The tumour, known as a teratoma, was found in the remains of a young woman thought to be between 18 and 21. She was buried in the ‘non-elite’ North Desert Cemetery, founded in 1345 BCE.
The young woman was buried with a ‘Bes’ ring adoring her left hand, which may have been worn as an attempt ‘to invoke [the god] Bes to protect her from pain or other symptoms, or aid in her attempts to conceive and birth a child’, according to the authors.
They said the tumour grew to the size of a large grape.
Teratomas are rare – there are only about 1.2 to 14.2 cases per 100,000 people a year. They are a type of germ cell tumour, which enables the cells to differentiate into other types of body tissue.
Most commonly found in the ovaries and testes, they can also contain hair, bone and muscle.
Although normally benign, teratomas can cause an infection if the rupture, and can occasionally be malignant. Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, the team behind the latest discovery does not conclude whether or not the tumour could have been the cause of death.
Archaeological evidence of tumours is notoriously hard to find given they will have generally decomposed.
Despite the more resilient nature of some of the features of a teratoma, only four had previously been found, the earliest of which dates from the 5th Century CE. That makes the new discovery the earliest physical evidence of teratomas by almost 2,000 years.
However, written references to the disorder go back to between 600 and 900 BCE.
Writing in a book on the subject, James Wheeler said: ‘The recognition of teratomas stretches in time from fragmentary descriptions in ancient times to increasingly frequent gross anatomical observations in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
‘The understanding of the genesis of these tumours [was] initially attributed to demons and various forms of sexual misbehavior.’
Witchcraft was also a common explanation for teratomas, the name of which derives from the Greek word ‘teratos’, which means ‘hideous creature’ or ‘deformity’.
Today the tumours can be easily spotted using x-rays, and removed by surgery, but before they were fully understood would have posed an impossible mystery for early doctors.
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