The oldest evidence of human cancer has been found on a foot bone from Swartkrans National Heritage Site, South Africa. The discovery shatters the previous record, which was from a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal, and was published along with a paper reporting an even older benign tumor.
Advocates of “paleo diets” like to claim that cancers are a consequence of modern lifestyles. Air pollution and unhealthy diet certainly increase risks, but Witwatersrand University PhD student Edward Odes said in a statement: “Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed."
Odes is first author of a paper in the South African Journal of Science reporting a 1.7 million-year-old metatarsal attacked by an osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer. "Due to its preservation, we don't know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual, but we can tell this would have affected the individuals' ability to walk or run," said co-author Dr Bernhard Zipfel. "In short, it would have been painful."
The unfortunate individual was probably either a Homo ergaster or Paranthropus robustus. Bones from both species have been found at the site dating to 1.5 to 1.8 million years ago, the point at which this bone was laid down. However, the incomplete nature of the fossil has prevented attribution to a particular species, although the authors are confident it came from a hominid.
Surface rendered models of the metatarsal with spongy tissue and malignant tumor. Edward Odes (Wits)