Cancer

Updated 07 June 2013

Neanderthals got cancer too

Many believe cancer is a modern-day disease, but a recent discovery sheds light on history of tumours in humans.

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Cancer is often lamented as a modern-day scourge, but researchers have discovered a type of bone cancer in a 120 000-year-old Neanderthal rib.

Before this discovery was made in Krapina, Croatia, the earliest evidence of this type of bone tumour, known as fibrous dysplasia, dated back 1 000 to 4 000 years. The researchers, who reported the finding online in the journal PLoS One, said the specimen found is incomplete so they can't determine the effects the tumour had on the Neanderthal's overall health.

Cancer extremely rare in the human fossil record

"Evidence for cancer is extremely rare in the human fossil record," David Frayer, of the University of Kansas, said in a journal news release. "This case shows that Neanderthals, living in an unpolluted environment, were susceptible to the same kind of cancer as living humans."

The average lifespan of Neanderthals was likely about half that of humans in developed countries today, and they were exposed to a different environment, the researchers said.

"Given these factors, cases of neoplastic disease are rare in prehistoric human populations," the researchers said. "Against this background, the identification of a more than 120 000-year-old Neanderthal rib with a bone tumor is surprising, and provides insights into the nature and history of the association of humans to neoplastic disease."

Fibrous dysplasia is more common today than other bone tumors, Frayer said.

More information

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons provides more information on fibrous dysplasia.

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