perhaps cancer and cardiovascular disease aren’t such ‘modern’ diseases after all

One of the books I'm currently reading is the excellent The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, by Rob Dunn. It's a fascinating and beautifully-written narrative of how our understanding of both the heart and of ways to treat its disorders have developed over the centuries (& yes, I will review the book properly when I've finished it). 

In one chapter Dunn mixes archaeology, history, medicine & science in the tale of Egyptian queen Meryet-Amun's life and death. (I loved this chapter for the way it reminded me of some of the late Elizabeth Peters' 'Amelia Peabody' novels.) It's a tale that stretches a long way back through time, but the denouement came in 2008, when cardiologists visiting the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities came across a mummy (not the queen's, but that of a son of Ramesses II) with a label saying that the man had suffered from atherosclerosis.

To the cardiologists this had to be wrong, as everyone 'knew' that the buildup of fatty 'plaque' in our blood vessels was a modern disease. As Dunn writes, 

[as] nations become developed, they are saved from the contagions and diseases of infancy and youth, and cardiovascular disease kills in their place

and cardiovascular disease is generally preceded by the deposition of plaques in our arteries. However, it turned out that 

no one knew for sure when atherosclerosis had begun.

The collection of bodies in the Museum offered the potential for finding out. It took a considerable amount of effort to get permission to handle the remains of these ancient kings and queens and their retainers, but eventually the research team was ready to put 45 mummies (the best preserved of the 120 on offer) through a whole-body CT scanner. All bodies were of adults, and came from dates ranging between 1981 BC and AD 364; all had been members of their societies' elite, or their attendants.

Forty-three bodies contained at least some vascular tissue, and 31 contained bits of the heart (usually returned to the body during mummification) – and 45% of those bodies contained atherosclerotic plaques in their blood vessels.

And Queen Meryet-Amun? All her arteries – including the coronary arteries – contained plaque. 

[Her] heart was, in a way, far heavier than the feather [against which ancient Egyptians believed it was weighed by the gods]. It was weighed down with our 'modern plague'.

Now, these were all rather affluent folks, but surely hard-working farmers & hunter-gatherers would be free of any sign of cardiovascular disease? The team looked at mummies from Rome, ancient Peru, the ancient US Pueblo farmers, and Aleutian Island hunter-gatherers – and found atherosclerosis in people from all ages and all the cultures examined. Dunn quotes the researchers as saying that 

The presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle.

Then what about cancer, another 'modern' disease (or more properly, collection of diseases)? If you spend time in various on-line fora you'll find cancer linked (by not-always-reputable sources) to lifestyle, pesticides, fluoride, & the ubiquitous but seldom-identified 'toxins'. (And, of course, to age, for many people now live long enough to die of cancers rather than with them.) Back in 2010 an article based on research from the University of Manchester stated that cancer was so rare in Egyptian mummies that it had to be a modern disease1. In fact, in that article one scientist was quoted as saying that

[there] is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.

Now, while it's undoubtedly true that there are many things we do (smoking, anyone?) that can increase the risk of cancer, it is also true that completely natural factors are also implicated: radon, UV radiation, and arsenic, for example.  

And there is additional, more recent, evidence that cancer afflicted ancient peoples as well. The body of an Egyptian woman who died 4,200 years ago shows signs of metastases from breast cancer; and a 3,000-year-old skeleton from the Sudan also showed widespread metastases in its bones. In fact, what is probably the oldest written description of cancer comes from a 3,000-year-old papyrus (which says of the disease that "there is no treatment"). And Hippocrates was almost certainly writing about cancer, more than 2,000 years ago, when he

used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe non-ulcer-forming and ulcer-forming tumours

which suggests he had encountered at least several examples during his career.

This 'emperor of all maladies' may not have been as common back then as it is today, but both it and cardiovascular disease are not exactly 'modern'.

EDIT: interested readers will enjoy Orac's coverage of this issue, over at Respectful Insolence.

1 The statement from the same source that "the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours have only occurred in the past 200 years, such as scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761, and Hodgkin's disease in 1832" may possibly reflect the fact that what we'd recognise as 'scientific literature' probably hasn't been around much longer, given that the oldest scientific English-language journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was established 'only' in 1665.

3 thoughts on “perhaps cancer and cardiovascular disease aren’t such ‘modern’ diseases after all”

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    cancer was so rare in Egyptian mummies that it had to be a modern disease
    Do ‘diffuse’ cancers like leukemia and lymphoma leave any traces that could be detected in a mummy?

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I thought that whole release was really strange. No natural causes of cancer, for goodness’ sake! I agree, they seem to have some strange a priori beliefs about it.

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