Archaeologists discovered a 500-year-old ovarian tumor that started growing teeth while excavating a church graveyard.
The tumor, which was discovered during excavation work between 2010 and 2011, is the subject of a scientific paper recently published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, reports Phys.org. The article is titled “Ovarian Teratoma: A Case From 15th-18th Century Lisbon, Portugal.”
The team of researchers who found the calcified mass considered the possibility that it was a fetus which had died along with its mother, or that it was the result of an ectopic pregnancy. However, after cleaning and close examination, they concluded that it was a teratoma.
This teratoma is reportedly 4.3 centimeters — about 1.7 inches — long, with five partially developed teeth, consisting of four molars and one canine.
The National Cancer Institute defines teratomas:
A type of germ cell tumor that may contain several different types of tissue, such as hair, muscle, and bone. Teratomas may be mature or immature, based on how normal the cells look under a microscope. Sometimes teratomas are a mix of mature and immature cells. Teratomas usually occur in the ovaries in women, the testicles in men, and the tailbone in children. They may also occur in the central nervous system (brain or spinal cord), chest, or abdomen. Teratomas may be benign or malignant.
This type of tumor is far more common than was once thought, accounting for approximately 20 percent of all ovarian tumors, notes Phys.org.
The scientists say this teratoma is from the pelvis of a female skeleton, approximately aged 45 when it was buried in the Church and Convent of Carmo, a cemetery in Lisbon that was used from the early part of the 1400s until 1775, when the church was destroyed by an earthquake. Although the remains of the skeleton have not been scientifically dated, the researchers assume it is from the period during in which the cemetery was in use.
The cause of death is suspected to be disease, and the researchers report that there is no indication that the woman was aware of the teratoma because her bones were still normally arranged, indicating the tumor had not caused symptoms.
This is only the fourth known case of a teratoma being found in ancient skeletal remains.
The authors of the report say that studying tumors from antiquity is important because of the prevalence of cancer today, and that some types of tumors thought to be characteristic of modern societies are also found in past populations.