December 30 2010 at 07:25

HE lay with his spouse in a burial mound in Russia, symbols of their royal status, power and wealth adorning both skeletons, their tomb untouched for 27 centuries. But while the find was thrilling for the archaeologists involved, it was the palaeopathologists, specialists in ancient diseases, who ultimately benefited most.

For the man had died of metastasising cancer and this is the oldest confirmed case of prostate cancer in history.

The find was described by The New York Times this week in a report focusing on whether cancer is a modern affliction - a product of environmental carcinogens and poor lifestyle, for example - or a disease associated with the human condition from earliest times. It's an intriguing question and one that has produced some counter-intuitive answers.

One particular experiment involved a statistical study, for, as New York Times writer George Johnson quipped, sparsity of evidence is not necessarily evidence of sparsity.

One palaeopathologist from University College London analysed British mortality figures between 1901 and 1905 (a period chosen because records were good but skewed data caused by the later popularity of cigarettes was avoided).

From these figures he estimated that in an "archaeological assemblage", cancer might be expected in just less than 2 percent of male and 4 percent to 7 percent of female skeletons.

And indeed that was the subsequent finding from several mass burial sites, including two from ancient Egypt and one in southern Germany dating to between 1400 and 1800: malignant tumours in those samples from antiquity were "not significantly fewer than expected".

Writer Susan Sontag, who fought and ultimately died of cancer, passionately believed that people should stop using illness as a metaphor.

She analysed the language that has developed around diseases such as syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer and HIV/Aids  and concluded that people who have the real illness are hardly helped when the disease with which their body is afflicted is constantly used "as the epitome of evil".  I've read and reread Sontag on this issue and feel great empathy with the point she makes. 

But thinking metaphorically - using one image to illustrate your thought about something else - is a deeply human trait; I can't imagine how it could ever be eradicated.

Take the royal Russian in his 2 700-year-old tomb. Prostate cancer had spread to all his bones; they were scoured and weakened in the telltale pattern of metastasising malignancy. By the time he died, the pillars of his legs would hardly have held him upright.

That, it seems to me, is a metaphor one could use to effect about corruption in South Africa, where the pillars and props of society are scoured and weakened in an ominous, telltale pattern.

Some scientists now view cancer as a disease that has always been part of the human condition; one, quoted by The New York Times, put it this way: "Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give individual cells the licence to proliferate."

This might mean that, unlike smallpox, for example, we can never completely rid humanity of the disease, and that at best, research will merely help keep its growth at manageable levels in the individual body, allowing more people to be "living with cancer".  And what about corruption? It may be that, like cancer, we can never completely prevent or eradicate it, but there's plenty that can be done to hold it in check.

Colm Allan, of the Centre for Social Accountability at Rhodes University, talks of the progressive realisation of human needs and rights being dependent on our ability to obtain justification for the use of every kind of public resource.

I'd add that this is a duty as well as a right: that it's our responsibility to demand accountability from those in positions of power. We should be engaging with leaders at every level, demanding accountability and justification for their actions and decisions.

That's why the state's planned appeal to the Constitutional Court over the "disappeared" report on Zimbabwe's 2002 elections, compiled by two South African judges at the request of the Presidency, presents that court with a crucially important opportunity.

Two courts have ordered that the report be handed over. The Presidency's decision to appeal gives the highest judicial forum the chance to add its approval to the clear message from our courts to the politically powerful; it should be a defining moment in the fight for accountability and good governance.


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