A Disease Without History? Evidence for the Antiquity of Head and Neck Cancers

  • William J. Pestle
  • Michael Colvard


There has been a long-running debate in anthropological, archaeological, and medical literature regarding the prevalence of cancer in various ancient human populations. At one extreme, some scholars have claimed that past human societies had rates of cancer roughly equivalent to those seen among modern peoples; at the other extreme, some researchers have effectively claimed that cancer is a disease of modernity. The present study aims to shed further light on this topic, at least insofar as cancers of the head and neck are concerned. A review of ancient art, medical texts, and paleopathological reports revealed somewhat discordant accounts of the age, geographical distribution, and prevalence of head and neck cancers. While representations of these neoplastic conditions in art are relatively rare and patchy in geographic distribution, descriptions of suspect lesions in ancient medical texts are rather more widespread, if unevenly distributed geographically, and the paleopathological record was found to contain surprisingly abundant evidence for cancers of the head and neck, especially as compared to what are, in modern societies, more ubiquitous cancers of the breast, lung, or prostate. While establishing the absolute prevalence of any of these conditions in antiquity is impossible, the present work establishes that cancers of the head and neck have long been present, and perhaps even prevalent, in human societies.


Head and neck cancer Paleopathology Archaeology Artistic representations of disease History of medicine 



Head and neck cancer


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Oral Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, College of DentistryUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA

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