Oct 15 2010

Do Mummies Get Cancer?

File this one under – massive and unjustified speculation based upon limited data.

There are multiple news reports of a recent study looking at mummies to see if there is any evidence of cancer. The results:

Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, and a colleague, Professor Michael Zimmerman, searched for evidence of cancer in hundreds of mummies, fossils, and ancient medical texts. One might say that the silence was deafening.

This was an interesting study in medical forensics, but I do not think it is so obvious how to interpret it. The spin in the media is this:

The mummies don’t lie. David concluded that their findings, “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.”

Slow down – let’s back up a bit. The assumption here is that if cancer occurred in ancient times there would be evidence for it in mummies. The authors are quick to dismiss the obvious factor that people live longer today, and age is the primary risk factor for cancer. The age range of the mummies they examined was 25-50. That’s young. The risk for most cancers really takes off after age 50, and continues to rise with age.

They also mention childhood cancers, but many of those are not solid tumors, but blood-based cancers like leukemia. There would be no tumors to find in a mummy. In any case, there does not appear to be any child mummies in their study.

So I don’t think the age factor can be so easily dismissed. This is not to say that there are not other factors that have increased the risk of certain cancers. Smoking is now common in the world, and is a major risk factor for lung cancer and some other cancers. Industrial exposure (from coal mining, for example) is also a factor.

Diet is often raised as a factor, and there is evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be associated with a lower risk of some cancers. But the data is mixed, probably because the effect size is small. The data certainly does not justify blaming the modern diet for a significant increase in cancers. Also, we should not assume that the diet of ancient cultures was superior to the modern diet. It was much more restricted, and relied on a few staples, mostly grains. Today we have access to fresh fruits and vegetable from around the world year round. There are also some negatives to the modern diet, mainly in terms of excess, but it is not obvious how this all shakes out in relation to cancer risk.

Further it should be noted that this study is showing a lack of evidence, which is an inherently weak form of evidence on which to base conclusions. It is evidence, and as I said it may be saying something interesting, but much more thought and research will be needed to figure out exactly what.

Given all this, extrapolating from this mummy study to the conclusion that cancer is a result of modern society is scientifically absurd. But of course that is the dramatic conclusion that the media is going with in their endless effort (or so it seems) to confuse the public on all matters scientific.

29 responses so far

29 thoughts on “Do Mummies Get Cancer?”

  1. Fred Cunningham says:

    Didn’t most Egyptian mummies have their internal organs removed. It might be interesting to examine the prostates of men who were over 70 since there is a high rates of cancerous lesions in men today. I suspect that recovering enough to have a meaningful sample will be difficult.

  2. Todd W. says:

    I read this story in the paper this morning and immediately questioned the conclusions based not only on the limited sample size, but also the relative ages of the deceased.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    My favorite change in human behavior since ancient times is the increase in bathing. That washes off the normal and stable commensal flora of ammonia oxidizing bacteria, allowing it to be replaced by heterotrophic “weeds”.

    I think it is the change in bathing practices and the disruption of the typical NO/NOx status that has resulted in many of the diseases of modern times.

    That could explain a difference in cancer incidence. Low NO/NOx causing an increase in chronic inflammation is one mechanism, there are many more.

  4. marc82281 says:

    Here’s a more logical conclusion to draw from this research:

    The Ancient Greeks knew about cancer.
    The Ancient Greeks were contemporaries of Ancient Egyptians
    Therefore Greeks cause cancer.

  5. SARA says:

    What percentage of ancient people even mummified their dead? And what percentage of the population in those cultures could afford decent enough mummification that we would find those mummies today?

    @marc82281 Excellent! You should publish an article. I’m sure the media would report on it.

  6. HHC says:

    The normal lifespan for Egyptians of the mummy era was short. Therefore you won’t find older mummies. If you bother to read insurance statistical tables, a man or woman’s life expectancy has increased with the progress of the industrial revolution. So there is so many more diseases possible with expected additional lifetime years.

  7. marc82281 says:

    @SARA – 🙂 I’m glad you appreciate the profundity of my syllogism. My wife is Greek and I can provide incontestable anecdotal proof that Greeks cause all sorts of health problems (good thing she doesn’t read this blog 🙂

  8. eean says:

    Yea, evolution only “allows” cancer in the young and potentially fertile if its extremely rare (iris cancer) or if it has to do a cost/benefit (probably the best way to cure leukemia would be to choke off blood production).

    @SARA: if you buried your dead in the sands of Egypt, they were mummified for free. Granted most of our mummies are probably the elites because its much easier to find mummies when they have a tomb.

  9. Just wanted to say thanks for posting about this Steve; I have already heard this misreported by a friend, can’t wait to send them this post.


  10. There is also much more to add, but I had limited time this morning.

    David Gorski has already pointed out that there is independent evidence for cancer existing in ancient societies. It was a known disease.

    I also agree that deliberate mummification usually involved removing internal organs, but they were mummified separately and could be available for examination. I think only the brain was discarded as useless. And of course, natural mummification would include organs.

  11. cwfong says:

    Regarding the suggestion to “examine the prostates of men who were over 70,” Egyptian mummies didn’t have prostates, only the daddies.

  12. sonic says:

    I wonder what the ‘other data from across the millennia’ is. It must be very powerful to draw the conclusions drawn.
    The news reporter is apparently quoting Professor David– we should put the conclusion where it belongs. (it is the reporters job to get quotes from the subjects being interviewed)
    Scientists are people and can overhype the findings like anyone else– (global warming anyone?)
    BTW- Prof David doesn’t really disagree with marc82281– Greeks are people…

  13. marc82281 says:

    @cwfong – that was so terribly awesome

  14. CivilUnrest says:

    This is off-topic, but check it out:

    Finally a victory!!
    “FDA warns companies promoting products used in chelation procedures”

    Best quote:
    “These products are dangerously misleading because they are targeted to patients with serious conditions and limited treatment options,” said Deborah Autor, director of the FDA’s office of compliance in the center for drug evaluation and research. “The FDA must take a firm stand against companies who prey on the vulnerability of patients seeking hope and relief.”

    As a bonus, the author avoids quoting ANY quacks — it’s just a straightforward tear-down of chelation “therapy”

  15. SimonW says:

    Even if we give recent (and the first vertebrate neoplasms in the fossil record are at least 300 million years old) the step from “recent” to “man-made” also needs supporting. Some cancers are clearly induced by, or more common, after specific viral infections. AIDS is a new viral infection, but we tend to assume people are cranks if they believe it to be man-made. So what is the evidence for that step in the paper?

  16. ccbowers says:

    “cancer is man made and something that we can and should address”

    Ahh yes. The mummies lived suring a time in which mummies could walk around free from the influence of Man.

  17. ccbowers says:

    “I think it is the change in bathing practices and the disruption of the typical NO/NOx status that has resulted in many of the diseases of modern times.

    That could explain a difference in cancer incidence. Low NO/NOx causing an increase in chronic inflammation is one mechanism, there are many more.”

    Yes. Show that Rosalie David that the speculation can be taken even further.

  18. ccbowers says:

    As we reduce the likelihood of dying from infectious disease (a much much more common cause of death in the past) we should expect a relative increase in causes of death from things like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

  19. daedalus2u says:

    cc, there is reduced incidence of cancer in the rural undeveloped world. Very clear in breast cancer where there is about a factor of 6 difference in breast cancer incidence between the most rural and the most westernized Asian women.


    If you look at figure 3 A, the testosterone level seems to increase the less rural the life history of the woman. Androgen synthesis is regulated by NO, low NO causes high androgen levels which causes hair growth and expands the niche where the bacteria I am working with live.

    More androgens also make people bigger (observed), and also cause earlier puberty (also observed). Maybe these are merely coincidental, but maybe not.

  20. ccbowers says:


    There are so many risk factors that we know of with breast cancer that your “shower” hypothesis doesnt even make the top 100. “Undeveloped” world is a poorly defined term at best. The following are known factors that have been shown to affect the likelihood of developing breast cancer that could easily explain differences between different countries:
    Genetic differences particularly BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, number of prgnancies over a lifetime, different rates and durations of breast feeding, access to hormone therapy, alcohol consumption, being overweight/obese, dietary fat intake, physical activity rates… just to name a few

    These are just the significant ones that I can think of… there are many more. Note that women in the “undeveloped” world are more likely to have less risk factors on average by lifestyle alone. Why think of the most obscure reason for something that has so many known explanations?

  21. daedalus2u says:

    cc, the reason is because I think the “showers” explanation is one of the top 5. It is only obscure because research has not been done on it. The only reason research has not been done on it is because it is obscure.

    It is something that is pretty easy to fix and doesn’t have any adverse effects and is not “hard” like exercise or changes to diet, which are so “hard” that people can’t do them, no matter how “easy” they seem. It also has other beneficial effects. If it had even a small effect on incidence of cancer, it would be a no-brainer to do. If the risk is zero, even tiny benefits make it worth doing.


  22. ccbowers says:

    “cc, the reason is because I think the “showers” explanation is one of the top 5. It is only obscure because research has not been done on it. The only reason research has not been done on it is because it is obscure.”

    Your “belief” does not make it so. Look at the evidence and stop having “beliefs.” If there really is something to this, and its a no brainer and easy to do, then do the research already. The problem is that it isn’t easy and the plausibility is very low. Its not like the countries who shower the most have the shortest life spans… in fact the correlation goes opposite to what you are proposing. And there is a cost… If you think not showering is not hard then you haven’t been around a person who doesn’t bathe.

  23. ccbowers says:

    In order to appear a bit less dismissive of your thoughts on bathing frequency… I do agree that the increase in bathing frequency over recent times have had some consequences. I just don’t think that they extend much beyond the skin. There is certainly an increase in xerosis (particularly in the winter) and perhaps some other skin conditions are worsened with frequent bathing. The fact that xerosis is probably the most common skin complaint (acne is up there for certain ages) shows that “not bathing” is not really a simple solution.

  24. sonic says:

    If you are correct about the ‘bathing hypothesis’, then I’m imagining that we could lower our collective cancer rates by changing our bathing schedules and/or changing the soaps we use.
    That would be awesome!
    You may be looking at a longshot– here’s wishing you good luck!

  25. daedalus2u says:

    cc, you misunderstand what “prior plausibility” means. It does not mean “I don’t think it is important”. This idea does not have low prior plausibility.

    I agree the research is not easy, or I would have already done it. It is the implementation that would be easy once the research shows it is correct.

  26. Calli Arcale says:

    First off, I think it is quite safe to say that mummies do not get cancer. This is because they are dead. The mummifcation process certainly would protect a person from cancer; however it might be considered a little bit extreme. 😛

    On a more serious note, the Egyptians were more “advanced” than we tend to think they were. (Insofar as anybody is advanced, anyway.) They did bathe, though mostly they preferred to use massive amounts of perfume. (And they were rather inventive in finding ways to apply it, such as wearing a wax cone suffused with perfume, which would slowly melt over the course of an evening, releasing its fragrance.) As far as cancer being a product of modern contaminants, I don’t think anyone who knows anything about ancient Egypt could claim they were free of such things. They were among many ancient civilizations who had discovered the use of certain lead compounds as a cosmetic. (And they spent a LOT on cosmetics. Looking good was clearly important.)

    Finding tumors in a mummy would be challenging. It’s worth pointing out how much controversy there has been merely over the cause of Tutankhamun’s death — and his mummy was quite well preserved. (For the most part. The brain removal appears to have been bungled somewhat.) The mummification process would make diagnosis of anything very challenging. As Dr Novella points out, there’d be no way to diagnose leukemia. And then there are the organs….

    Fred Cunningham:

    Didn’t most Egyptian mummies have their internal organs removed.

    Most of them, yes. This was in large part to prevent decay. The brain was removed via the nose and then discarded. (The Egyptians did not believe it was important.) The heart was removed and placed into a canopic jar. The lungs were removed and placed into another jar. The guts went into a third jar, and the liver into a fourth. I’m not sure where the remainder went; they may have been either left in situ or discarded. The body cavity was then stuffed, and not merely to retain its shape — it was filled with a mixture including nacre to dry out the body. Most of the mummification process consisted of carefully drying out the body over a period of about two and a half months. It was done slowly so that the skin could be kept supple to avoid tearing during this process. The organs in the canopic jars were also dried, and buried with the mummy on the assumption that these particular organs were important and would be required in the afterlife.

    Other studies have made claims such as that the Egyptians must have had trade with the Americas, because traces of cocaine were found on a mummy. The possibility of contamination (even by one of the staff) was never considered, despite the total lack of any other evidence for such a trade. Because of that alone, I am inclined to be a bit skeptical of this study.

    They go on to say they looked for evidence in fossils — well, first of all, fossils are notorious for not preserving everything (hey, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, whose holotype is just a wing fragment, has no evidence of ever having had eye cancer!). Secondly, even if a bone tumor was preserved, what are the odds anyone would recognize it for what it was? There are quite a few species known from only fragments, and this makes it difficult to judge what those fragments were *supposed* to look like. Dracorex, a pachycephalosaur known from a single skull fragment (and believed by some scientists to be a juvenile pachycephalosaur) has an amazingly bumpy skull. Is this a trait of its species? Is this something it would grow out of? Or did it have some kind of bone disease? There’s really no good way to tell unless we find more of them. (Assuming we can even tell that we’ve found more of them.) And this is true of more species than people realize.

    I would submit that what these people have found is, at best, evidence that they have not found cancer among mummies or fossils. (About the historical record, they are obviously mistaken, so I suspect they did not look very hard. Cancer is not a modern disease.) I also have to question the logic of their conclusion. Cancer is a modern disease? Why? Why would a disease suddenly spread throughout so many different orders of Animalia in such a short period of time? Dogs get cancer. Wild animals get cancer. (Big Mouth the beluga had cancer when he was first captured — hence his name. Poor guy.) Even sharks get cancer. So it can’t be a lifestyle thing; it covers too wide a range. Pollutants? Well, pollutants aren’t really tied to the modern period either. Some manmade pollutants (such as soot, which also occurs in nature) predate recorded history. Esophageal cancer can be provoked by one’s own digestive acids; it beggars the imagination to think that no one in ancient times could have suffered from it. And there are enough carcinogens completely out of human control that cancer cannot be a modern thing. Solar radiation, radon gas (especially in areas with a great deal of granite), cosmic radiation, pollution from volcanoes, pathogens which trigger cancer such as the human papilloma virus…. And most cancers are not immediately lethal. You’d have to live long enough first.

    If they had argued that cancer has been aggravated by modern conditions, I might think they had a point. But it is highly implausible that cancer was completely nonexistant, especially as a number of known causes do not depend on modern lifestyles or manmade pollutants.

  27. daedalus2u says:

    Ancient Egyptians were quite advanced. They used crocodile dung as a pessary. Exactly what they used it for has been lost in the mists of time, there is a hole in the papyrus that describes what it was used for.

    My hypothesis is that they used it as a sexual stimulant. A similar material from another uricotelic organism, Gallus gallus is a very powerful nitric oxide source when moistened with water. NO is important in the human sexual response for both genders.

  28. Calli Arcale says:

    It’s also been speculated that it was used as a prophylactic, or as a treatment for veneral disease.

  29. SquirrelElite says:

    Speaking of venereal disease, here is a new report today on archaeological studies of syphilis in Europe prior to Columbus.


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