Ancient Egyptians attempted to surgically remove brain tumors from the skull

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Abnormalities found in ancient skulls suggest that cancer was a medical problem long before our time.

Skulls from ancient Egypt examined at the Duckworth Laboratory Collection at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom showed signs of several abnormalities, some of which are believed to be from malignant tumors.

The case report, published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, found that a skull labeled E270, belonging to a woman in her 50s, had a skull injury possibly caused by a sharp object.

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The evidence suggests the woman survived because of “some form of treatment and some degree of post-traumatic care,” the researchers wrote.

Skull 236, from a male in his 30s, showed cut marks on the bone surface, indicating that a tumor had been removed.

Skull E270 is seen at the base of a microscope. The skull had healed cranial injuries that may have been caused by a sharp object. (Tatiana Tondini, Albert Isidro, Edgard Camaros, 2024)

While these findings suggest “medical-surgical research,” the researchers could not determine when the incision occurred – before or after death.

“By applying scientific methodologies to archaeology we can make new discoveries about the past.”

The researchers concluded that these surgical procedures may have been performed in the Middle, Late Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.

“In this context, it becomes clear that grooming others, including wound care, is an important behavior in humans that has also been observed in nonhuman primates,” they wrote.

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Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany and lead author of the study, discussed the results with Fox News Digital. According to her, the most “remarkable finding” was the discovery of lacerations near “two secondary cancerous lesions” on Skull 236.

“It has been confirmed that there is no taphonomic (environmental) damage, and there are two explanations for that,” she said.

A photo of skull 236.

Skull 236, shown here, was found to have two “secondary cancerous lesions.” (Tatiana Tondini, Albert Isidro, Edgard Camaros, 2024)

The first possible explanation is that the ancient Egyptians tried to surgically remove the secondary tumors. “That would be the first recorded surgical intervention for cancer in history, but we can't confirm that,” Tondini said.

The second possibility is that the ancient Egyptians made the cuts when they examined the deceased man.

“Caring for others, including dressing wounds, is an important behavior among humans.”

“That would also be remarkable, because it means that the ancient Egyptians studied cancer,” the researcher said.

Another important discovery, Tondini said, was the successful treatment of skull E270, which showed traces of an injury left by a sharp object, such as a sword or axe.

A photo of skull E270.

Skull E270, shown here, showed evidence of a wound left by a sharp object, such as a sword or axe. (Tatiana Tondini, Albert Isidro, Edgard Camaros, 2024)

“It is highly unlikely that this individual would have survived without proper treatment,” she said.

“We can see that the individual survived, as the fracture shows clear signs of healing. This means that the ancient Egyptians were able to treat severe skull fractures.”

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According to Tondini, an accident or domestic violence was the most likely cause of the woman's head injuries, although the depth of the wound and signs of brutality could also point to a war wound.

“If that is the case, we need to rethink the role of women in ancient Egypt,” she said. “It is known that women had more rights in ancient Egypt compared to Rome and Greece, but war roles have always been associated with men.”

ancient egyptian wall painting

A fragment of a wall painting showing the transport of ointments, found in the tomb of Metkhetchi at Saqqara in Egypt. (DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Because the skulls were “very old” and “very fragile,” Tondini said it was difficult to assess the damage with the naked eye.

“But with a powerful microscope, it was possible to characterize most of the lesions,” she said. “For some of the more complex lesions, the micro-CT scan allowed us to analyze the internal structure of a lesion and determine its cause.”

'Cancer culture'

Based on the findings from skull 236, the researchers believe that cancer is not just a modern disease caused by unhealthy lifestyles and exposure to carcinogens, but that the disease was also present in ancient populations, albeit at lower rates, Tondini said.

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Tondini admitted that she and her fellow researchers did not expect these findings until they examined these two “very rare” pieces of history.

“I remember going through the microscope and analyzing skull 236 to characterize the lesions,” she told Fox News Digital. “When I got to the first lesion with the lacerations, I didn't really know what I was looking at at first.”

A lesion in the skull 236

A lesion in skull 236 shows cut marks identified under the microscope. (Tatiana Tondini, Albert Isidro, Edgard Camaros, 2024)

“I asked my colleague, Dr. Camaros, who was also very surprised by the discovery,” she continued. “We characterized the lacerations and confirmed that they were man-made and that they occurred before or immediately after the death of the individual.”

Within minutes, Tondini said, the lab was “filled with other researchers, technicians and professors, all standing around the microscope looking at the lesions and couldn't believe their eyes.”

The neurosurgeon's opinion

Dr. Paul Saphier, MD, neurosurgeon and founder of Coaxial Neurosurgical Specialists in New Jersey, noted that while this new research is interesting, there is similar evidence of neurosurgical procedures dating back to the Mesolithic era, around 6000 B.C.E.

“These early operations [known as trepanning] “These were mostly small holes in the skull with limited surgical intervention,” Saphier, who was not involved in the current skull study, told Fox News Digital.

A medieval surgeon performs a trepanation

A medieval surgeon performs a 'trepanation' operation on a patient's skull, circa 1350. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“It is clear that our ability to perform complex neurosurgical procedures has been limited by technology, particularly radiographic (CT/MRI) imaging and direct surgical visualization.”

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The neurosurgeon added: “Thanks to these advances, and also thanks to anesthesia and intensive care, we can tackle more complex cases that are large in size and scope.”

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In an “ironical twist,” he said, there has recently been a “huge shift toward a more minimally invasive approach” in cranial neurosurgery.

“This has been heralded by newer techniques and a vocal group of experienced cranial neurosurgeons who are committed to this advancement. I am proud to be part of that,” Saphier added.

split image of skull 236 and E270

Skull 236, left, and skull E270, right, yielded interesting findings about ancient medicine. (Tatiana Tondini, Albert Isidro, Edgard Camaros, 2024)

“So ironically, what is old… can actually be new again.”

Tondini said she hopes the study's findings will lead to more research into “ancient cancer cases using nondestructive techniques.”

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“For other researchers and the public, applying scientific methodologies to archaeology means we can make new discoveries about the past,” she said.

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