Dinosaurs also had cancer

An inspirational bus journey and a zest for learning. Curator Jeanette Varberg’s time at Aarhus University formed the basis of her compelling stories about the past, which captivate readers of all ages. Because the past makes us wiser – about the world’s current crises and about our own lives. Jeanette Varberg became all too aware of this when diagnosed with breast cancer.

[Translate to English:] Museumsinspektør Jeanette Varberg
The past is not only about wars and royal lines of succession. Curator Jeanette Varberg opens up history to everyone by exploring the history of women, technology, the climate and philosophy.

It is 2000. The archaeology student Jeanette Varberg has just been fired from her part-time job at McDonalds and is looking for new work. Fairly quickly, she gets a job as a tour guide at Moesgaard Museum. The school pupils are spellbound as she recounts Grauballe Man’s bloody death and Egtved Girl’s transparent skirt. Jeanette Varberg has a special talent for communicating – and her part-time job at Moesgaard Museum soon goes from being an easy way to earn money to defining her future professional life.

Jeanette Varberg

  • Born in 1978
  • MA in prehistoric archaeology in 2006
  • Curator at the National Museum of Denmark
  • Previously a curator at Moesgaard Museum
  • Author of several books about archaeology and history for both children and adults, including the 2022 thriller “Enkernes Land” (Widow land), which has sold more than 25,000 copies
  • Active communicator of history as a lecturer, debater and expert on television and radio programmes
  • Received the Rosenkjær Prize, DR’s prize for popular research communication, in 2014 and the Amalienborg Prize in 2022.
  • Lives in Horsens and is married with two children

“I have guided thousands of people through exhibitions at Moesgaard Museum. It’s given me a good indication of who my audience is and the questions that ordinary people ask about our history. Communication has been a recurring theme throughout my career”, she says.

The number 6 bus ride expanded her horizons
Jeanette Varberg is joining via a video link from her home in Horsens, close to the fjord. Wearing a bright yellow knitted hat, she happily recalls her time as an archaeology student, despite the fact that she is currently undergoing an exhausting course of chemotherapy.

“The academic environment at Moesgaard was warm and familiar. Everyone knew everyone. We had our own community out there are hardly ever went into town”, she said.

The number 6 bus ride between Park Allé and Moesgaard was in itself almost meditative.

“It was an incredibly beautiful journey along the coast and through the forest. It was before mobile phones and podcasts, so I just sat and listened to snippets of other people’s interesting conversations about archaeology or anthropology. Sometimes, if I know something but I can’t put my finger on where I know it from, I think: The Moesgaard bus”, she says.
The rhythm of the place was connected to the bus’s timetable, which back in the ‘00s was the only means of getting to – what is now called – Campus Moesgaard by public transport. At the time, the campus was housed along with Moesgaard Museum in a whitewashed building that was part of a former manor house.

“The bus went every half an hour, so our day was planned around that. And if you were still at the Friday Bar after the last bus had left, you either had to walk a long way up to Oddervej and catch a night bus – or try your luck venturing through the forest in pitch darkness. I have tried the latter, and I don’t recommend it”, jokes Jeanette Varberg.

The past can help us
Jeanette Varberg was bored in school and got bad grades, but in upper-secondary school she realised that she’d need an average grade of 8.4 to study archaeology, so she pulled herself together. Starting on the archaeology degree programme was a revelation:

“I thought: This is what I want to do! It was fantastic to be somewhere where I enjoyed learning. And then I just ploughed through”, she says.

Jeanette Varberg’s motivation has always been to get others to understand how important the past is – both for our present and our future.

When Covid-19 shut the world down, it took most people by surprise. But not archaeologists and historians. They were well aware that epidemics and pandemics had ravaged humankind several times throughout history. 

“We had neglected the history surrounding illness”, says Jeanette Varberg, who, shortly after Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s press conference on 11 March 2020, was contacted by Central Denmark Region. They wanted her to be part of an advisory group for the region’s senior hospital management. 

“I provided a historical perspective on the decisions made. For example, how did people deal with the Spanish Flu between 1918 and 1920? We humans are always part of history, and recognising that can ease some of the pressure, so that doctors and nurses don’t feel they’re doing everything for the first time. We are part of a long chain of people who have done the same things before us, just in other contexts and situations”, says Jeanette Varberg.

Putin and Easter Island
Our lack of historical perspective is also reflected in our shock over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Putin wants to create a large Russian empire, and if you want to understand this way of thinking, you have to try to understand Russia’s complex history”, she says.

History can also tell us something about the ongoing climate crisis. The climate has always caused some cultures to flourish – and others to go under. The Mayan Empire in Central America was abandoned when Europeans arrived there, most likely because of climate change. It was also climate change that drove the Norse people out of Greenland in the 1300s and 1400s. Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean – a small, isolated island known for its large monolithic human statues – was once home to a complex society that collapsed.

“People gradually felled all the trees, among other things to raise the stone statues. And all of a sudden there was no more forest – and no more wood to build ships, so people couldn’t leave the island. It seems obvious to compare Easter Island with the Earth. When will we destroy the final forest?”, asks Jeannette Varberg.

Dinosaurs also had cancer
The past is an enormous collection of experiences from those who lived before us. Jeanette Varberg and her colleagues’ job is to create a system in these experiences and draw conclusions and parallels. Because if we want to understand ourselves and our situation, we need to understand our history. This is also true on a personal level. Jeanette Varberg was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2023, has undergone surgery, and is now going through a final course of chemotherapy.

“When I got ill, I was hit by a sense of guilt. Had I been too busy? Had I listened to my body enough? Could I have done something to prevent it? But then I delved into the history of cancer and discovered that the first recorded case of cancer was in a dinosaur. So it couldn’t have been my fault, could it?” says Jeanette Varberg, smiling.

Her research also showed that cases of cancer were described in Egyptian sources dating back over 5,000 years. And, in the Roman Empire, there were magical spells to remove hard knots from the chest. Cancer has affected every age. But why does it seem that more of us are hit by it today?

“Because we’re living longer. We have eradicated many diseases, but we are left with the illness that has been bubbling under the surface the whole time: Cancer – the uncontrollable division of cells, where the body turns on itself. One in three of us has a ticking time bomb in our body”, says Jeanette Varberg.

Exploring this history helps her to structure her thoughts. This is something she learned to do at university. If she dives into history, she is not alone.

On her Instagram profile, she shares the history of cancer and her own cancer story with over 9000 followers:

“If I can come forward with a bald head as an example and help enlighten people and give them some guiding principles, I will gladly do so”.