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Palepathology and Retrodiagnosis

Zimmerman and University of Manchester professor Rosalie David, who founded the university’s renowned Egypt Mummy Project, wrote a 2010 paper for the journal Nature on the lack of mummified cancer and their speculation that cancer might be more tied to modern environments than has been assumed. Zimmerman attributes most of the difference to the modern prevalence of smoking: There’s nothing in the historical or archaeological record to suggest that ancient Egyptians smoked.

The paper stirred up controversy, with some questioning whether the low cancer rates in ancient people are merely a consequence of shorter life spans — perhaps people simply didn’t live long enough to get cancer. But even taking age into account, Zimmerman said, there’s surprisingly little cancer. Besides, he said, he sees osteoarthritis, clogged arteries and other diseases of aging in these mummies. Some of the pharaohs lived past 90.

Faye Flam’s recent article in The Washington Post, “Doctor to the Mummies,” points out but doesn’t explore the inherent problem with these efforts to retrodiagnose causes of death: in most cases we just don’t have enough information to do more than offer plausible suggestions, typically based insufficient data, ad hoc efforts to defend the conclusions notwithstanding (see the David-Zimmerman article, “Cancer: An Old Disease, A New Disease or Something in Between? (behind a Nature’s paywall)).

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