Scientists have determined that a fossilized human toe bone dating back 1.7 million years contains a tumor that is the earliest evidence of malignant cancer.

Cancer in ancient humans

Evidence of the tumor growth called an osteosarcoma, was determined through the use of 3D imaging techniques. The fossil is evidence that human beings have been afflicted by cancer for at least as long as the age of the fossil.

Scientists had previously believed that malignant cancers were generally the result of factors associated with the living environment within modern industrial societies.

The existence of the fossil refutes the assumption that cancer was extremely rare or almost non-existent in the pre-modern era.

Ancient fossils of benign & malignant tumors found in the Cradle of Humankind

The fossilized human toe bone was discovered in a cave in South Africa in the Cradle of Humankind. Researchers from the South African Centre for Excellence in PalaeoSciences have not yet determined if the cancer was fatal but believe that the malignant foot tumor would have caused extreme pain and prevented the ancient human's capacity to move from one place to another. 

Shortly before, another fossilized bone had been discovered in Malapa, South Africa that belonged to a human male child of 12 or 13 years of age.

The scientists had determined that this fossil was even older, at about 1.98 million years old. It also possessed an abnormal, non-malignant tumor growth called an osteoid osteoma.

Evidence of the benign tumor was discovered using 3D imaging techniques such as phase contrast X-ray synchrotron microtomography.

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Furthermore, the tumor was located within the vertebrae of the child, an extremely rare condition. That discovery was notable for the fact that the previously known existence of a fossil bone with a benign tumor was dated at a mere 120,000 years ago, and because fossils of children had never previously exhibited evidence of tumors in a child.

Finding the origins of human cancers

The discovery of tumor growth in fossils older than 1.6 million years of age offers counter-evidence to the belief that cancers are only part of the modern lifestyle.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that certain risky behaviors such as tobacco use are definitive risk factors in cancers.

Through these recent discoveries, scientists will, however, have to analyze further the relationship between cancers caused by unhealthy habits and conditions caused by unfortunate gene mutations. These South African fossils will help contribute to researching the origins of cancer in humans.