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Cancer is Not Exclusive to the Modern Age: Fossil Evidence

Dec 08, 2014 03:55 PM EST
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Many have argued that cancer is a largely modern illness - a consequence of food processing, industry, pollution, and other factors. But now archaeologists have strong evidence of cancer in the bones of a man who lived in Siberia 4,500 years ago, making him the oldest known victim of this terrible disease.

This certainly isn't the first ancient case of potential cancer. Nature World News has previously reported how archaeologists discovered a 3,000-year-old skeleton in Sudan with what looks to be complete metastatic bladder cancer - a consequence of schistosomiasis, which has affected people living near the Nile river since 1500 BC.

However, this latest discovery is almost certainly the oldest case of lung or prostate cancer in which experts "can be really, really confident saying that it's cancer," Angela Lieverse, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, recently told The Canadian Press.

An assessment of the skeleton conducted by Lieverse and her colleagues was recently detailed in the journal PLOS One.

According to the study, even older remains have been found with evidence of cancerous tumors, but the majority of them remain unconfirmed or were later found to be benign.

"We've had this perception that [cancer] was almost non-existent in antiquity, because people didn't live the same kind of lifestyle that we live now," Lieverse added. "They lived in these pure, toxin-free environments and they were very active and ate natural foods... But it was more common than we like to think it was."

The research team suspects that much like with the aforementioned Sudan skeleton, naturally found carcinogens like parasites and (more likely for this hunter-gatherer) heavy exposure to wood smoke could have led to the illness.

The resulting cancer, suspected to have started at either the lung or prostate, aggressively spread, eating holes throughout the well-preserved skeleton. When Lieverse first saw the remains in 2012, she knew exactly what she was looking at.

"As we become more familiar with what metastatic carcinoma looks like in the skeleton, the number of cases identified by bioarchaeological research is likely to increase," she said in a statement.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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