Abundant food and shelter... Mastery of both ocean and air.. The power of the atom... The ability to explore beyond Earth's atmosphere...
Oh and cancer.
Technology also has given us cancer.
Or at least that is the conclusion a study conducted by the Centre for Biomedical Egyptology in Manchester (published in the National Reviews Cancer).
The study looked into the remains (both physical and those left in some sort of written form) of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and other cultures (as well as more modern periods of antiquity)to see if there had been mention of cancer being a cause of death then.
What they found was not entirely unexpected (but not for the reason many of us might have had).
“... [The] extensive ancient Egyptian data, 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.”
Prof. Rosalie David, presenting her team's find to the UK Association of Cancer Registries and National Cancer Intelligence Network conference last year.
During the investigation of hundreds of mummies and other physical human remains and mountains of ancient literature only one physical case where cancer was the cause of death and only rare mentions of the illness appearing in the text; and such was the trend it seemed until about the Industrial Revolution when cancer illness and death was beginning to become more common.
Professor Rosalie David, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”
She added: “The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease. We can make very clear statements on the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of data.”
The data includes the first ever histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy by Professor Michael Zimmerman, a visiting Professor at the KNH Centre, who is based at the Villanova University in the US. He diagnosed rectal cancer in an unnamed mummy, an ‘ordinary’ person who had lived in the Dakhleh Oasis during the Ptolemaic period (200-400 CE).
Professor Zimmerman said: “In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases. The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization”.
In order to draw these conclusions, the team studied both mummified remains and literary evidence for ancient Egypt but only literary evidence for ancient Greece as there are no remains for this period, as well as medical studies of human and animal remains from earlier periods, going back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Evidence of cancer in animal fossils, non-human primates and early humans is scarce – a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal fossils, although a metastatic cancer of unknown primary origin has been reported in an Edmontosaurus fossil while another study lists a number of possible neoplasm in fossil remains. Various malignancies have been reported in non-human primates but do not include many of the cancers most commonly identified in modern adult humans.
Walk for the Cure...
Such research does not come without its detractors...
For a long time, it was believed that people in ancient times did not die of things like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes because their lives were not as long as that of modern man (living until their fifties compared to our trend of living until our seventies...) and that our living longer had more to do with the rise in illnesses (and deaths) from cancer and the sort than changes to our diets and environment.
Statistically, that line of thinking does bear out (and really might play a part in the whole discussion). But the team believes that due to the increasing numbers cancers- especially cancers found in children- in a post industrialized world strongly points to technological advancements (and more so the intended and unintended consequences of applying such technologies into our day to day lives) as a major contributor to cancer illnesses rising.
But technology is not all bad...
Lest we forget that our increased technological knowledge also gave us the ability to combat cancer.
Not to say that those rare cases were not combated in antiquity....
Professor David – who was invited to present her paper to UK Cancer Czar Professor Mike Richards and other oncologists at this year’s UK Association of Cancer Registries and National Cancer Intelligence Network conference – said: “Where there are cases of cancer in ancient Egyptian remains, we are not sure what caused them. They did heat their homes with fires, which gave off smoke, and temples burned incense, but sometimes illnesses are just thrown up.”
She added: “The ancient Egyptian data offers both physical and literary evidence, giving a unique opportunity to look at the diseases they had and the treatments they tried. They were the fathers of pharmacology so some treatments did work. They were very inventive and some treatments thought of as magical were genuine therapeutic remedies. For example, celery was used to treat rheumatism back then and is being investigated today. Their surgery and the binding of fractures were excellent because they knew their anatomy: there was no taboo on working with human bodies because of mummification. They were very hands on and it gave them a different mindset to working with bodies than the Greeks, who had to come to Alexandria to study medicine.”It wasn't until about the 17 century where more modern and efficient treatment methods appeared in the literature as the team found descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers and the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumors 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.