This 3,000-Year-Old Human Skeleton Reveals the Earliest Known Example of Cancer

Skeletal scans of the remains, which were found in Sudan, shows the cancer had spread before the victim died

A vertebrae from the remains, with a close-up of a cancerous growth (indicated by white arrows). Photo: British Museum Trustees

Researchers from Durham University and the British Museum just announced what they think is the earliest evidence of metastatic cancer in a human, Reuters reports. They reached this conclusion after finding cancerous growths within the bones of a 3,000-year-old skeleton uncovered in Sudan. Here's Reuters with more about the finding: 

The skeleton is of an adult male estimated to be between 25- and 35-years-old when he died. It was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, on the Nile, 750 km downstream from the capital Khartoum.

Analysing the skeleton using radiography and a scanning electron microscope, they managed to get clear imaging of lesions on the bones which showed the cancer had spread to cause tumours on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones. 

Cancer is a surprisingly rare find for archeologists, Reuters continues, and due to the absence of that evidence, some researchers have wondered whether cancer might be a more modern disease. This new evidence shows that cancer did in fact occur far back into the past. As the lead author of the study told the Independent, this new finding "allows us to explore possible underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, before the onset of modernity, and it could provide important new insights into the evolution of cancer in the past.”

The underlying cause of the young man's cancer remains a matter of speculation, although the researchers told Reuters it could have had environmental origins, including too much exposure to campfire smoke or a heavy infection with the schistosomiasis-causing parasite, which today is known to sometimes trigger cancer. 

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