An international team of researchers has identified hundreds of proteins in skin and muscle samples from 4,200-year-old Egyptian mummies, finding signs of diseases that may have caused their death.

Published in the journal Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, the groundbreaking study shows that proteins isolated from ancient mummified tissue can reveal inflammation, immune response and possibly cancer.

The researchers collected four skin samples and one muscle biopsy from three mummies stored in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

Dating back to the First Intermediate period (about 2181–2055 B.C.), the mummies were excavated in cemeteries at Assiut and Gebelein between 1911 and 1920 by an Italian archaeological mission led by Ernesto Schiaparelli.

The Assiut mummies, a female known as Khepeshet and a male known as Idi, came from elite burials and were interred, with grave goods, in sealed and decorated wooden coffins.

In contrast, the mummy from Gebelein, an unknown adult individual, was buried in a coffin made out of a hollowed out tree trunk.

“All these mummies are in poor condition, but that is what made them perfect for retrieving biopsies without causing further damage,” Jana Jones, from the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Australia, told Discovery News.