Cancer Discovered In A Million-Year-Old Fossil In South Africa, Challenges Modern Day Ideas About The Disease

The oldest malignant cancer ever was discovered in South Africa recently. A fossilized human foot bone with cancerous tumor was discovered by scientists in the Swatkarns region in South Africa, which is situated close to Johannesburg.

"It has generally been assumed that pre-modern incidence of neoplastic disease of any kind is rare and limited to benign conditions, but new fossil evidence suggests otherwise. We here present the earliest identifiable case of malignant neoplastic disease (basically cancer) from an early human ancestor dated to 1.8–1.6 million years old," according to the report published by the South African Journal of Science.

This is a landmark discovery primarily because the oldest possible evidence of tumor in a human was only 1.2 million years ago, which was discovered from the ribs of a Neanderthal. The newly discovered fossil shows signs of an aggressive form of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. The cancer was itself found in the metatarsal, which is one of the five long bones that connect to the toes. The bone seems to have come from an ancient human and not an ape, but they aren't sure which species exactly.

"We tested this particular bone with a known modern human osteosarcoma specimen, and it looked identical. Millions of years old, and you wouldn't be able to tell it apart," said Edward John Odes of Wits University's School of Anatomical Sciences.

Osteosarcoma generally affects young individuals among modern, more evolved, human beings. Moreover, if it is not treated on time, the disease could be quite fatal.

"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 individual's ability to walk or run. In short, it would have been painful," Dr Bernhard Zipfel from the University of the Witwatersrand explained to the Independent.

However, the one thing that still remains mysterious is that despite the evolution of the human being, cancerous tumors haven't really evolved similarly. In fact, even the scientists don't have the answer for that.

"What we do have is that these types of cancers existed, so many years ago, and we are seeing the same thing today. Normally, in an evolutionary biological situation, you'd see change," Odes said.

Until this discovery, the common perception was that cancer was caused mostly due to our modern lifestyles and bad habits.

The report further states, "As such, malignancy has a considerable antiquity in the fossil record, as evidenced by this specimen."

That said, there is no hard evidence on the origin of cancer, yet. A National Geographic report highlights that the earliest origin of cancer could be sometime around 2600 B.C. when the great Egyptian physician Imhotep described the disease in his writings as the"bulging mass in the breast," which was resistant to any therapy known at that time.

Now, this discovery could also benefit cancer research. The tumors found in the fossilized bones were primary osteogenic cancers. There are many rumors that suggest this type of cancer could be caused by water fluoridation, but there is no clear proven association between the cause and the effect. Therefore, we can rule out environment as a factor for causing this type of cancer.

"There has to be something else that's (causing cancer)," Odes highlights.

Doctors now need to understand what mechanisms brings these tumors to the body to study how cancer evolved from ancient times into this modern world. Moreover, this discovery also further solidifies what doctors already know about the pathology of osteosarcoma.

"This discovery will hopefully open new doors into investigating the cause of osteosarcoma further," Hannah Birkett, from the Bone Cancer Research Trust, said.

[Image via Shutterstock]