When did humans first get cancer: what is known about the oldest confirmed case

Yulia PoteriankoLife
Cancer seems like a very modern disease, but people suffered from it even in prehistoric times

There is a lot of information about cancer around lately - research, new treatments and diagnostics, statistics. So it seems that this disease is very modern. In fact, mankind has been suffering from cancer for thousands of years. Even the ancestors of homo sapiens died of the disease. And scientists have described the oldest case of cancer discovered to date.

According to the publication Live Science, signs of the disease were found on the bones, the age of which is 1.7 million years. The remains, which were analyzed by researchers, probably belong to the species Paranthropus robustus or Homo ergaster - these are the direct ancestors of modern humans. The tumor was found on the toes of the left foot. The remains of a skeleton with traces of the disease were found in the Swartkrans Cave in a limestone deposit in South Africa. This place is also called the "Cradle of Humanity" because it has the largest concentration of human remains in the world.

Researchers were helped to identify the tumor by a computed tomography (CT) scan of a fossilized toe bone. They compared the images with those of contemporary cases of osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that begins in the cells that make up bone. Such a mass looks like a cauliflower inflorescence. The case study was described in the South African Journal of Science in 2016.

Osteosarcoma is now one of the most common types of bone cancer in humans and can occur at any age, although it is most common in children, teenagers and still-growing young adults. Statistics from the American Cancer Society attest to this. However, it has not yet been possible to establish the age of the prehistoric man who had the disease accurately. Researchers can only state that it is the skeleton of an adult.

In general, this is not the oldest tumor disease that has been found on the remains of prehistoric humans. The described case of a benign tumor was found in our ancestor at the age of 1.9 million years. Fossils of a member of the species Australopithecus sediba were also found in South Africa.

That the longest-standing cancer case identified is specifically bone cancer is not surprising. After all, organs, skin, and other soft tissues tend to rot over time. "Bone is one of the few tissues that can survive in the annals of fossils," explained Bruce Rothschild, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study.


Scientists claim that even if cancer is present in fossils, it is almost impossible to detect it with the naked eye. Therefore, such remains require further study. According to Rothschild, only about one-third of cancers can be seen. But they still need X-rays to see exactly what is hiding inside the bone.

As for the first written evidence of discovered cancer, it dates back to ancient Egypt. In 3000 BC, Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian mathematician, physician and architect, created a document called the Edwin Smith Papyrus. It is essentially a manual of bodily injuries and surgical procedures. Imhotep detailed 48 medical cases in it, including one about breast cancer.

The scholar in the papyrus mentions several types of tumors, such as "oily" or "solid." He described a tumor in the mammary gland as a bulging mass in the breast, cold, hard, and dense to the touch. Imhotep, who accompanied his notes with recommended treatments for individual cases, wrote of this disease that it had no therapy.

Earlier OBOZREVATEL told about the historical operation on the brain of an unborn child.

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