- 1.7 million-year-old foot and 2 million-year-old vertebrae with cancer found
- Modern medicine assumes that cancers are caused by modern lifestyles
- This study show the origins occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed
While an estimated 14.1 million people in the world are living with cancer, the origins of the devastating disease have remained a mystery.
Now, researchers have discovered ancient fossils which may give us clues on when cancer first started appearing in humans.
Scientists have discovered tumours in a 1.7 million year old foot bone and a 2 million year old back bone, which push the oldest date for this disease back into deep pre-history.
The research comes from an international team of scientists, led by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute and the South African Centre for Excellence in PalaeoSciences.
The team discovered a 1.7 million-year-old foot bone at the site of Swartkrans in South Africa, which contained definitive evidence of malignant cancer.
Although the exact species to which the foot bone belongs is unknown, it is clearly that of a hominin – an early ancestor of modern day humans.
In a second paper published in the same journal, South African Journal of Science, the team of scientists also identified the oldest tumour ever found in the human fossil record.
The tumour was a two million-year-old benign neoplasm, found in the vertebrae of a Australopithecus sediba child – one of the most well known human ancestors.
This was almost 17 times older than the previously found oldest tumour, which was 120,000 year old Neanderthal rib.
Edward Odes, lead author of the 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.