The oldest malignant cancer ever found has just been discovered.
A fossilised human foot bone, found in South Africa and dating back 1.7 million years, seems to be the first evidence of a malignant cancer known in history.
The fossil shows signs of osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. It was found in a metatarsal, one of the five long bones that connect to the toes.
The scientists aren’t sure exactly species the bone came from. But they are certain that it belonged to an ancient human and not an ape.
The find could pose a problem for the view that cancer is a result of our modern lifestyles, including our unhealthy diets and the fact that we live so long.
Another paper in the same journal, the South African Journal of Science, documents a benign tumour that is even older.
That is the oldest tumour ever found in a fossil – in the vertebrae of a child who lived nearly two million years ago.
Researcher Edward Odes, from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, who took part in both studies, said: “Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumours in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments. Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed.”
The foot bone was unearthed from the Swartkrans archaeological site, about 20 miles from Johannesburg.
Osteosarcoma is an aggressive cancer which usually affects younger individuals among modern humans and if left untreated leads to early death.
Dr Bernhard Zipfel, a University of the Witwatersrand expert on the feet and locomotion of early humans, 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 individuals’ ability to walk or run.
“In short, it would have been painful.”
The benign tumour was found in “Karabo”, a child belonging to the ape-like hominin species Australopithecus sediba, from the Malapa fossil site in South Africa.
The oldest tumour known previously was discovered in the rib of a Neanderthal from 120,000 years ago.
Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Central Lancashire, who also investigated both finds, said: “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.”
Both diseases were diagnosed using state-of-the-art X-ray imaging.
Hannah Birkett, from the Bone Cancer Research Trust, said: “This discovery is really exciting for osteosarcoma and the field of primary bone cancer research as a whole. It further solidifies what we already know about the pathology of osteosarcoma and its development from the cells which are working to produce bone.
“Modern lifestyles and environmental factors loom large in people’s perceptions of the cause of cancer, and this finding reconfirms the importance of considering other factors such as bone growth. This discovery will hopefully open new doors into investigating the cause of osteosarcoma further.”