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7,000-Year-Old Skeleton Shows Evidence Of Leukemia

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Josh Davis

Staff Writer

clockAug 19 2015, 21:38 UTC
1874 7,000-Year-Old Skeleton Shows Evidence Of Leukemia
Reconstruction of a neolithic stilt house, Germany. Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock

They’re thought to have formed the first farming community in central Europe, bringing with them domestic animals and agriculture from the Middle East. Known as the Linearbandkeramik Culture (LBK), this group of Neolithic peoples lived in a wide area ranging from France in the west to Ukraine in the east around 5200 BCE. Recent evidence has revealed that this culture was not a peaceful one, with the discovery of a mass grave of at least 26 people killed in brutal conflict. Now, another skeleton has given up an additional secret, this time related to their health.

When analyzing the skeleton of a 7,000-year-old female, researchers think they might have discovered one of the earliest cases of leukemia. Excavated in the early 1980s, she was discovered among 72 other LBK burials in what is now southwestern Germany. Thought to have been in her 30s when she died, the scientists found that some of her bones had lost their “spongey” center, indicative of someone in the early stages of the disease, the researchers from the University of Tubingen report at the first European conference on evolutionary medicine.

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Previously, the skeleton had only shown evidence of dental caries, or tooth decay, but the team decided to put the remains through a CT scanner in order to get a more detailed look at the bones. They found that the humerus and sternum were significantly less dense, and the resorption, or break down, of the central spongey bone to be significantly higher when compared to other remains from individuals of the same age and site.

Leukemia is caused when the blood cells in the bone marrow become cancerous. It mainly occurs in people aged over 55, though is also the most common cancer in children under 15 years old, and can be either acute or chronic. This means that it either takes hold rapidly (acute), or develops slowly over time (chronic). While leukemia can be caused by any type of cell in the blood turning cancerous, most are either lymphocytic (affecting the white blood cells), or myelogenous (affecting the red blood cells). The disease causes the overproduction of cancerous blood cells, which crowds out the healthy cells, eventually stopping their production altogether.

While the researchers suspect that this skeleton shows the early stages of leukemia, they stress that it is difficult to be certain, though they can rule out osteoporosis and bone tumors. It is also impossible to make a prediction as to what type the woman might have been suffering from. It does, however, add further evidence of leukemia in ancient peoples, as a specific virus that has been associated with leukemia has previously been found in 1,000-year-old South American mummies, though this new case is by far the oldest reported.       

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Image in text: The skeleton of the 7,000 year-old woman who is thought to have suffered from leukemia. Credit: Michael Francken/University of Tubingen

[H/T: Discovery News]


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