The research team from Pisa University found three cases of malignant tumours in the mummies, including in a duke, a king, and a prince.
And the findings mean that medical assumptions that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity “should be revised”, according to the three scientists behind the study, which was published in medical journal The Lancet.
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The presence of tumours in the mummies could suggest that the disease is not as strongly connected to modern lifestyle factors as has been thought. The reason it has rarely been identified in past populations may be due more to shorter lifespans and the difficulty in detecting the tumours in surviving remains, the study's authors claimed.
Though the team studied only 11 mummies in total, the prevalence of cancer in the sample was 27 percent – close to the 31 percent found in high income countries today.
“We can hypothesize that cancer must have been frequent after age 50–60 years, at least in the Renaissance elite classes with specific alimentary and lifestyle habits,” noted the authors of the study.
The remains all belonged to members of the Aragonese court, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and were preserved in the Neapolitan Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore.
The mummies found to have malignant tumours were all aged between 55 and 71, and because they belonged to the upper classes, would have been able to afford more extravagant food than was typical for the population of the time, including fats and sugars.