Archaeology

Colon Cancer Found in Hungarian Mummy

An 18th-century mummy carried a genetic mutation, which physicians now know raises the risk of colon cancer.

Tissue samples from a Hungarian mummy have revealed that people in the early 17th and 18th centuries suffered from colon cancer, long before the modern plagues of obesity, physical inactivity and processed food were established as causes of the disease, according to new research.

In a new study of 18th-century Hungarian mummies, scientists found that the genetic predisposition to colon cancer predates modern impacts on health. One of the mummies in the study carried a mutation in the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene, which physicians now know raises the risk of colon cancer, said lead study author Michal Feldman, a research assistant formerly at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

If the APC mutation is confirmed in other samples, it could mean that inherited changes in DNA play a bigger role in cancer evolution than do modern environmental impacts, Feldman told Live Science in an email. [10 Do's and Don'ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

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"Today, colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer, and it has a clear genetic background that is well-researched in modern populations," Feldman said. "In light of the many lifestyle and environmental changes human society has undergone during the last few centuries, we found it important to compare the spectrum of historical mutations to the modern spectrum."

Because mummification preserves tissue, samples from such remains can give scientists invaluable information on anthropological, historical and medical details, Feldman said. In the past, studies of mummified remains have provided clues about the history of tuberculosis, clogged arteries and even air pollution.

In the new study, Feldman's team collected tissue samples from 20 mummies that were excavated from sealed crypts in a Dominican church in Vác, Hungary. These crypts were used for the burial of several middle-class families and clerics from 1731 to 1838, and more than 265 mummies were found there in 1995, the researchers said. The mummies are now housed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

Photos: Mummies' Faces, Hairdos, Revealed in 3D

The low temperature in the crypts, combined with constant ventilation and low humidity, were ideal conditions for natural mummification of the corpses, the researchers said. Some 70 percent of the bodies found in the location were completely or partially mummified, providing a rich source of preserved tissue and DNA samples for the scientists. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

By extracting DNA from the mummies, Feldman and her team were able to sequence and assess the presence of APC gene mutations.

"The interesting thing about this study is that the APC mutation in cancer that was recently discovered in the past couple of decades is not new," said Dr. Sidney Winawer, a gastroenterologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who was not involved in the study. "This opens up a whole new way of thinking. If this mutation was present so many years ago, why was it present there?"

Additional historical samples need to be investigated, he said, in order to better understand the relationships between cancer and environmental factors, such as lifestyle, and between cancer and genetic changes.

The findings were published online Feb. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Original article on Live Science.

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A Hungarian mummy's genes are helping scientists better understand the causes of colorectal cancer.

Discovered in 1881 in the Deir el-Bahri Cache above the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and unwrapped by Gaston Maspero in 1886, this mummy, known as CG 61066, was badly damaged by grave robbers in antiquity. The left arm was broken off at the shoulder, the right arm cut off at the elbow and the right leg severed from the body. The mummy’s name remains uncertain. It was identified as that of King Thutmosis II (reign c. 1493–1479BC) thanks to a wrongly spelled label. However, the inscription appear to have overwritten an earlier sign referring to Thutmosis I. This could indicate the inscription had been changed from Thutmosis I to Thutmosis II, suggesting that the royal mummy CG 61066 is that of Thutmosis I rather than his likely son Thutmosis II.

Photos: Mummies' Faces, Hairdos, Revealed in 3D

Badly damaged by ancient robbers, this mummy had fallen into pieces, the well preserved head broken off, all four limbs detached and the feet severed. The mummy has been identified as that of Thutmosis III, the sixth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (reign about 1479–1425 BC) and shares a striking resemblance with Thutmosis II (mummy CG 61066), his purported father. The identification is based on the fact that when it was unearthed, the mummy was lying in a coffin bearing in its interior traces of inscriptions made for Thutmosis III. A linen shroud with a funerary book which certainly belonged to Thutmosis III, was possibly placed there by the embalmers.

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French excavator Victor Loret found the mummy CG61069 in 1898 in the KV35 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The mummy was lying in a wooden coffin placed into a stone sarcophagus with inscriptions naming Amenhotep II, the seventh pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, who ruled between 1428 and 1397BC. A simple label on the mummy's shroud presented the identity of Amenhotep II. Some doubt however remains. The coffin did not give a name and was too large for the mummy. Moreover, the faded hieratic ink inscription could have been easily misread. "With reservations the mummy CG 61069 should be considered as Amenhotep II until proven otherwise," Ruhli and colleagues concluded.

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Found in 1898 in the KV 35 tomb, this damaged mummy -- both feet are broken off and the right leg was ripped off at the knee joint -- shows the face of an extremely emaciated man. The body has been identified as Thutmosis IV, the 8th Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who ruled between 1397 and 1387 BC, thanks to inscriptions on the chest and coffin correctly spelled and clearly visible. According to the researchers, the identification should be considered reliable.

When it was unwrapped in 1905, this mummy revealed a body in rather bad condition. The head was broken off, most of the soft tissue from the face gone, the right leg was cut away from the trunk, and part of the foot missing. The embalmers taped the mummy together in the attempt to restore a lifelike appearance. Bird bones, a human big toe, and parts of an arm were found inside the body cavity. The genetic profiling determined the mummy was the consort of Queen Tjye and as the genetic father of the mummy from tomb KV 55, thus identifying the body as Amenhotep III.

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The identity of these exceptionally well-preserved mummies is certain, since the coffins and funerary objects bear their names and status. Genetic testing recognized Yuya and Thuya as King Tut's great-grandparents.

This nameless and naked mummy was found in 1898 in the cachette KV 35 together with the so-called Younger Lady and a teenage boy. The regal quality of mummification and her bent arm recognized her as a queen; speculations were made to identify her as of Tjye, Nefertiti, or Hatshepsut. In view of the genetic test, where she was proved to be the daughter of Yuya and Thuya, the identification as Tjye, wife of King Amenhotep III, appears the most realistic one.

This body, consisting of a completely disarticulated skeleton with few missing part and a damaged skull, was identified as Akhenaton although some argued he could have been the elusive pharaoh Smenkhkare. In the Tutankhamun Family Project he was proved with molecular genetics to be a direct descendant of the "Elder Lady" (Queen Tiye) and mummy CG 61074, commonly regarded as "Amenhotep III," and this would indicate that he was the heretic king Akhenaton. The KV 55 mummy was also determined to be the genetic father of Tutankhamun. Inscriptions support the genetics. Not only the body found in KV55 bore golden bands with the name Akhenaton, but inscriptions from Tell el-Amarna, the city of the heretic king, describe King Tut as the son of Akhenaton.

Found by Victor Loret in 1898 in tomb KV35, the mummy was considered to be an unknown royal family member of Amenhotep II, because she was found in his burial. In 1999, Marianne Luban suggested the mummy might be Queen Nefertiti, based on her profile resemblance with the famous Berlin bust. In 2004 Egyptologist Joann Fletcher also proposed the mummy is Nefertiti, relying her theory on portable x-ray, forensic face reconstruction and resemblance between art and mummy. Her identification raised much controversy. The DNA analysis revealed the mummy is the mother of Tutankhamun, but did not offer an identity. In their meta-analysis, Rühli and colleagues also present her as Queen Nefertiti. "We can't be fully certain of her identity, however inscriptional evidence and facial resemblance with Tutankhamun as seen in CT scans, strongly suggests the mummy belongs to Nefertiti," Rühli said. "Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun's mother and indeed the mummy known as the Younger Lady is genetically suggested to be King Tut's mother," he added.