New research at the University of Cambridge has challenged the previously held belief less than one percent of the population had cancer. Until now, the archaeological record of cancer rates in medieval Britain has been limited by the available technology. But the first study to combine CT scans and x-rays has exposed worrying levels of malignant cancer among pre-industrial populations.
The researchers were surprised by their discovery, considering the analysed remains hail from a time before tobacco use and exposure to industrial chemicals – some of the leading causes of cancer today.
In total, the archaeologists examined 143 skeletons from six medieval cemeteries peppered in and around Cambridge.
The skeletons were all dated between the sixth and 16th centuries AD.
The remains were divided among 96 men, 46 women and one skeleton of unknown origin.
The study was carried out as part of the After the Plague project – an effort to learn about the health, life and death of medieval Cambridge’s poor.
Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology and the study’s lead author said: “The majority of cancers form in soft tissue organs long since degraded in medieval remains.
“Only some cancer spreads to bone, and of these, only a few are visible on its surface, so we searched within the bone for signs of malignancy.”
According to modern research, tumours will spread to bones in a third to a half of people with the disease.
The researchers combined this knowledge with the data collected in their study to estimate cancer rates in medieval Britain.
They published their findings today (April 30) in the journal Cancer.
Dr Jenna Dittmar, the study’s co-author, said: “Using CT scans we were able to see cancer lesions hidden inside a bone that looked completely normal on the outside.
“Until now it was thought that the most significant cause of ill health in medieval people were infectious diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague, along with malnutrition and injuries due to accidents or warfare.
“We now have to add cancer to as one of the major diseases that afflicted medieval people.”
Cancer rates are still much more prevalent today, according to the researchers.
Data suggests between 40 and 50 percent of British people will have cancer by the time they die.
The cancer rates make the disease three to four times more common today than in medieval times.
According to the NHS, the most common types of cancer today are breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancer.
Smoking, poor dietary choices and lack of exercise are considered some of the most basic risk factors.
Starting with the colonisation of the Americas in the 16th century, tobacco began to be imported into the UK.
And with the advent of the industrial age in the 18th century, the cancerous effects of industrial pollution also became more commonplace.
Another factor, the researchers pointed out, the average lifespan is longer now and that may simply allow cancer more time to develop.
The researchers believe more work is needed to better understand how cancer affected medieval Britain.
They accept their sample size was fairly small and diagnosing cancer centuries after death can be problematic.
Dr Mitchell said: “We need further studies using CT scanning of apparently normal skeletons in different regions and time periods to see how common cancer was in key civilizations of the past.”