Paleontology and Human Cancer Studies


While an estimated 14.1 million people in the world are living with cancer, the origins of the devastating disease have remained a mystery. Modern medicine assumes that cancer is a modern man-made disease, and is caused by modern lifestyles and pollution.

In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as cause of death; the history of this disorder has the potential to improve our understanding of disease prevention and treatment. While the rarity of malignancies in ancient physical remains might indicate that cancer was rare in Antiquity, it poses questions about the role of carcinogenic environmental factors in modern societies.

Researchers have recently discovered ancient fossils, which may give us clues on when cancer first started appearing in humans. A group of paleontologists discovered a cancer tumor in a 1.7 million-year-old human foot bone; the discovery was made at the site of Swartkrans that lies in a fossil-rich area of South Africa. Although the exact species to which the foot bone belongs is unknown, it is clearly one of a hominin, an early ancestor of modern day humans. 

According to the researchers, this is the most ancient evidence for deadly cancer and bone tumors. They made use of 3D imaging to diagnose the fossilized foot bone that carries an aggressive cancer tumor known as osteosarcoma. The foot belongs to a human relative who died in Swartkrans Cave between 1.6 million and 1.8 million years ago. Check this video: 

Finally, perhaps the main reason why cancer is much more common today is that the average lifespan of people has significantly increased, allowing more time for dividing cells to accumulate genetic mistakes. Hence, there is no reason to consider cancer a modern disease.


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