Saturday, October 16, 2010
Not just archaeologists. Biological anthropologists, historians, and others. But it felt good to say.
Researchers from the University of Manchester have identified the first evidence of cancer from an Egyptian mummy. Rather than suggesting that cancer is older than was thought, the lack of other signs of cancer in the many mummies examined over the decades suggests that cancer was quite rare. Likewise, they found that historical records only begin to describe cancer in the 17th century. Though not claiming that the disease is new, they are suggesting that it was rare in antiquity, and has become common in industrial societies because of man-made carcinogenic environments and conditions. Similar findings are reported from analysis of a skeletal collection from Croatia. And some scholars even believe that ancient drinks and concoctions might have worked against cancer.
I am skeptical that cancer is purely recent. The authors of the Egyptian discovery suggest that cancer would survive taphonomic processes in mummies better than regular tissue, but I'll find that more likely if, after this publication there are not many more tumors found. Lower life expectancy probably accounts for some of the discrepancy (a rebuttal notes that virtually all the mummies in this study were under the age when most cancers occur), and despite the authors' faith in medical observation in the past, there is a shift in the importance of observation and especially recording starting right around the time they notice an upswing in recorded cases. And as for the idea that there is nothing in nature that causes cancers, surely this can't be meant to exclude skin cancer from sun-damaged skin?
But for the moment, let's put the accuracy of the findings aside. For the purposes of an intellectual exercise, let's assume that the findings are correct, and cancer was rare in antiquity, becoming more common in the 17th century and on. What changes around 1600 that might account for this? The obvious event to point to, from my biased perspective, is the re-uniting of the New and Old Worlds. Genes and species passed back and forth that had been largely separated for thousands of years. At least one famous carcinogen, tobacco, became popular throughout the world at this time.
What about technology and pollution? Industrialism does increase, but closer to the late 1700s and into the 1800s. And plenty of toxins and heavy metals were used in antiquity including lead and tin in drinking and liquid storage vessels and cosmetics. Lead from Classical Greek and Roman industries in the Mediterranean can be detected in Greenland ice cores (abstract, news article).
Regardless of the specifics of this study, utilizing history and anthropology to examine the history of current diseases in order to understand their origins and nature, is a one more way that scholarship often stereotyped as frivolous is contributing important information of practical use to people today.