Oldest cancer in human ancestor found in 1.7-million-year-old bone

An ancient foot bone from South Africa with an aggressive form of cancer on it is the oldest evidence of cancer in a human relative, researchers from South Africa reported recently.

While the researchers aren’t sure exactly what species the foot bone came from, they do know that it belonged to a bipedal hominin and that it dates to about 1.7 million years ago. The scientists also know that this type of cancer, in modern times, usually causes death if untreated.

“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,” Bernhard Zipfel, a scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand, said in a statement announcing the discovery. “In short, it would have been painful.”

The fossilized foot bone with cancer came from a cave complex called Swartkrans outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.

And another bone from another cave near Johannesburg, called Malapa, has given researchers an additional important finding to announce: the oldest known tumor in the human lineage. It was found in one of the vertebra of a boy from the species Australopithecus sediba, and he may have been only eight or nine years old when he died.

While the ancient foot bone had evidence of cancer in it, the tumor found in the vertebra— which is nearly two million years old—  was not cancerous.


Before these discoveries, researchers had evidence of a noncancerous tumor in part of a rib from a Neanderthal that was 120,000 years old, and also a tumor from an Egyptian mummy that is 3000 year old. These South African findings are much, much older.

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

Both the study announcing the cancer and the tumor were published in the South African Journal of Science.

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