Using 3-D imaging, the researchers have diagnosed an aggressive type of cancer called osteosarcoma in a foot bone belonging to a human relative who died in Swartkrans Cave between 1.6 and 1.8 million years ago.
The discovery—which has just been published in the South African Journal of Science—suggests that, while modern lifestyles have increased the incidences of cancer, especially in industrialized countries, the triggers for the disease are embedded deep within the human evolutionary past.
“You can opt for the paleo diet, you can have as clean a living environment as you want, but the capacity for these diseases is ancient, and it’s within us regardless of what you do to yourselves,” says study co-author Edward Odes of the University of the Witwatersrand.
The precise origins of cancer have been a source of debate due, in part, to the scarcity of historical evidence. Possibly the earliest reference to the disease is attributed to the great Egyptian physician Imhotep, who lived around 2600 B.C. In his writings, Imhotep describes an affliction characterized by a “bulging mass in the breast” that was resistant to any known therapies.
Civilization did not cause cancer,” writes oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, “but by extending human life spans, civilization unveiled it.”
Evidence for cancer has also been elusive in the fossil record, which preserves only a miniscule fraction of the bones of individuals who lived at any given time. Some researchers have sought answers in mummified bodies, where they could study preserved soft tissue.
In 1990, for instance, autopsies performed on thousand-year-old mummies in Peru revealed at least one case of a woman in her mid-30s with a malignant tumor in her upper-left arm. The mass had grown so large that it likely burst through her skin while she was still alive.
The practice of mummification only goes back a few thousand years, while the fossil record goes back millions. Now, Odes and his colleagues are highly confident that the hominin bone found at the Swartkrans site near Johannesburg holds the oldest known case of malignant cancer.