An ovarian tumor (teratoma) containing at least five teeth, and possibly some bone fragments, has been dug up in a graveyard in Lisbon, Portugal.
Teratomas are a type of cyst that form from immature egg cells in the ovaries. Although usually benign, some can be cancerous, while others grow large enough to do serious damage. They are distinguished by the fact that they resemble derivatives of more than one primary layer of cells. This can give them the nightmarish feature of containing what look like normal body parts within the tumor – most often hair or teeth, but sometimes eyes, hands or feet.
During 2010-2011, 42 bodies buried outside the Church and Convent of Carmo, Lisbon, were excavated. The graveyard was used from the early 15th century until the earthquake of 1755 destroyed the church. The 4.3-centimeter (1.7 inches) teratoma was found near the pelvic area of a woman estimated to have been 45 years old when she died. At this stage, researchers have been unable to date her death more precisely than being within the three and a half centuries of the graveyard’s use.
The archaeologists digging up the site recognized they had found something unusual and sent it to the University of Coimbra (one of the few university’s in the world to predate the cemetery) to be examined. First author Dr Sofia Wasterlain reports in The International Journal of Paleopathology that alternative explanations were considered, including the possibility that it was a calcified ectopic pregnancy, but the ovarian teratoma theory is most plausible.
Only three ovarian teratomas have been reported from the archaeological record, although one approximately 1,000 years older was found in Spain four years ago.
The authors could see no indications of the tumor affecting the woman’s skeleton, and it is unclear if it contributed to her death. The fact that her body was covered in lime may indicate she died of an infectious disease instead, but medical knowledge at the time being what it was, doctors may well not have diagnosed the cause of her demise correctly.
Besides the gruesome interest, the discovery of tumors such as these from pre-industrial times can be scientifically significant. “Some types of tumors that are thought to be characteristic of modern societies and commonly attributed to Western civilization are also found in past populations,” the authors write.
This discovery doesn’t rank with the 1.7-million-year-old cancer found last year for antiquity. Nevertheless, examples such as this can help build a picture of which health issues are a product of modern lifestyles or novel chemicals, and which have been with us for a long time.