Cancer research is a hot topic in today’s medical community. Many of society’s best and brightest work tirelessly to eradicate cancer from world, developing new drugs, surgical techniques, and prevention methods. Curing cancer, however, is largely contingent on pinpointing its causes. This is where archaeology plays a role. Is cancer strictly a result of modern lifestyle, or was it present in ancient times? If it was, what were the rates at which cancer was contracted in different areas over different periods of time? Is there any overlap between the causes of cancer in the modern world and in the past? These are all questions archaeologists can answer.
Two colleagues at Manchester University, Rosalie David and Michael Zimmerman, have done extensive research on cancer in the past. They have searched for references to the disease in classical literature, looked for evidence in the fossil record and in mummified bodies, and even gathered data about other pathologies contracted in ancient times to establish a frame of reference with respect to modern times. Their findings: cancer is man-made. In the journal Nature Reviews: Cancer, the two archaeologists reported a “striking rarity of malignancies in ancient physical remains” that might “indicate that cancer was rare in antiquity”. Said Professor David, “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”.
Many disagree with the above viewpoint. According to Cancer researcher Dr. Robert A. Weinberg, “There is no reason to think cancer is a new disease. In former times, it was less common because people were struck down midlife by other things.” Furthermore, the scarcity of evidence for cancer in David and Zimmerman’s research can be accounted for by a number of factors.
Cancer generally develops in soft tissue, which tends to disappear before archaeologists can find it. Additionally, there are large gaps in archaeological records. For a long time, archaeologists only collected skulls. There is no telling what sort of cancer evidence was present in discarded skeletons. Recent findings, such as a 4,200-Year-Old case of breast cancer  and a skeleton with cancer from 3000 years ago, suggest even further that cancer is not a modern phenomenon.
So is cancer a disease brought about by modern lifestyle choices? It appears as if the answer is both yes and no. As research continues to be done, it appears as if cancer was less prevalent in ancient times. While modernity has increased the incidence of cancer, it cannot be blamed entirely; says Dr. Weinberg, “Cancer is an inevitability once you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells license to proliferate. If we lived long enough, sooner or later we would all get cancer.” It appears as if archaeology has provided us with the following conclusion: cancer is not strictly a result of modern living, but there are still common lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to reduce its presence.