It's a starling discovery that caught researchers off guard.
Scientists have made a rather incredible discovery on an ancient human bone found in a cave in South Africa. They found a growth on the toe of the 1.7 million year old fossil, and not just any growth: a malignant tumor, and an aggressive one at that. Scientists think the toe belonged to early hominins, either a Homo ergaster or Paranthropus robustus.
The discovery shows that cancer is not a new problem for mankind, but rather something that has afflicted even our earliest ancestors, according to a University of Witwatersrand statement. It’s not the first time early tumors have been found before, with one discovered on a Neanderthal who lived 120,000 years ago, but until now that was the oldest specimen to have found with cancer.
The bone was discovered in the Swartkrans cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg in South Africa. The data indicates that it was osteosarcoma, which is a rare and deadly form of bone cancer.
“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 individuals’ ability to walk or run,” says Dr Bernhard Zipfel, a Wits scientist and an expert on the foot and locomotion of early human relatives, in the statement. “In short, it would have been painful.”
A benign growth was also found on the backbone of a 2 million year old Australopithecus sediba fossil from a different cave.
Lead author of the tumour paper and co-author of the cancer paper, Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney of Wits University and the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, suggests “The presence of a benign tumour 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. This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record”.
It certainly indicates the idea that cancer is a modern problem is bunk. Modern medicine tends to believe that many diseases, including cancer, are caused by modern lifestyle, but such discoveries cast doubt on that idea.
“Researchers in South Africa are at the forefront of using various X-Ray modalities to discover new and interesting facts about ancient human relatives,” notes Dr Jacqueline Smilg, a radiologist based at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, who is an author on both papers and was involved in the clinical diagnoses. “This is another good example of how the modern clinical sciences and the science of palaeoanthropology are working together in South Africa and with international collaborators to advance our understanding of diseases in both the past and the present.”