Cancer a ‘Modern’ Disease? Hardly: 2 Million Year Old Version Is Found



A specimen of a 1.7 million year old cancer

Paleopathologists in South Africa have found two million-year-old evidence of cancer, long thought to be a modern, lifestyle-related disease. Separately, a 1.7 million-year-old example was found in another South African location. These oldest-by-far cancerous specimens were evaluated using advanced 3D imaging methods as diagnostic aids at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. The researchers included Edward Odes, a doctoral candidate at Wits, and Patrick Randolph-Quinney, also of Wits and of Cambridge University in England. Randolph-Quinney was identified as the lead researcher in the paper published on July 28 in the South African Journal of Science.

“Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumors in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments,” Odes said. “Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed.”

First, a 1.7-million-year-old foot bone with cancer was found at the Swartkrans cave in South Africa. The exact species is unknown, but it is a hominin, or bipedal human relative, the researchers said.

Scientists also found a benign tumor in the 2-million-year-old vertebrae of an Australopithecus sedibachild found in South Africa’s Malapa cave.

Until now, the oldest hominin tumor had been found in the 120,000-year-old rib of a Neanderthal, according to the researchers.

The cancer in the foot was an aggressive type called osteosarcoma, they said.

“Due to its preservation, we don’t know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual, but we can tell this would have affected the individual’s ability to walk or run,” said Bernhard Zipfel, in a Wits news release.

Zipfel, a scientist who is an expert on the foot and locomotion of early humans, added, “In short, it would have been painful.”

Another member of the research team noted that the benign back tumor was a first in several ways.

“The presence of a benign tumor in Australopithecus sediba is fascinating not only because it is found in the back, an extremely rare place for such a disease to manifest in modern humans, but also because it is found in a child,” said Randolph-Quinney, in the news release.

“This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual,” he explained. Randolph-Quinney was lead author of the benign tumor paper and co-author of a separate cancer paper published at the same time, in the same journal, as the benign tumor one.

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