The earliest known case of advanced, metastatic prostate cancer

Some people are apparently under the impression that prostate cancer is a “modern” cancer and that there is no evidence of this disease in earlier times. We can assure you that this is not the case.

In 2007, Schultz et al. published a detailed report of their paleopathological examination of the well-preserved skeleton of an unknown Scythian king of approximately 40 to 50 years of age, excavated from a burial mound at Arzhan, in Tuva, a part of southern Siberia. The burial mound was excavated between 2000 and 2003 and dates from the 7th century BC. It represents an entirely undisturbed burial, is one of the richest archeological graves from the Eurasian Steppes, and contained about 9,600 objects, more than 6,000 of which are made of gold.

What is particularly interesting about this 2,700-year-old case is that the clinical and pathological characteristics of prostate cancer available from this skeleton demonstate remarkable similarities to those in modern patients with very late stage disease. The research team was able to establish a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer based on microscopic examination of cancerous lesions to bone and positive evidence of the presence of free and bound PSA. While we cannot be absolutely certain that prostate cancer was this man’s actual cause of death, Schultz et al. are very confident that this was, in fact, the case.

Elsewhere on this site, we have also commented briefly on the earliest known description of surgical excision of the prostate (a radical prostatectomy) — by the Indian physician Sushruta, about 2,500 years ago. We do not know, however, why Sushutra actually developed and carried out this operation. It seems very unlikely that he was actually trying to treat prostate cancer, and much more likely that he was trying to relieve the symptoms of a severe blockage of the urinary tract (which might, of course, have been caused by prostate cancer or by some other disorder).

3 Responses

  1. He should have tested his PSA and been treated in time. :-)

    Happy New Year,


  2. He did, in fact, arrange for his PSA to be appropriately tested — about 2,690 years too late. His therapeutic options were constrained to watchful waiting and concoctions based on mare’s milk.

  3. Arnon Krongrad did an interesting write up on the Scythian King and the challenges of technology which he posted on line in the first days of the InfoLink’s social network.

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