The oldest case of cancer in humans

Fossils suggest cancer might have been affecting humans 1.5 million years ago; but there is some debate. Just how old is cancer?


1.5 million years ago our ancestors were walking upright, hunting large game and creating fancy stone handaxes. They had a brain half the size we do today; and would one day be called “Homo erectus” by their descendants. And did one Homo erectus have cancer? The oldest human bone with evidence of cancerous growth comes from a Homo erectus jaw. This 1.5 million year old skeletal fragment contains bony growths, consistent with ossifying sarcoma1.

However, not everyone is convinced by this example. Similar bony growths could be caused by a broken jaw healing; so we have to search elsewhere for the oldest example of human cancer1. The next case is found in a Neanderthal, dating to ~35,000 years ago. This German fossil has arthritis, back problems and a possible case of cancer in the parietal bone of the skull. But like the Homo erectus, many people dispute this example. The sutures in their skull are not fully closed, suggesting they are young; but they have arthritis, a condition that typically results from being old. One way to reconcile this contradiction would be if this Neanderthal had a congenital birth defect, and such a defect could explain away the mysterious growth on their skull2.

In fact, to find the earliest convincing case of human cancer you have to come almost to the present. To Ancient Egypt, 3,200 years ago. Sure it might be called Ancient, but when put in the context of a 1.5 million year old jaw it’s basically yesterday. This Egyptian skeleton was found in Amar (present day Sudan) with an amulet to the Egyptian God Bes around his neck. And most of his thorax, pelvis and the top of his femur had lesions; consistent with metastatic carcinoma. This is when the cancer originates elsewhere, but spreads to the bone; causing these lesions. As such these lesions, as widespread as they are, only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this poor guys disease. He was 25 – 30 years old when he died3.

The Egyptian skeleton (left) and some of the lesions on a rib (right)

The Egyptian skeleton (left) and some of the lesions on a rib (right)

The fact that 3,200 years old marks the oldest confirmed case of cancer in humans has been used by some to suggest that it is a disease of the modern world. That pollution/genetically modified organisms/insert boogey man of choice here is the reason it is now so prevalent. But this line of reasoning forgets a few key facts. For starters, risk of cancer increases with age; yet most pre-modern people died young; the vast majority before age 454. And even if they did live long enough, we can only detect cancer in the archaeological record if its either bone cancer, or spreads to the bones (like in the case of the Egyptian). These represent the minority of cases.

Granted, many of the high risk factors for cancer – like smoking and nuclear bombs – are relatively new inventions. But even if you could live in a bubble, protected from all the nasties in the outside world you couldn’t make your change of getting cancer 0%. It’s a disease that’s been entwined with humans for 1.5 million years. Or maybe just 3,200. Either way, for the first time in thousands/millions of years; we’re fighting back. It may have been a disease that’s afflicted us for over a million years, but hopefully not for much longer.

References

  1. Capasso, L. L. (2005). Antiquity of cancer. International journal of cancer,113(1), 2-13.
  2. Czarnetzki, A. (1980). Pathological changes in the morphology of the young paleolithic skeletal remains from Stetten (south-west Germany). Journal of Human Evolution9(1), 15-17.
  3. Binder M, Roberts C, Spencer N, Antoine D, Cartwright C (2014) On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). PLoS ONE 9(3): e90924. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090924
  4. Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H. (2007). Longevity among hunter‐gatherers: a cross‐cultural examination. Population and Development Review33(2), 321-365.

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2 thoughts on “The oldest case of cancer in humans”

  1. piamater7 says:

    Or bone cancer is a relatively new disease compared with other solid cancers which would not leave a fossilised trace?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That would be consistent with the evidence (for now), but is far from the most parsimonious explanation. As such it falls foul of Occam’s razor.

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