An international team of researchers may have found the oldest evidence for cancer and bony tumors. They found a 1.7 million-year-old foot bone with cancer and nearly 2 million-year-old vertebrae with tumor in two South African sites, proving that these diseases were already present in prehistory.

As reported in the journal South African Journal of Science, the metatarsal was affected with osteosarcoma, which is an aggressive type of cancer that commonly affects young people and causes premature death. The researchers cannot say if the foot belonged to an adult or a juvenile bipedal hominin but they believe that the cancer caused pain and limited the victim’s ability to walk or run.

Previous research showed that the oldest tumor dates back 120,000 years ago but the latest research found a tumor that dates back almost 2 million years ago. The benign tumor affected the vertebrae of an Australopithecus sediba child.


Vertebra of juvenile Australopithecus sediba. Credit: Paul Tafforeau (ESRF)

“The presence of a benign tumour in Australopithecus sediba is fascinating not only because it is found in the back, an extremely rare place for such a disease to manifest in modern humans, but also because it is found in a child,” says researcher Patrick Randolph-Quinney of Wits University and the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. “This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record.”

It is widely beloved that cancers and tumors are diseases that only affected humans recently. However, these discoveries prove that this is inaccurate.

Additionally, it is also believed that such diseases are the consequences of living longer. However, the tumor found in the young hominin proves that they are not.

The fossils were analyzed with the help of the advanced imaging techniques that include the ones located at the European Synchrotron Research Facility in Grenoble, France as well as the medical CT at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. The research team also employed the micro-CT facility at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa in Pelindaba.