the territory since the country’s capital was some 100 km to the north.

Led by Egyptologist Alejandro Jiménez, the team has unearthed a large necropolis with some 60 rock-hewn tombs filled with the mummies and skeletons of the island’s governors, administrators and nobles and dating back to the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Historically very important inscriptions have been found that show relations between Egypt and its neighbours in Nubia, now modern Sudan, over a period of nearly a millennium. Such discoveries highlight the importance of the Qubbet Al-Hawa necropolis not only for Egypt but also for the world as a whole. The site has revealed information about health and disease in ancient times and on intercultural relations in the distant past.

According to Jiménez, tomb number 33 was filled with 200 skeletons and mummies of top officials and members of the elite of Elephantine Island. It was built during the 12th Dynasty but was later reused during the New Kingdom, the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period. The tomb, Jiménez said, has an intact burial chamber in which three decorated wooden sarcophagi were found. Analysis has shown that the population suffered from poor health, including members of the area’s elite and even the governors themselves.

“They lived in precarious conditions on the edge of survival,” said Miguel Botella, an anthropologist from Granada University. Average life expectancy was 30, and people suffered from malnutrition and acute gastrointestinal disorders due to drinking contaminated water from the Nile.

“Analysis of the bones of children has revealed that they died from acute infectious diseases,” Botella said. He said that the first mention of the Pygmies had been found in a scene engraved on the walls of Governor Herjuf’s tomb dating from 2200 BCE. “It shows three trips to central Africa, one of which mentions a Pygmy, the earliest mention of this ethnic group,” he said.

Last week, the team discovered the oldest evidence of breast cancer yet found during the examination of the skeleton of an aristocratic lady excavated at the site. Studies of the remains revealed extraordinary deterioration of her skeleton, including damage caused by the spread of breast cancer when it metastasizes in the bones. “The virulence of the disease stopped her from carrying out any kind of labour, but she was treated and taken care of during a long period until her death,” Botella said.

The discovery comes a year after the discovery of metastatic cancer in the skeleton of a young man who lived in ancient Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The skeleton was unearthed at the Amara Wet site in northern Sudan.

“This is a very important discovery,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty told the Weekly, adding that it contradicted views that cancer is a modern disease resulting from modern lifestyles. New evidence had shown that cancer is a very old disease, he said, even if it had not been detected as often in past centuries as many people died in middle age from infectious diseases or even earlier in childhood.

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