Cancer is a man-made disease triggered by the excesses of modern life, says a new study.
Tumours were rare until recent times when pollution and poor diet became issues, the review of mummies, fossils and classical literature has found.
Despite slivers of tissue from hundreds of Egyptian mummies being rehydrated, just one case of cancer has been confirmed, reports the journal Nature Reviews Cancer.
And references to cancer-like problems in ancient Egyptian texts are more likely to have been caused by leprosy or varicose veins, according to the Daily Mail.
Michael Zimmerman, the visiting professor at the Manchester University, Britain, said: “The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity.”
“This indicates that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.”
Co-researcher Professor Rosalie David said: “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be down to pollution and changes to diet and lifestyle.”
“The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease.”
“Data from across the millennia has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address,” David said.
The study showed the disease rate has risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer – proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer.
Now it is hoped that it could lead to better understanding of the origins of cancer and to new treatments for the disease which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK alone.
“In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death,” said Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester.
“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.
“Cancer appears to be a modern disease created by modern life.”
To trace the origins of cancer, Prof David and colleague Professor Michael Zimmerman, looked for evidence of the disease in hundreds of mummified bodies dating back up to 3,000 years and also in fossils and ancient medical texts.
Despite tried and tested techniques of viewing rehydrated tissue under the microscope they found that only five cases of tumours, most of which were benign.
Fossil evidence of cancer is also sparse, with scientific literature providing a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal and Neanderthal bones, the study in journal Nature Reviews Cancer reports.
They did find examples of other modern day aged related diseases such as hardening of the arteries and arthritis, which they said dismissed the argument that ancient humans did not live long enough to develop cancer.
The mummified bodies from both rich and poor backgrounds showed that the average life expectancy ranged from 25 to 50, depending on their background.
Evidence of cancer in ancient Egyptian texts is also “tenuous”, the researchers claimed, with cancer-like problems more likely to have been caused by leprosy or even varicose veins.
The only diagnosis of cancer was a case in an unnamed mummy, an “ordinary” person who had lived around 200AD.
Modern records show that the disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer.